Polar Imperative wins Lionel Gelber prize

Peterborough, Ont.'s Shelagh Grant has won the $15,000 Lionel Gelber Prize for her book about Arctic sovereignty.

Author Shelagh Grant has studied Arctic for 30 years

Shelagh Grant has won the Lionel Gelber Prize for non-fiction for Polar Imperative, an examination of Arctic sovereignty. ((Michael Cullen/Lionel Gelber Foundation))

Retired professor Shelagh Grant has won the $15,000 Lionel Gelber Prize for her book about Arctic sovereignty.

The Peterborough, Ont.-based Grant is the second woman to win the prize, awarded annually to a non-fiction book that contributes to the understanding of global affairs, since the award was established in 1989.

The winning title, Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America, is based on 30 years of research and study of the Arctic by Grant, who was a professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

Polar Imperative examines Canada's Arctic history and reflects on American, Danish, British and Norwegian ties with the Arctic.

"The problem lies in the ability to maintain full control over the Arctic waters and it's not just the Northwest Passage. Commercial traffic has increased steadily in and out of the Arctic," Grant told CBC News on Tuesday.

"We do not have — at the moment — the manpower, the funding or the infrastructure to maintain full control or to monitor that traffic," she said, adding that Canada's new Arctic policy is a step forward, but much needs to be done.

Interest born in 1984

Grant first became fascinated with the Canadian North on her first trip to the eastern Arctic in 1984. She has advised MPs and senators on sovereignty issues. One of her main concerns is oil.

"Oil does not know any marine boundaries," she said, adding that the U.S. has admitted it "does not have the manpower, the ships or the infrastructure to deal with a major oil spill in Arctic waters.

"There is concern that we might be pressured, especially with the Middle East situation, to experiment with drilling, ahead of our ability to clean up a potential spill."

The prize jury called Polar Imperative 'essential reading' for those interested in global affairs. ((Douglas & McIntyre))
A grandmother of six, Grant is now retired from active teaching at Trent, but continues to give guest lectures. She has taken part in the Northern Research Forum, the Circumpolar Universities Cooperation Conference and is also the author of Arctic Justice: On Trial for Murder, Pond Inlet 1923.

"In the 1990s, I was in the eastern Arctic and Iqaluit several times every year before the publication of my book Arctic Justice — on the first murder trial in Pond Inlet. It was related to a lot of oral history and I became very close friends [with] a number of Inuit... and the people of Pond Inlet," Grant recalled.

Her manuscript Mittimatalik-Pond Inlet: A History has been translated into Inuktitut and is currently used in schools in the North.

Grant said she scrambled to get the work translated after a local elder quietly pointed out that he could not read the work to which he had contributed. She also ceded copyright to a local teachers' group, which allows it to be used in the teaching of local history.

'Essential reading'

The Gelber Prize jury hailed Grant's work for raising so many vital issues.

"The Arctic is front and centre on the global agenda and Grant provides a vital history of competing claims to sovereignty that is essential reading," the jury said in its citation.

"Rippled with adventure, this…is an authoritative history for anyone interested in understanding why the world's attention is shifting to the Arctic."

The book was also shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing and has been nominated for the John A. Macdonald Prize.

Grant will be presented with the Gelber Prize on March 29 in Toronto.