Professor Byers hold the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is a project leader with ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 27 Canadian universities and eight federal departments.
Jill Mahoney interviewed him with some very interesting questions; nonetheless, the most salient ones emerged from the polls concerning the Arctic security and the findings on Canadians views (See Poll).
Michael Byers: Asking people whether they support Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic is like asking if they’re happy when Canadian athletes win gold medals. It’s the ranking priority questions that provide the real insights into what Canadians think, for they ask people to choose between different priorities. We soon discover that some priorities are, well, less of a priority than others. For Northern Canadians, improved health, social and educational services dominate the top priorities (60% plus scores), the environmental, disaster relief and search-and-rescue dominate the middle priorities (38-53% scores), and increasing the military presence ranks dead last (24% score). For Southern Canadians, infrastructure, health care, education and the environment are the top Arctic priorities (58-69% scores), with disaster relief and housing in the middle (40-49% scores). An improved military presence scores just 34 percent, only one percent point above the lowest score. In short, Canadians get the new Northern reality. The principal challenges facing the Arctic are environmental (especially climate change and oil spills) and social (especially the health, housing and education needs of the Inuit and other indigenous peoples). They understand the Cold War is over, that cooperation – whether through the Arctic Council or bilaterally – is the new order of the day.
Michael Byers: Opposing Arctic sovereignty would be like opposing motherhood and maple syrup. So the opposition parties have decided to keep their heads down on this issue, rather than giving the Prime Minister more air time. Unfortunately, this denies Canadians the “market place of ideas” that is necessary for the development of good public policy. Mr. Harper gets to run with the issue, but there is no check-and-balance on the decisions he makes.
Jill Mahoney: Stephen Harper’s position on Arctic sovereignty has changed since he became Prime Minister. How would you characterize the Conservatives’ approach, both then and now?
Michael Byers: Initially, Mr. Harper’s Arctic policy was based on a “use it or lose it” approach that emphasized the acquisition of new military equipment and an antagonistic attitude towards Russia (remember the complaints about Russian bombers in international airspace). But last year, there was a marked shift towards a new emphasis on Northern development and an Arctic Foreign Policy Statement that commits Canada to supporting the Arctic Council and opening negotiations on our boundary disputes. It’s almost as if the government commissioned its own poll — similar to the one just released by the Munk School — that showed how Canadians are prioritizing human and environmental security in the North.
Michael Byers: Canada’s sovereignty is not disputed with respect to 99% of our Arctic land and water. We have only one land dispute over Hans Island, a 1.3 kilometer square rock halfway between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. And we have two maritime boundary disputes: a tiny one with Denmark (Greenland) in the Lincoln Sea; and a medium-sized one with the United States in the Beaufort Sea. As it happens, we’re negotiating with our neighbours on both those disputes now. As for northern development, it’s true that northern communities are currently dependent on fiscal transfers from the South. But this will soon change, with mining projects like the Baffinland iron ore mine at Mary River, Nunavut; the expansion of eco-tourism; and the development of the Northwest Passage into a major international shipping route – with both potential risks and benefits to communities along that waterway.
Jill Mahoney: Of the various disputes involving Canada, which has the most potential to be the most difficult?
Michael Byers: For more than two decades, Canada and the US have agreed-to-disagree over the status of the Northwest Passage. Canada argues that it constitutes internal waters subject to the full force of Canadian law; the US argues that it is an international strait open to foreign vessels without constraint. But thanks to a 1988 treaty negotiated by Brian Mulroney, the US is committed to notifying Canada whenever it wants to send an icebreaker through. The US also agrees that such voyages will not strengthen the US position on the status of the Passage. The 1988 treaty was all that was needed during the ice conditions that existed then. With thick, hard multi-year ice blocking the Passage, only powerful icebreakers could sail through. Now, climate change is changing all that, with dozens of vessels sailing through each summer. And the question therefore is: will Canada and the US be able to sit down again, re-evaluate their interests, and come to a new agreement? Unfortunately, no such meetings have taken place, because the Canadian government is terrified that even discussing the matter would somehow be seen as “selling out” on sovereignty.
Michael Byers: I can’t imagine that Canada and the US will send the Northwest Passage dispute to an international court, because that cedes control over the issue to foreign judges. Better, instead, to negotiate a compromise that benefits both countries. My preference is for Canada to invest heavily in improving the charts, navigation aids, ports of refuge, search-and-rescue and oil spill-cleanup capacity along the Northwest Passage to world class standards. Then, we invite foreign ships to use this infrastructure and thus recognize our sovereignty. This will also assure the US of our willingness to police the waterway and thus protect their interests there. In response to Peter, it’s the continuous voyages by foreign flag vessels that pose the sovereignty risk – if they do not seek Canada’s permission by registering their presence with the Coast Guard. Fortunately, all commercial vessels currently seek our permission. And again, the best way of ensuring that they continue to do so is to offer infrastructure and services that foreign shippers need.
Michael Byers: A Inuit friend of mine told her son about the title of my recent book: “Who Owns the Arctic?”. His reply, “Well, I do of course”. The Inuit have lived, hunted, fished and travelled on the ice of the Northwest Passage for thousands of years. This “historic use and occupation” is central to Canada’s sovereignty claim, which makes it all the more difficult to understand why the federal government hasn’t addressed the social, health and education crises that exist in the North. Fortunately, the Inuit aren’t waiting for Ottawa: they’re taking matters into their own hands by engaging in international diplomacy as “permanent participants” in the Arctic Council, cooperating closely with other Arctic indigenous peoples, and promoting tourism and other forms of sustainable economic development in the North.
It’s essential to remember that the only reason that we’re talking about the Arctic is because of climate change, which is melting the sea-ice at incredible speed and opening the region up to shipping. It’s important to discuss how we adapt to this reality, with investments in infrastructure, personnel and a new emphasis on cooperation with indigenous groups and foreign countries. But we must never, ever, lose sight of climate change, which if left unchecked will destroy the flora and fauna of the Arctic and uproot its peoples. It is on this issue, more than any other, where the Harper government is letting the Arctic down.
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