The Arctic is heating up, both literally and figuratively. Faced with the prospect of ice-free Arctic summers, Canada has critical decisions to make for the future of its longest coastline, on everything from shipping regulation to resource extraction to national defence. But are we acting quickly enough to keep pace with the cascading effects of climate change in the region?
Adam Lajeunesse is the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Arctic and Marine Policy at St. Francis Xavier University. He’s also a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Centre on Foreign Policy and Federalism. Canadian Geographic talked to Lajeunesse about the future of Canadian Arctic sovereignty, resource development, and how seriously we should take reports of a Russian military buildup in the far north.
On Canada’s Arctic sovereignty policy
The current government is still working on their Arctic policy refresh, but my initial assessment is that we are going to see much more emphasis on indigenous rights, climate change, and safe, secure oceans management. We can already see this happening; CHARS (the Canadian High Arctic Research Station) has seen its mandate shifted from one focused on resource development to one focused on climate change. The Harper government was known for its displays of military power in the Arctic, but the pillars of its Arctic sovereignty policy were environmental protection, northern government, and community development, and I don’t foresee an enormous shift away from those core pillars in the Trudeau government.
On the difficulty of making proactive Arctic policy
The big problem for the Canadian government is of course predicting future challenges in the Arctic region. Ten years ago, if you’d asked what those challenges would be, most people would have said there’s going to be a huge surge in offshore drilling, possible military conflict. None of that has come to pass. The Arctic has a way of surprising people and delaying what many have assumed to be inevitable. I think if you look at government policy, they’re trying a very broad approach to prepare for the most obvious and also widest set of potentialities.
On the challenges — and opportunities — of disappearing sea ice
I was aboard Crystal Serenity last year, and between the Beaufort Sea and Pond Inlet, we only saw one day of ice. That channel is opening up to shipping, and that’s going to create all kinds of new problems for Canada in terms of search and rescue, infrastructure etc. From a resource perspective, the north has enormous potential wealth that’s only just begun to be developed. The challenge is going to be how to do that in a way that’s environmentally sustainable, while at the same time bringing local communities a lot of the benefits.
On who owns the Northwest Passage
Canadian legislation made the Northwest Passage internal Canadian waters in 1985, meaning it exercises as much control there as it does over Lake Winnipeg. The U.S. position, on the other hand, is that the passage is an international strait running through the Arctic. Even then, however, Canada would enjoy many levers to exercise Canadian control. We would have an extremely high level of control to defend against pollution, we still have control over our territorial water, and we would still be able to control shipping activity within the framework of international law. What we would not be able to do is stop foreign vessels from transiting through those waters.
On the Russian threat
Whenever a potentially hostile foreign presence starts buzzing your airspace, it is something to watch. However, the Russian threat has certainly been overblown. The vast majority of Russian assets that are being built up and put into the north cannot be projected beyond the north; Russian ground troops sitting in the Russian north are no threat to anyone, and Russian icebreakers are not military vessels, they’re slow-moving, enormous civilian craft. If they begin to send their submarines into or close to the Canadian north, which was the case during the Cold War, then that changes the security paradigm, but for the moment, the Arctic is probably one of the last places Canada and the United States need to worry about in terms of militarization.
On Arctic resource development in the time of Trump
The Obama administration’s Arctic policy was an appendage to its climate change policy; Trump’s replacement will be a focus on a resource economy. I think we’ll see a falling away of regulations, a shortening of permit times, but the economic conditions aren’t really there for Arctic offshore development. Even if Trump tomorrow opened Alaska’s waters to development, I think you’d see a lot of hesitation on the part of the oil multinationals, simply because these days no company wants to take on a $100 billion project with a 30-year timeframe. We have no idea where the hydrocarbon industry will be in 30 years. Trump’s ability to bring development to the Arctic will be extremely limited because there’s not a lot of appetite to do it in the private sector.