Cannon discusses Canadian Arctic sovereignty

Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon. © CBC
Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon. © CBC

This week, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon gave a speech on Canadian Arctic policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He outlined Canada’s interests in the Arctic, which include social and economic development for Northerners, energy exploitation, international collaboration with other Arctic states, defense and security, climate change, and the opening-up of transportation routes. Much of his speech focused on the government’s effort to protect Canadian sovereignty in the High North.

Perhaps most unexpectedly, he stated:

There is surprisingly little disagreement over land and sea claims in the Arctic region. Five coastal states bordering on the Arctic Ocean — Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Russian Federation, and the U.S. —exercise sovereignty and jurisdiction over much of the region, and very little of that jurisdiction is disputed.

And those areas that are disputed are well managed.

However, this observation comes just weeks after Cannon asserted that Canada “will not be bullied” by Russia when it comes to defending its sovereignty in the Arctic. Canada and Russia are still disputing the right to fly unannounced outside the other’s borders, as last week’s Cannon-Lavrov discussion revealed.

Furthermore, the issue of the Northwest Passage is still very much in dispute between the US and Canada. The only agreement reached by the two countries on the transit passage is to disagree. Even though Cannon said that the Canadian Ice Service “believes the various internal waterways known as the Northwest Passage will not likely be a reliable commercial shipping route for decades owing to extreme ice variability,” in any case, the area has the potential to eventually turn into a major bilateral dispute, since the U.S. sees the Northwest Passage as international waters. Cannon confirmed that since the government views the passage as falling within its own jurisdiction, Canada “will continue to regulate shipping through the passage.”

The Canadian foreign minister also stated that due to the success of the 2008 Illulisat Declaration, which reaffirmed the five Arctic states’ commitment to the current legal frameworks governing the Arctic – most notably the U.N. Law of the Sea – “the five states see no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the “Arctic Ocean.”

Yet on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded the Antarctic Treaty System as “a blueprint for the kind of international cooperation that will be needed more and more to address the challenges of the 21st century, and it is an example of smart power at its best.” Although she did not explicitly call for new, comprehensive agreements to govern the Arctic, and instead focused on proceeding with U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea, it seemed as if she might be considering an eventual treaty.

In addition, Cannon discussed Canada’s military strategy to defend its Arctic sovereignty, speaking about the progress being made on the priorities Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled in August 2007. The three initiatives are:

  • The establishment of a Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre in Resolute Bay
  • The expansion, currently underway, of the size and capabilities of the Canadian Rangers
  • The development of a deep-water Arctic docking and refuelling facility in Nanisivik

Canada is also constructing a new icebreaker scheduled to come on line in the next decade. Both Canada and Russia are developing their military capabilities in the High North, just as the Nordic countries are engaging in joint military exercises. The move towards militarization in the Arctic is palpable even though the intentions may be purely defensive.

You can watch the video of Cannon’s speech here, while his full remarks can be found here.

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