Contesting Arctic Sovereignty: A Brief History of “Canadian” Interest in the North

The Arctic continues to be a topic of heated discussion in Canada. Political, cultural, and environmental concerns have sparked research and scholarship into regions and peoples that have long escaped the public eye. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made Arctic sovereignty a top priority during his current eight-year tenure. He is amongst those who have suggested that real threats toward Canada’s circumpolar autonomy exist, and he seems determined to protect Canadian interests in a northern world that is undergoing significant and rapid change. Yet Harper’s Arctic diplomacy is highly questionable, both from historical and contemporary perspectives. To insinuate that the Arctic is Canadian territory, which Harper has done on a number of occasions, assumes that the massive northern region is holistically the property of a governmental body that has historically been at odds with much of that regions native population. Since Euro-Canadians are not indigenous to the Arctic territories which Harper has proclaimed their own, can his Conservative government actually claim some measure of ownership and stewardship over contested northern territory?  

When considering this question, it’s worth remembering that Canada’s political system is descendent from a British model of governance that was established through the formation of the Dominion of Canada at Confederation in 1867. First Nations, a large majority of whom were Inuit peoples, had sustained life in the Arctic long prior to the creation of any colonial states. From Confederation through to the 1930s and 40s, successive Canadian governments had little interest in the North. Other than a select number of Arctic expeditions, conducted mostly in an attempt to awe an ignorant southern-based Euro-Canadian consumer population with tales, images and film of “authentic Eskimos,” the North and its native peoples were disregarded as barren and useless. The now (in)famous Nanook of the North for example, was a 1922 silent docudrama by Robert Flaherty which depicted Inuit life in the Arctic. Flaherty filmed an Inuit person named Inuk Nanook and his family in their “natural” environment, but much of the footage was staged to capture an idealized northern Inuit experience.

Despite modest and contentious public interest, the Arctic remained stagnant in the eyes of the Canadian government until concerns over North American continental security emerged toward the end of the Second World War. The development of long-range nuclear-carrying bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the 1940s and 50s meant that Canada was no longer isolated from global conflict. Before the North American continent had been protected by the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Any attack was defendable by sea, but the development of aeronautic technologies altered the global security balance. From the 1940s onward, North America has been a single geostrategic entity, and continental defence has evolved within this context.

Bilateral defence relations between the United States and Canada spawned from this reality, and the Arctic became central to the protection of northern North America in the postwar period. In 1957, John Diefenbaker’s government formally agreed to sign the first North American Air Defence (NORAD) agreement. NORAD was ratified in 1958, at which point two sovereign nations in Canada and the United States bilaterally agreed to share the burden of continental air defence. In a tense Cold War atmosphere, which pitted the US against the Soviet Union, the Arctic took centre stage. The Soviet Union had both long-range bombers and ICBMs, and the shortest route for an attack launched from northern Europe was over the Arctic airway down into North America. In order to protect against a possible nuclear air attack, the Pentagon agreed in part to finance the construction of these radar lines across Canada’s North. The Pinetree Line, Mid-Canada Line, and Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line were constructed as part of this process. Unfortunately, the construction of this radar line forced the displacement of Indigenous peoples and communities – a story that has received some attention by scholars but remains shockingly unknown outside academic circles.

Arctic lands, waters and airways remained a concern for the Canadian government throughout the Cold War period (1945-1991). So too did relations with the regions indigenous populations and environmental activist groups, but recent changes in climate and technology have reinvigorated general interest in the North. Perhaps now more than ever, the Canadian government seems poised to protect its “claimed” Arctic sovereignty because the region is an increasing treasure trove for resource exploitation.

The Arctic remains as contested now as it has been historically. Indigenous peoples to the North remain, and yet Harper continues to proclaim that these regions are the jurisdiction of his government. Inasmuch as the Conservative government attempts to disassociate current Arctic land claims from Canada’s colonial past, the two seem unquestionably linked. Where Indigenous peoples have been culturally vested in the Arctic for centuries, the Canadian government’s interest is comparatively new and politically as well as economically driven. A brief examination into the history of Canadian Arctic sovereignty provides this context, and raises concerns for the future of the North and its varied populations. Ultimately, Arctic sovereignty and stewardship will be a primary focus of the Canadian government in the short and long-term future, but will protection and promotion of land, resources, or peoples dominate the agenda?