2013: A Decisive Year for Canada's Arctic Ambitions

Rob Huebert on why this is a make-or-break year for Canada in the Arctic.
By: /
January 24, 2013
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Canada’s role in the circumpolar world will enter a critical phase in 2013. Canada will assume the role of chair of the Arctic Council. At the same time, it will submit coordinates to extend its continental shelf in the Arctic region. Both events will significantly alter Canada’s international standing. The government has also promised to begin building a large icebreaker and a new class of navy vessels capable of operating in the Arctic. Interested observers will face considerable challenges in trying to keep up with the pace of events.

The Canadian government has already commenced developing policies to shape its two-year term as chair of the Arctic Council. The appointment of Canadian Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq as Canada’s senior Arctic official means that the government will be focusing on social, economic, and health priorities for the Arctic. This will represent a departure from the government’s previous focus on issues relating to sovereignty and security. That said, the government will still need to develop policies that focus on sovereignty and security issues as the Arctic region continues to integrate more and more with the rest of the world.

Canada will also have to address outstanding issues from the previous chairmanship, such as the European Union and China’s requests to become observers. (It does not seem likely that the Swedish chair will resolve this ongoing saga in the short time remaining in its term of office.) How Canada will navigate this particularly challenging issue is uncertain. The Canadian government continues to oppose the EU’s ban on seal products, but is very sensitive to the need to develop a strong economic relationship with Asian states like China. While Canada is chair, though, any decision that is made regarding new observers will be based on the consensus of the entire Arctic Council. Any consensus, of course, will require good relations between all eight state members – relations that may become strained in the coming year.  

This is particularly true now that Russia has forced the closure of its Permanent Participant, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON). The Russian Ministry of Justice determined that the statutes of the organization were not in line with Russian federal law, and, without any warning, ordered its offices closed in November 2012. It remains unclear why the Russian government took such drastic action. RAIPON represents the northern aboriginal peoples of Russia, and plays a critical role in ensuring that their voices are heard on the Arctic Council. It is hoped that Russia will reinstate the organization before Canada takes over as chair, as the full ramifications of excluding the Russian northern indigenous voice are profound and not yet fully appreciated. It is equally difficult to foresee what this will do to Canadian-Russian relations should Canada press the Russians for resolution of what the Russians see as a strictly domestic issue.

The second major event for Canada regarding its Arctic in 2013 will be its attempt to extend its continental shelf in the Arctic region. Under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Canada has the right to establish control of soil and subsoil beyond its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) if it is able to establish that a continental shelf extension exists. Canada has devoted significant resources to measuring and mapping its extended continental shelf. Further to the terms of UNCLOS, Canada must submit its coordinates, which will represent a significant expansion of Canadian territory, to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) by November 2013.

Many observers are waiting to see whether the Canadian coordinates will overlap with those of any of its northern neighbours. Canada has worked closely with both the United States and Denmark in the mapping of the region, which will hopefully prevent any disagreements with these countries. Much more uncertain is whether the Canadian coordinates will overlap with the Russian extended continental shelf. When the Russians first submitted their coordinates to the CLCS, they extended their submission to the North Pole. If the Canadian coordinates do not stop before the North Pole, Canada and Russia will have a boundary dispute for the first time in their history. While the Russians recently reached a very equitable and peaceful boundary settlement with the Norwegians in their neighbouring northern waters, they have been more assertive in their treatment of their disputes with other states, such as Georgia, in the past. It is unclear, then, what Canada would face if a conflict were to arise, particularly if the RAIPON issue has not been resolved at that point.

These challenges that Canada faces with regard to its Arctic region are further complicated by the realities of climate change, which will continue to dramatically alter the face of the Arctic. At a recent ArcticNet meeting in Vancouver, two of Canada’s most respected Arctic scientists – David Barber and Louis Fortier – predicted that the permanent ice cover of the Arctic Ocean will disappear by 2020, plus or minus five years. Scientists are also increasingly worried about the accelerating melting of the Greenland ice caps, and what that means for rising sea levels. It is difficult to imagine what all of the impacts will be for Canada when the polar ice cap is gone in the summer months.

Another major impact on the Canadian North is the increasingly fluid and changing nature of the world’s energy environment. Many of the world’s largest oil companies are preparing for one of the most concentrated efforts to find oil in the Arctic in 2013. There will be exploratory drilling in the waters off northern Alaska, western Greenland, and the Beaufort Sea. On the other hand, most Canadians have not yet had the opportunity to digest the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) assessment, released in November 2012, which suggested that the United States could become self-sufficient with regards to oil production. This possibility is the result of a technological breakthrough in a process referred to as fracking, which has already made North Dakota a major oil-producing state. If the Americans are able to satisfy their own needs for oil with domestic production, the ramifications for Canada will be profound. Will the United States need or accept oil developed in the Arctic? If the effort to find oil in the Canadian North is successful, but the American market no longer wants it, what then? Will it be left in the ground, as some Canadians would prefer, or will there be a drive to find alternative markets in Asia?

No one really knows if the IEA report is correct. It may be that the Americans’ requirement for foreign oil will remain as high as always, and that any oil that might be discovered in the North will be consumed. The bottom line is that the Canadian-American energy relationship is entering a period of fluidity that promises to have a significant impact on developments in the Canadian Arctic.  

Ultimately, Canada is entering a very uncertain period with regards to its Arctic region. Two of the most important variables – climate change and resource development – are developing in ways that seemed entirely impossible a few years ago. Depending on how these issues play out, Canada may be faced with an increasing international presence in and around its Arctic. It must show leadership in shaping that presence, but it will also need to protect its own interests and values in the region. Thus, it is absolutely necessary that the Canadian government resolve any problems that may be delaying the construction of its proposed icebreaker and Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships along with numerous other initiatives that will allow for the better protection and surveillance of its North. Canadian leaders must protect and promote Canadian interests and values in the Arctic for its northern peoples, but should not expect that this will be an easy task.

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