Disputing the north

“It’s nice to talk about arctic sovereignty, it’s kind of sexy,” said Michael Byers, author and Canadian Research Chair, “but all of the stuff that we’ve done here — all of that policy, all of that discovery, all of this co-operation, all of this treaty-making — is worth absolutely nothing unless we stop the crisis of climate change.”

Byers, accompanied with acclaimed author Shelagh Grant, discussed Canada’s arctic sovereignty on Nov. 29 in part of a series of lectures for Wilfrid Laurier University’s centennial celebrations.

Grant focused on the history of Canada’s claim over arctic territory. “[Sir Wilfrid] Laurier was the first Canadian prime minister to take sovereignty in to the arctic islands,” she explained.

As the arctic islands were transferred to the Dominion of Canada from the British government in 1880, Laurier’s reign as leader of the Liberal Party from 1887 and as prime minister from 1896 to 1911 represented integral years in establishing sovereignty in those regions.

Current disputes over the ocean itself for passage and access to the continental shelves with the fossil fuels they contain are the more contentious issues that exist.

“I was in the Hudson Strait in August and at one point we had four major commercial vessels within 20 miles of us,” said Byers, illustrating the traffic that is growing in the northern regions. “With this busy-ness comes the question of who will regulate these waters.”

With the decrease in sea ice in the arctic, particularly through the Northwest Passage, issues of sovereignty as well as climate change need to be addressed.
While Canada’s claim on the Northwest Passage is fairly secure, as the Inuit communities in those regions identify themselves as Canadian and therefore extend the country’s sovereignty, the security of those very communities is at risk.

“The Inuit used to live not just along the Northwest Passage but on the Northwest Passage,” explained Byers. “For nine, ten, 11 months of the year they hunted, fished, travelled, lived in igloos on the ice.” That very ice, he claimed, has depleted at rates much faster than the scientific community had predicted as a result of global warming.

Referring to his own experience in seeing climate change in the arctic, Byers commented on trips he has taken to Auyuittuq National Park.

“There is a glacier there that I’ve had the privilege of seeing in 2007, 2008 and 2010. Over those four summers I have watched that glacier disappear,” he said.
“Climate change historically happens in geological time, over thousands and thousands of years, it does not happen in a blink of an eye,” he added.

“The arctic is just one window in to the greatest collective call to action that our species has ever faced,” Byers concluded.

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