Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has embarked on his second-annual tour of his country’s Arctic region. He began his five-day trip in Churchill, Manitoba, located on Hudson Bay. Here in this small town, Harper announced a new CAN $13.4 million in funding for upgrades to the ramps, taxis, and runways of the local airport. In these northern parts of Canada, airports are essential for transportation, as many towns do not have roads leading in and out of them.

PM Harper is given a tour of Cape Merry Historical Site in Churchill by a Parks Canada presenter. © Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press
PM Harper is given a tour of Cape Merry Historical Site in Churchill by a Parks Canada presenter. © Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

The next stops on his tour include Cambridge and Resolute. In the latter location, he will pay a visit to the troops participating in the Canadian Forces’ Operation Nanook, described as Canada’s “premier annual northern sovereignty operation.” One scenario during the operation will involve practicing cleaning an oil spill in Resolute Bay.  The exercise will also involve Danish and American forces for the first time ever to “increase interoperability and exercise a collective response to emerging cross- border challenges.”

While it may seem contradictory to invite other countries’ armies to participate in a sovereignty exercise, Defense Minister Peter McKay defended his country’s actions, stating,

“It’s entirely consistent with sovereignty to invite people to come here. If you invite somebody in your house, you’re not giving up any ownership or giving up any control of your home.”

Canada is preparing to have a more permanent force in the Arctic with the new Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre being built in Resolute.

During his speech in Churchill, Harper affirmed that Canada’s development of its Arctic region is a “long-term” project. He admitted that so far, change has been “incremental.” “This is a sparsely populated, underdeveloped region of the country,” Harper explained. “It will require sustained investments and attention to take advantage of the opportunities that await it.”

Harper’s tour comes on the heels of his government’s release of a 27-page Arctic foreign policy statement, the Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy: Exercising Sovereignty and Promoting Canada’s Northern Strategy.” Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon unveiled the new document last Friday. This restatement of Canada’s foreign policy interests in the High North is more multilateral than before, and the shift in policy comes as Canada is preparing to take the reins as chair of the Arctic Council in 2013. Foreign Minister Cannon made some interesting remarks on the foreign policy statement in an interview with CTV available here.

In the interview, Cannon was asked how negotiations over competing claims in the Beaufort Sea were proceeding with the U.S. He responded,

“A group of experts from the State Department as well as other departments were here. We will have a group of our people go down in the early new year to work on how this engagement strategy should move forward. Secretary of State Clinton and myself have determined that it is important that we get our officials speaking. This was never on the radar screen years ago. It was sort of in a the dormant stage; no one really wanted to talk about it. But as the ice is melting in that area, as more and more Canadians go to the north (there are over 100,000 Canadians that live in there,) and Canada is of course an Arctic power, these are things we have to take care of and it is a priority for Canada to look at that.”

Indeed, the Beaufort Sea, which could someday be the site of shipping lanes, is now seen as a more important dispute to be settled than Hans Island. Prime Minister Harper’s recent response to the first-ever Danish tourist expedition to Hans Island was conciliatory and even dismissive in tone, whereas a few years earlier, Canada may have replied more aggressively. On August 14, 62 Danish cruise ship tourists made land at the 1.3 square kilometer island. They erected a cairn filled with Danish and Greenlandic flags. Last year, the cruise, organized by the private travel company Albatros Travel, tried to make this same journey from Kangerlussuaq, but they were impeded by ice.

As quoted in the Toronto Star, Harper commented,

“Hans Island, I think, is a one-kilometre square rock in the middle of the Arctic Ocean so I’m not sure it would have made for much of a tour…But, as you know, we are committed with Denmark to try and work out a resolution to that particular dispute. It is progressing well. Obviously we have bigger fish to fry in terms of the long-term economic development of the north.”

