Can Canada protect its Arctic sovereignty?


A sneak peek at The Next Chapter (05/30/11)

"Only when the ice breaks will you truly know who is your friend and who is your enemy."

This Inuit proverb perfectly encapsulates what is happening in Canada's Far North. Between climate change and increasing international interest in the resources of the Arctic, ice is breaking every day in Canada's northern territories — both literally and figuratively. Teacher, author and Arctic expert Shelagh Grant believes something needs to be done about this.

Grant's recent book, Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America, explores the history of sovereignty in the Far North. Drawing on more than three decades of research, Grant lays out the implications of climate change, resource exploration and changing international relations. She formulates a passionate argument for Canada to reclaim its authority in the North — economically, environmentally and militarily. Increasing interest from China, Germany, Japan and South Korea means there is an increased demand on resources from the north. Thanks to climate change, these resources are increasingly difficult to access.

For Canada to maintain sovereignty, the country needs to become a power player in determining who does what with this fragile ecosystem. Grant says this won't be easy. Canada currently does not have the resources to monitor the Arctic, let alone protect it. There is currently no Canadian military presence in the Arctic, and our fleet of icebreakers is small and rustic compared to those of Russia and China. Without proper surveillance or protection, Grant fears the worst. "There is nothing to stop a huge accident by an unsafe ship up in the Arctic," Grant reveals to Shelagh Rogers during an upcoming interview on The Next Chapter. "Neither the U.S. or Canada have the ability to clean up an oil spill even half the magnitude of the Gulf of Mexico [spill] in the Arctic."

The second biggest challenge to maintaining Canadian sovereignty in the North is climate change. The Arctic environment is changing rapidly and its shifts change how countries view, consume and share resources. Grant feels that we've reduced the Arctic to dollar signs and pretty pictures; it is no longer seen as a cohesive and significant part of Canadian culture. "Are we going to care about the people who have lived there for thousands of years? Are we going to care about their environment?," she asks. "It's too easy to get caught on a cute picture of a polar bear clinging to an ice flow but we have to be able to control [the entire system]."

Finally, Grant argues that better education and personal investment in the North is needed. The Arctic has always been a part of the Canadian psyche, but thanks to increasing multiculturalism and urbanism, it's more of a romantic notion than a real place for many Canadians. By demonstrating how interconnected the Arctic is with the rest of the country, how historically important it has been for Canada and how vital it is for the future, Grant is confident we can turn the future of the Arctic around, but we need to act now. Grant says that "in the life of the planet, the next 10 years is only a split second, but so much can be done in that time to keep peace and stability in the Arctic."

Critics are listening to Grant. Polar Imperative won the J.W. Dafoe Prize and the highly coveted Lionel Gelber Prize, a first for a Canadian woman. It was also shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize and the Sir John A. MacDonald Prize. One question remains: Will our government heed Grant's advice?

A Widows Story

Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America

Shelagh Grant

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From Douglas & McIntyre:

"Based on Shelagh Grant 's groundbreaking archival research and drawing on her reputation as a leading historian in the field, Polar Imperative is a compelling overview of the historical claims of sovereignty over this continent's polar regions...."

Read more at Douglas & McIntyre

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