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Arctic Sovereignty

What should Canada's claims be to the Arctic landmass and its waters? How should we defend those claims?

Josh Gunn©

 The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent patrolling Arctic waters.
The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent patrolling Arctic waters.


“Sovereignty is supreme legitimate authority within a territory. … Supreme authority within a territory implies both undisputed supremacy over the land’s inhabitants and independence from unwanted intervention by an outside authority.”

(Daniel Philpott,1995)

Arctic Sovereignty is like all things involving territorial conflicts, you must be able to find a way to show your territorial claims, and sometimes dropping a flag down just isn't going to cut it. In terms of Canada's Arctic Sovereignty, what was done to protect land claims in the Arctic region was simply not enough. Now as the battle over ownership in the Arctic heats up, Canada has to re-evaluate how it can keep Canada's north 'strong and free'. The main agenda for Canada is to gain International recognition that Canada's internal waters in the Arctic is in fact ours.

Who Is Involved?

The stakeholders in this topic are Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States of America. Norway will not be discussed in here.

Canada and Denmark are in a territorial dispute over an island between Ellesmere Island and Greenland(Denmark). This tiny uninhabited island of 1.3km is called Hans island. The problem is that both Canada and Denmark have claimed Hans island as their own. There is speculation that if Canada continues to assert its sovereignty over the island, it could send an important message to other countries saying that we mean business (Matthew Carnaghan/Allison Goody,2006).

Hans island, seen here in the middle of the Canadian-Greenland border
Hans island, seen here in the middle of the Canadian-Greenland border

According to UNCLOS, countries can make a territorial claim based on extended continental shelf(United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) Russia is claiming a big a part of the Arctic in this fashion. Their claims are that if the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges, which are underwater mountain ranges deep in the arctic circle, is part of their continental shelf, then the land is should be theirs (CNN.com, 2007). Russia had in fact done in 2007 with their Arktika-2007 mission. There is a dispute over this as Russia had also planted their national flag on the Arctic seafloor. Many countries did not view it as appropriate or legal, and was viewed instead as a land grab. Russia denies it (CNN.com, 2007).

"This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'," -Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay(CTV.ca,2012)

The United States has a say in all this through Alaska. The U.S has plans to increase their military bases in the North and getting rights to the Arctic will help them in this way. They are also interested in the rich minerals the area might yield in the future, mainly fossil fuels. There is a conflict with Canada about the Northwest Passage. The U.S views this semi-shipping strait as international waters whereas Canada has claimed it as their own. The U.S wants accessibility to this strait as fossil fuels from Alaska can be shipped to the eastern coast of the U.S via the Northwest Passage. But Canada fears that an environmental disaster could occur in our waters.

See, Exxon Valdez oil spill.

File:Northwest passage.jpg
File:Northwest passage.jpg

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages:If Canadians do get acknowledgement to the claims in the Arctic, we not only get more landmass, but a vastly unexplored land that could be rich in rare and important minerals or fossil fuels. Another thing that Canada would get is the very important Northwest Passage. A passage through the Northwest to reach Asia has always been sought after over the centuries but it was never traversable till now. In 2009, global warming melted enough pack ice that waterways in the Arctic were now more navigable (esa.int, 2012). A military presence in the Arctic is also needed to patrol sovereign land. This can only be accomplished if Canada gets the right to say that the disputed parts are in fact ours, then we can put more military bases up in the North to patrol the land.

Disadvantages: There could be small downside to making the claims about the Arctic though, and that is that quite a lot of money may have to be used to defend those claims. The Canadian government has plans to spend $7.5 billion to build eight Arctic patrol ships and deploy them in our Arctic waters (CTV.ca, 2012). This may seem like a good a idea at first because a lot of money is going into this. Politically, Canada risks starting a conflict with Russia if we come off too aggressive towards them.

The Four Spheres of Issue Analysis

Economic: The economic impact of claiming the North needs closer research. Estimates have shown that areas north of the Arctic Circle have 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil (Wikipedia.org, 2012), however it is unsure as to whether how much of this oil could be in the to-be-claimed land. The cost of recovering these fossil fuels has been a problem for many years, but with the global need for more oil, and Global Warming freeing up areas previously inaccessible, it has become profitable.

Environmental:The only serious environmental problems involving Arctic Sovereignty is the Northwest Passage. Since the U.S wants to utilise the passage to ship crude oil, Canada foresees an oil spill like disaster occurring. This could have serious environmental impacts as many endangered wildlife currently live in the Arctic such as seals, walrus, arctic foxes. Although global warming probably kills more wildlife anyways (naturecanada.ca, 2012).

Social: The social impacts are mostly about the Inuit people living in the region. The Canadian Government should consult these people about how they feel about what is going on as after all this is their land. They could also be affected if precious metal mines or oil rigs open up because these things have heavy impacts on the environment, and in turn a valuable food source in hunting wildlife.

Political: There are many political issues regarding our Northern Sovereignty. Most of them are with the U.S.A and Russia. The U.S.A deems the Northwest Passage as an international strait. The U.S.A has challenged our Arctic Sovereignty because between 1970s and 1985, two U.S ships traveled through this strait (Matthew Carnaghan/Allison Goody,2006).


In closing, the topic of Arctic Sovereignty is a very international one and it has taken a while to sort out. My take for Canada is for it assert its claims in the North. The Arctic has for too long been left untouched and now when others are staking their claims, we should too. There are still areas of the Arctic that have been left undiscovered, especially the bottom of the sea which could hold species unbeknoweth to us. Not to mention, a big possibility of finding fossil fuels and other rare minerals in the Arctic. Although, even if we don't get the rights, we will still send a strong message to other countries saying that we will fight for what is rightfully ours.


Champoux, Gilles J.. "11/2_Toponymy and the Canadian Arctic." FrontLine Canada. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://www.frontline-global.com/Defence/index_archives.php?page=1656>.

"Battle for the Arctic heats up - Canada - CBC News." CBC.ca - Canadian News Sports Entertainment Kids Docs Radio TV. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2009/02/27/f-arctic-sovereignty.html>.

"Territorial claims in the Arctic - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Territorial_claims_in_the_Arctic>.

"Arctic sovereignty an 'important issue': Harper | CTV News." CTV.ca | Watch TV Online | Full Episodes | TV Schedule Listing . N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/TopStories/20070802/arctic_claim_070802/>.

Daniel Philpott, “Sovereignty: an Introduction and Brief History,” Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 2, Winter 1995, p. 357.

"ESA Portal - Satellites witness lowest Arctic ice coverage in history." ESA Communications Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://www.esa.int/esaCP/SEMYTC13J6F_index_0.html>.

"Petroleum exploration in the Arctic - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_exploration_in_the_Arctic>.

"Russia plants flag on Arctic floor - CNN.com." CNN.com - Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/08/02/arctic.sub.reut/index.html>.

"Help Save Endangered Wildlife in Canada from Global Warming!." Nature Canada Preservation Conservation Endangered Species Canada. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2012. <http://www.naturecanada.ca/advocate/wildlife_conservancy.html>.


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