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Q&A: What does it mean to be an Arctic nation?

Arctic expert and legal scholar Michael Byers weighs in on how Canada can take the lead on northern issues

  • May 28, 2019
  • 924 words
  • 4 minutes
A large blue iceberg floats in the Arctic Ocean Expand Image

The Arctic is hot right now, 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?

Michael Byers, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s department of political science, holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law and is frequently called upon to comment on Arctic issues. Here, he discusses what it means to be an Arctic nation and how that positions Canada to lead in an era of global upheaval.

On what it means to be an Arctic country

I’m very conscious of the fact that when I turn and face north, I’m looking toward thousands of kilometres of Canada. We need to be aware of this and we need to celebrate it because we’re drawn by very powerful forces to look south. Doing so can be unfortunate and sometimes debilitating because we miss out on important responsibilities and opportunities in the part of Canada that’s not right beside the United States.

On the problem of Arctic sovereignty

My law background makes me think of Arctic sovereignty in the context of Canada’s small number of unresolved disputes with other countries. But the other conception of sovereignty is the political and emotional one, which involves politicians playing on nationalist emotions to win elections. When this happens, it becomes difficult to get on with practical solutions to relatively narrow or easily resolved disputes with other countries.

For example, no Canadian government since the Mulroney era has had the courage to engage the United States on the Northwest Passage issue because of the domestic political context. [Byers believes the United States would acknowledge Canada’s legal claim to the passage in exchange for access and certain infrastructure and search and rescue commitments. —Ed.]

On the challenges and opportunities of Arctic sea ice loss

You can identify small silver linings in the big, dark, dangerous cloud of climate change. One of them is improved shipping accessibility, which would make it easier to supply Arctic communities and access natural resources. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of destruction that’s being caused in the Arctic, but I believe we can address the really big challenges and also take up some of the small opportunities that arise.

For example, tourism: I’m a big fan of small-scale ecotourism that respects the natural environment, works with northern communities and can bring jobs and money in support of, for instance, artists who live and work in the North. I’m much more skeptical of large-scale tourism and worry about the prospect of cruise ships with 3,000 passengers descending upon small communities in Canada’s Arctic. I see that as a real and growing challenge that isn’t currently being addressed.

On the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as a framework for managing Arctic waters

Canada played a huge role in drafting this convention, and we did so with incredible foresight, because it’s always easier to negotiate an agreement before the issues become salient and controversial. The convention does a lot of work helping to avoid conflict over maritime zones such as the Arctic. It has an article on pollution prevention jurisdiction in ice-covered waters. It provides pretty clear guidance on how coastal states can manage foreign shipping. It even has an entire section on the regulation of deep seabed mining. It’s not going to address all the issues — it’s not going to solve the problem of the living conditions of northern Indigenous peoples, it’s not going to solve climate change — but it can address the maritime ones.

On how Canada can address Arctic issues in the time of Trump

I don’t think we’re going to see much constructive diplomacy on Arctic issues involving the United States for the foreseeable future. Canada has a choice; it either acquiesces and hopes for the best, or it stands up, not in opposition to the United States but as an independent, influential country, and shows leadership working with other countries on the things that need to be done. Arctic issues are only growing in importance because of the acceleration of climate change, and Canada can’t sit back on those issues. We have to act, and we have to lead.

Related: Why the North Pole matters


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