Canada’s vast Arctic is home to few people but many riches.
In recent years, record ice melts have opened up new northern sea routes, exposing shielded natural resources and making the Arctic more valuable than ever. In a rush to cash in on the region’s new wealth, Canada, Russia, the United States and other northern nations have aggressively tried to claim as much frozen land as they can get their hands on. In the media, the issue is commonly dubbed “Arctic sovereignty.”
To understand the race for the north and Canada’s role in it, the Gauntlet sat down with the associate director of the University of Calgary’s Centre of Military and Strategic Studies, Rob Huebert.
The Gauntlet: Why is control over the Arctic important for countries like Canada, the United States and Russia?
Rob Huebert: The Arctic is undergoing some of the most massive transformations that we’ve seen in a very long time. What everyone is aware of is that the ice is melting. That alone is a change that is unprecedented in the history of humans and would be worthy of attention. But what’s also happening is a recognition that there is a treasure trove of iron ore, gold, diamonds, oil and gas. And as the ice melts, people are seeing a potential there for resource development.
What’s also fuelling nations’ interest in the region is new technologies. Even if the ice wasn’t melting, people would be saying, ‘you know what? We’ve got the technology to go up there and mine one of the world’s largest concentrations of iron ore on northern Baffin Island.’ As new technologies emerge, the Arctic becomes more relevant.
The third factor is the recognition that the Arctic is going to be a renewed area of interest in terms of geopolitics. Countries like Canada, Russia and the United States have always been interested in the Arctic from a security perspective. But new entries such as China, Japan and India are now also recognizing that in a few years, the Arctic is going to be a major transit route in terms of shipping and lines of communication. These countries feel that they, as growing powers, also have their interests at stake in the region.
G: India and China? How could these nations influence the Arctic’s future?
RH: Recognize that India, Japan, South Korea and China all became observer states on the Arctic Council — the main international body that oversees the governance of the region. The AC focuses on environmental issues, but it’s starting to expand into such areas as the development of a search and rescue treaty and standards for oil and gas development.
What India argued is that it gets affected just like any other country by the impacts of climate change. And to understand climate change, you’ve got to understand what’s happening in the Arctic. This is an argument that China first put forward.
Some Indian researchers argue that if you look at plate tectonics and you look at India’s history, they say it has a ‘polar geology.’ But the main argument that everyone understands is that if China is going to be a member of the Arctic council, India wants to be one too.
The idea that India would somehow consider itself connected to the Arctic or that China could consider itself a ‘near Arctic state’ all underlines the shifting element of the geopolitics in the region.
G: Let’s bring it back to Canada. How is the federal government trying to assert their dominance over their claimed Arctic territory?
RH: The first thing the federal government is doing is trying to get a cohesive policy. Going back to the Paul Martin government, they started trying to get a handle on the many aspects that pertain to the Arctic, so both domestically and foreign, Canada would have a cohesive policy framework. They weren’t able to do that before their government fell, but the Harper conservatives have been very successful in creating both an international and a domestic Arctic policy.
There are two sides to that. On the one hand, the government seems very sensitive to the needs of those who call the north home — particularly amongst the indigenous populations. The government needs to look at what to do about very high rates of suicide, economic challenges and troubles with education. The way the Harper government has framed the push for Arctic control is as a desire to improve the economic opportunities for people who live there.
On the foreign side, the Harper government wants to push on improving what they call Arctic sovereignty, but what is actually Arctic security. They are looking for means of improving those areas where Canada has a land claim that is being disputed by someone else. But also, it’s getting the instrumentation, or at least promising, to respond to security threats. So, we’ve had the Harper government promise to build six to eight Arctic offshore patrol vessels for the Navy. The contract for these ships is expected to be announced this fall. They’re also planning on purchasing a new ice-breaker. They have also taken steps to building an Arctic training facility.