Polar views, on Polar claims – Options for the Canadian Government to Respond to Russia’s Arctic Claim

Ashley Mantha-Hollands

Arctic issues are complex. Within a 17,600 km circumference there is up to a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas, strategic sea routes for trade, a fragile ecosystem, issues of international security, and human rights concerns. On August 4, 2015, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, submitted a bold claim to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for Russian sovereignty for over 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic –contesting the claims of both Canada and Denmark over the North Pole.

The Arctic is described in Canadian discourse as the  “Canadian Soul,” a fundamental component of Canada’s national identity. The region provides a home to numerous Indigenous groups and Northerners whose welfare is dependent on the maintenance of a healthy environment.

The incentives for Arctic control are numerous. Disputes over contestation of sovereignty are resolved through the preparation of a submission to the UNCLCS, or alternatively, states have the opportunity to negotiate directly. Canada is therefore, faced with moving forward with one of these two options. Russia’s encroachment on the North could, in fact, open an unexpected opportunity for Canada to repair and build trust domestically and internationally.

Option 1: The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea conditions that states can extend their continental shelves further than the prescribed 200 nautical miles through a submission to the UNCLCS. Recommendations are final and binding, providing certainty about the area in which rights over natural resources can be exercised. Claims take between five and seven years to be resolved.

Denmark and Russia’s claim over the North Pole could in fact, be stronger than Canada’s. Canada has historically leveraged its Indigenous people living across the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, for territorial entitlements over the Arctic. However, Canada has recently fallen under international scrutiny for the state of living standards of the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. Excluding Indigenous people living above “the 60°” from Canadian Arctic agenda setting will weaken Canada’s output legitimacy. To date, inclusive domestic dialogue has been as allusive as Saint Nicholas himself.

Russia has made military build up in the Arctic a strategic priority since the creation of its Arctic military command in 2014. A highly militarized Arctic under the supervision of an actor with uncertain intentions and human rights abuses runs the risk of devastating consequences. Currently, the Arctic shelf sits on 90 million barrels of oil (which equates to more than Nigeria and Libya combined). Should Canada decide to proceed with the status quo, to improve Canada’s claim, the Government would need to show its commitment to the human rights and living standards of the Indigenous people and groups that are neglected.

Option 2: There are domestic and international incentives for Canada to engage in direct negotiations with Russia. Diplomatic relations have been under stress since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Therefore, opening up new channels of communication could be beneficial in addressing other tensions. The Arctic stage is a global arena where Russia has shown to be cooperative. In 2010, Russia and Norway divided 67,000 square miles of water in the Barents Sea and initiated a partnership for the region’s energy development. This negotiation is considered a model for Arctic diplomacy.

There are numerous benefits for bilateral negotiations to occur. As conflict intensifies in Syria and Iraq, Canada’s recent decision to end air strikes could have an affect on its relationship with Russia. To mitigate these possible tensions would be to cooperate to a peaceful negotiated solution to the North. A spiteful neighbour in an environmental sensitive region is not the answer.

Domestically, the Canadian Government has the opportunity to repair relationships and build consensus with the Indigenous peoples living in the North. The relationship between the Canadian Government and the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit is overwhelmed with mistrust. During the devolution process of Nunavut in 1999, it was mandated that should Canada embark on any negotiations over the Arctic, Nunavut must be consulted. As it stands, the territory of Nunavut is under severe economic and social stress with the highest rates of food insecurity, suicide, and lack of access to essential services in Canada. The incorporation of local Indigenous knowledge, from the Government of Nunavut, into Arctic sovereignty claims will be beneficial not only to relationships, but also to the local environment and modes of survival for the Inuit people.

Arctic states have been reduced into a game of strategic peacocking over the region. In 2007, Russia and Canada clashed after Moscow symbolically asserted its claim to the Arctic by launching a canister containing the Russian flag onto the Arctic seabed. Canadian Foreign Minister, Peter McKay, stated that this action was unacceptable, modern states cannot claim territory by cementing their flags in earth. Denmark has also symbolically asserted their claim over the contested Hans Island by mounting the Danish flag in the centre; Canadian soldiers promptly removed the flag and mailed it back to Copenhagen. As conflict escalates in other areas of the world over contested territory, it is more important than ever that states cooperate, especially in environmentally fragile regions. Furthermore, including local knowledge and stimulating domestic dialogue is increasingly important in the context of transnational Indigenous movements.

Disagreements over space can prompt creative and innovative thinking through dialogue and negotiation. “Bridging” in negotiations discourse refers to the dialectic process by which a new option is developed that satisfies all parties’ major objectives. By engaging all stakeholders in negotiation, there are increased opportunities for innovation. One possible outcome is declaring the North Pole a “condominium,” which is an arrangement of shared sovereignty. This currently exists between France and Spain over Pheasant Island in the Bidasoa River – administrative responsibility alternates between the two states every six months.

The irony is not lost that global warming could contribute to the possibility of a Cold War over the Arctic. If creative solutions are not developed to help determine Arctic sovereignty, the consequences for Inuit life and the environment could be devastating. By taking opportunities to collaborate, cooperate, negotiate and innovate, Arctic stakeholders could transform a complex multifaceted problem to a new model for thinking about contested regions in the world.

Ashley Mantha-Hollands is a collaborative degree student at the School of Public Policy and the Department of Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Ashley holds a Bachelor’s degree Honours Political Science Minor History from Concordia University. Her academic and career oriented interests are in building and maintaining healthy systems and efficiency in organizational behaviour.