The Weight of History in the Arctic

Shelagh Grant on why the history of the Arctic is relevant to today’s debates over the future of Arctic sovereignty.
By: /
February 25, 2013
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In recent years, discussion about the Arctic has taken centre stage as politicians, resource developers, environmentalists and indigenous peoples square off with competing visions of a future circumpolar world. When mapping longterm strategies and objectives, we often fail to give due consideration to the importance of history.  We must ask ourselves if the history of the Arctic is relevant to today’s debates over the future of the Arctic, and if so, why?

The history of Arctic sovereignty reveals a number of “game changers” that previously altered the status quo, as well as several general trends. The most striking “game changer” was the end of the great ice age, which eventually saw waves of Palaeo Eskimos slowly moving from Siberia eastward to Greenland. The last wave of these hardy migrants did not survive the little ice age. However, around 1250 BC, a group of whale hunters from the Bering Strait would arrive in Northern Greenland. Considered ancestors of present day Inuit, they had sophisticated weapons and means of transportation that allowed them to survive the little ice age.

A more dramatic effect of the little ice age was the disappearance (around AD 1400) of two large farm colonies located in Southern Greenland. Norwegian Vikings emigrating from Iceland established the farm colonies (around AD 980), over 200 years before the arrival of the Thule Inuit and 500 years before the alleged discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

The colonies were Christian settlements, overseen by a Catholic Bishop who reported to Rome; yet governed and taxed by the king of Norway upon whom they were dependent upon for trade. At one time, the two settlements were believed to have a combined population of over 3,000, a sizable colony by New World standards. At the onset of the little ice age trade with Norway came to a halt and the Viking farmers disappeared without a trace – the first indication that climate change, coupled by adverse economic conditions, might affect the ability to retain control over one’s lands.  

The “game changers” in the following centuries were more subtle and gradual, but their impact was accumulative. There were technological advances ­– first in ship design, then introduction of the steam engine, and sophisticated navigational aids ­– that coincided with changing demands for Arctic resources from fish, whales, ivory, and furs, to coal. Today, demand is centered on minerals, oil and gas.

During this period it was the realized that a loss of control over the northern sea routes tended to precede loss of sovereignty – as in the case of the Netherlands who abandoned their claims to Greenland or in Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States. If this indicates a precedent, then preservation of a current Arctic country’s sovereign rights will be largely dependent upon their ability to control the adjacent waters.

There were other historical influences directly or indirectly affecting Arctic sovereignty. The struggle for power in Europe resulting in continuous wars brought subsequent shifts in naval and economic power that would see the Spanish, Basque, and Portuguese fishermen depart from northern waters. The French followed and finally the Dutch, who once maintained a dominant presence in Maritime history. The Dutch never regained their former stature after their merchant fleet and navy were decimated during the Napoleonic Wars. Even Norwegians lost their longstanding rights to Greenland when the 1817 Treaty of Kiel separated their country from Denmark.

By the mid-19th century, the Arctic was largely controlled by Britain and Russia, with lesser areas governed by Norway and Denmark, the latter through colonization of Greenland. Fifty years later, the United States became a major player as a result of the purchase of Alaska and the modernization of the U.S. navy. Canada acquired a larger portion of the Arctic mainland and islands through annexation of the Hudson’s Bay Co. lands and the British transfer of the Arctic Islands, but remained without a navy or even a government ship capable of monitoring foreign activities in its Arctic Region.

With the exception of the Russian and British fur trading companies, European exploration of the Arctic during the 19th century was motivated more by national pride than the expectation of materially benefiting from permanent settlement – the British Admiralty explorations being a prime example. Other countries would follow suit, notably Norway and Russia. Their Arctic explorers became national heroes. Their longstanding history of Arctic identity may explain public support in the two countries for economic development of the Arctic, compared to the United States and Canada whose historical association with the Arctic is relatively recent.

Success in these races brought honour and glory for the explorers’ respective countries.

Once Robert Peary declared that he had reached the North Pole and claimed it for the United States and Norwegian Roald Amundsen successfully sailed through the Northwest Passage, it would be almost 40 years before another ship (a Canadian RCMP vessel, St. Roch, in an effort to support the war in the eastern Arctic) traversed the Northwest Passage. But the “race to be first” was far from over – modern day explorers continued to compete for Arctic records by air balloon, dirigible, airplane, and on foot.

Success in these races brought honour and glory for the explorers’ respective countries.

In Canada, however, another race was quietly taking place. Canada had discovered in 1905 that the British title to its remaining Arctic lands – transferred to Canada in 1880 – was inchoate. It took twenty-five years for Canada to secure her title to the Arctic Islands through acts of administration or other means of “effective occupation.” That Canadians came to perceive the United States as the major threat to securing title to the Arctic Archipelago was perhaps inevitable, given their still-vivid memories of the War of 1812 and the Alaska boundary dispute.

Associating the Arctic with national achievement gained further momentum during the Second World War (despite the fact that the new science and technologies that were applied were American). The war also marked a new era in Canadian-American relations. Although Canadians were slow to abandon their concerns about American intentions, wiser heads eventually prevailed. The Department of External Affairs, the State Department, and the Permanent Joint Board on Defence set down written guarantees that Canada’s Arctic sovereignty would be protected. How postwar measures such as Norad and DEW (Distance Early Warning) Line were presented to the public, simply reflected an accommodation between reality and the need to quell potential protests.

During the Cold War, national pride was inherent in the media frenzy extolling the right to defend one’s country. Both the United States and the Soviet Union would spend exorbitant sums on scientific research and development to support their military actions. Although many American activities took place in the Canadian Arctic, Canada’s contribution was likely proportionate to the country’s population, available manpower, and financial resources. Eventually the excitement of conquering the Arctic frontier was replaced by new horizons on the space frontier. Tensions further eased with the demise of Soviet Union. Yet just as Canadians found it hard to dismiss the notion that the United States posed a threat to their Arctic sovereignty, Americans found it difficult to consider Russia an ally rather than the enemy.

There are other lessons to learn from history than simply how and why we travelled down a certain path. While it is true that it took a hundred years for Canada’s relationship with the United States to turn from one of suspicion and distrust, to one of cooperation and respect, we cannot afford the luxury of waiting another hundred years to establish similar bonds with Russia and other Arctic nations. Better understanding of their cultural histories is a critical first step towards tolerance and acceptance of their differences.

If the overriding goal among the eight Arctic countries is to preserve peace and stability in the region, then the greatest threat may be potential interference from non-Arctic countries that may consider the Arctic “a global commons.” Such countries may have little interest in protecting the rights of existing circumpolar states and even less concern for the protection of the fragile northern environment.  Whether the threat is overt, implied, or just potential, the Arctic Council may be the best forum in which to determine a cooperative way to move forward. Canada’s chairing of the Council over the next two years offers an excellent opportunity to establish norms of accommodation and goodwill.

The success of the Arctic Council since its inception has depended upon finding common ground amongst the eight countries and their respective indigenous peoples. To gain consensus requires mutual understanding of the biases and priorities of countries that differ vastly in size, population, culture, and history. Understanding our own history is only a starting point; we must begin to think “outside the box.” We must also remember that Arctic sovereignty is more than a legal right. It is a responsibility for the environment and the people who call the Arctic their homeland. Only time will tell whether we have incorporated this and other lessons from the past into our visions for the future.

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