Some of those “bigger fish” are listed in the foreign policy statement. In the document, sovereignty takes precedence, and under that heading are listed two priorities with regard to sovereignty:

  1. “Canada will seek to resolve boundary issues in the Arctic region, in accordance with international law.” The only land it still disputes is Hans Island. The document mentions the dispute over the Beaufort Sea with the U.S., but claims that “All disagreements are well managed, neither posing defence challenges for Canada nor diminishing Canada’s ability to collaborate and cooperate with its Arctic neighbours.” In any case, Canada will try to peacefully resolve this maritime border dispute in the near future.
  2. “On the second priority, Canada will secure international recognition for the full extent of our extended continental shelf wherein we can exercise our sovereign rights over the resources of the seabed and subsoil.” Canada will be submitting its claims to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in December 2013.

Despite the multilateral tone of the policy statement which is being promoted in the media, the document proclaims:

“Increasingly, the world is turning its attention northward, with many players far re- moved from the region itself seeking a role and in some cases calling into question the governance of the Arctic. While many of these players could have a contribution to make in the development of the North, Canada does not accept the premise that the Arctic requires a fundamentally new governance structure or legal framework. Nor does Canada accept that the Arctic nation states are unable to appropriately manage the North as it undergoes fundamental change.

Here, we see strong echoes of the May 2008 Illulissat Declaration putting the Arctic Five circumpolar nations above the Arctic Council.

News Links

“Krydstogtturister bygger varde på Hans Ø,” Jyllands Posten (in Danish)

“Arctic sovereignty ‘first priority for North,’ says Harper,” Toronto Star

“Minister Cannon Releases Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy Statement,” Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada

“Operation Nanook Continues in Pond Inlet,” CBC News

One comment

Harper tours Arctic; Ottawa releases new Arctic foreign policy statement

  1. The Honorable Anders Samuelson
    Minister for Foreign Affairs
    Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark
    Asiatisk Plads 2
    DK-1448 Copenhagen
    With CC to The Honorable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Global Affairs Canada, Lester B. Pearson Building 125 Sussex Drive, Ottawa ON K1A 0G2, CANADA

    Dear Minister Samuelson,
    Congratulations on Denmark being named #1 in the world on Happiness index!

    I hope some Jack Daniels Tennessee whisky will add some happiness to your Canada vs Denmark island dispute.

    The ‘whiskey war’ was initiated in 1984, when the Danish minister for Greenland landed on the island leaving a bottle of schnapps and a sign proclaiming “Welcome to the Danish Island.”
    Peter Takso Jensen, head of international law department of the Danish Foreign Ministry, noted that “when Danish military go there, they leave a bottle of schnapps. And when Canadian military forces come there, they leave a bottle of Canadian Club and a sign saying ‘Welcome to Canada’”
    Herewith is the text of the sovereignty claim made for Hans Island on behalf of the United States as per the US Congress 1856 Guano Islands Act:

    I, Stan Vaughan, a citizen of the United States, having previously given notice by affidavit, to the Department of State, of discovered deposits of guano, in accordance with US Code Title 48, Chapter 8, section 1411, on Hans Island, discovered July 1853 by Elisha Kent Kane of the United States ship Advance of 2nd Grinnell Expedition, with discovery renewed and reconfirmed by Charles Francis Hall in the United States ship Polaris August 29, 1871 and noting that said islands are not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and taking peaceable possession thereof, and with intent of continuous occupation, and further ask the President to consider such as appertaining to the United States.
    Further, in accordance with Title 48, Chapter 8, section 1412, having found as soon as practible, gave notice by affidavit, to the Department of State, of such island described as Hans Island, at approximate latitude of 80 degrees 39’41 minutes North and longitude of 66 degrees and 27’41 minutes West thereof, as near as may be, and showing that said islands were not at the time of discovery thereof, in the possession or occupation of any other government or of the citizens of any other government before the same and request that shall be now considered as appertaining to the United States.
    FILED WITH THE United States State Department
    This claim should also help strengthen United States claim to Northwest Passage navigation rights as well.

    A United States flag and some Tennessee Jack Daniels whisky have been placed on the island, while awaiting President Trump’s executive order proclaiming Hans Island as territory appertaining now to the United States.

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