Clear thinking on Arctic sovereignty

As promised in the preceding post: Franklyn Griffith’s recent essay on Canadian Arctic sovereignty issues, published recently in Northern Exposure: Peoples, Powers and Prospects in Canada’s North.

In, it he performs the work that one expects of a competent scholar: study an issue thoroughly, then distinguish between that which is valid and that which is not.

If there’s a nut graph, it’s here:

In reality, the issue is not possession but the conditions under which foreign vessels will sail into and through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The public has come to believe that considerably more is at stake than this. Academic purveyors of polar peril bear some of the responsibility for this state of affairs. But the sovereignty-on-thinning-ice scenario and the focus on foreign commercial ships would not have been received the way they have been if the media and the public at large weren’t already disposed to a discourse of fear and apprehension over sovereignty and possession.

By “academic purveyors of polar peril,” he’s likely referring to Rob Huebert, who operates a free quote-donation service for reporters at the University of Calgary. An essay by Huebert, also worth reading, appears in the same volume.

Griffiths urges Canadians to rid themselves of the “apprehension and self-doubt that surround the discussion of sovereignty.”He points out that no one actually challenges Canada’s possession of the waters that surround the Arctic islands, including the Northwest Passage.

Sovereignty conflicts often come down to a struggle for possession. But not where the Northwest Passage is concerned.

The real issue, Griffiths says, is whether the Northwest Passage is a navigable strait under international law. He says it’s this rather narrow question that distinguishes the Canadian government’s position from that of the United States or the European Union.

Furthermore, this over-hyped dispute is “becoming less consequential,” partly because the U.S. has been saying yes quietly to Canadian initiatives that “are consistent with exclusive Canadian jurisdiction.”

He finds that Canada already is already capable, more or less, of controlling non-military commercial shipping in the Arctic. It’s in responding to foreign naval vessels where Canada lacks capacity.

Since Canada cannot afford to build this capacity on its own, the logical course is “a set of cooperative arrangements that deepen and widen the Canada-U.S. agreement to disagree on the Northwest Passage.”

Die-hard Canadian nationalists will likely react with reflexive aversion to this: “It’s time to take yes for an answer from the United States. We have the sovereignty we need.”

But to me it sounds like old-fashioned Lester Pearson pragmatism, the idea that as a small country with a big land mass to defend, Canada must embrace collective security through co-operation with allies.

He also takes an amusing whack at the Harper government’s exploitation of the issue, suggesting at the same time that recent Liberal governments are guilty of the same sins:

“Use it or lose it” has become the watchword. Many of us seem to believe we could actually lose the passage to other states — indeed, to the United States. The premise is misguided. The slogan should be stricken from our vocabulary. Canadians should know that they have not been, and continue not to be, informed of the realities by a succession of federal governments only too pleased to talk the talk of an imperilled Arctic sovereignty.

Your humble content provider apologizes for banging on about this so much. But it is rather enjoyable to watch a skillful bullshit detector do his work.

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