Looking Up North in 2013

The year 2013 will be an important one for the federal government's Arctic ambitions.
By: /
November 15, 2012
Fellow, International Relations and Digital Technology Project and Social Media Editor, OpenCanada.org

Yesterday, Al Jazeera's Fault Lines produced an excellent documentary about the future of the Arctic. Reporter Josh Rushing went to the Canadian Arctic to explore the challenges and opportunities presented by this little-understood region:

The Arctic has long been a part of the Canadian psyche, but few of us know anything about it. UBC's Michael Byers and the University of Calgary's Rob Huebert are notable exceptions. As an Arctic littoral state, Canada will always be a key player in any serious conversation about the Arctic.

Next May, our Arctic credentials will be put to the test, as Canada assumes the two-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council. (NB: The State Department has reproduced an excellent article on the establishment of the Arctic Council.) In the most recent issue of International Journal, the scholarly publication of the Canadian International Council, Carleton University's Andrea Charron discusses the agenda-setting opportunity that Canada will have as chair:

Canada has an opportunity to tackle issues of particular concern to it. And given that Canada sought to broaden the issues addressed by the Arctic Council to include social, cultural, and other challenges beyond the strictly environmental, it is logical that Canada’s priorities would continue to reflect this predilection. Certainly, on paper, Canada’s second, third, and fourth priorities outlined in its Northern Strategy include promoting social and economic development, protecting its environmental heritage, and improving and devolving Northern governance, all of which are consistent with the goals and spirit of the Arctic Council.

While Canada's chairmanship has been in the works for a while, it recently flared up in Ottawa. In August, Prime Minister Harper announced that Health Minister and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq will serve as chair of the Arctic Council. But last week, Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington lambasted Harper's choice of Aglukkaq, arguing that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is the more appropriate choice. Nevertheless, Charron sees Minister Aglukkaq's appointment as an opportunity:

Canada could make a significant contribution with respect to the latest area to arrive on the Council’s agenda—public health. This is especially the case given that Canada’s chair is Canada’s Minister of Health and the Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, Leona Aglukkaq.

Even if Canada's wasn't Arctic Council chair, 2013 would still be an important year for Canada and the Arctic. Under Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Canada has until December 2013 to submit data to determine the outer limits of Canada's extended continental shelf. In October, Canadian media reported that Canada's submission will be roughly the size of the three Prairie provinces (approximately 1.75 million square kilometres of seafloor):

Jacob Verhoef, the Halifax-based Natural Resources Canada geologist directing the historic effort to redraw the outer boundary of Canada, says the final proposal is proving “pretty close” in size to what federal scientists predicted nearly 20 years ago. “I can’t give you a number, simply because I don’t have a number – we have not calculated the number. But our preliminary outer limit as we are now defining it is pretty close to what we had expected.”

While it is unclear how the federal government will leverage its chairmanship, or how our UNCLOS submission will go, the Arctic will continue to play an important role in Canada's political, economic, military, and environmental future.