Saturday, February 19, 2011

Polar Imperative

Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America

By Shelagh D. Grant
Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Canada's sovereignty over its Arctic territory has been a hot-button issue of late, the more so under the government of Steven Harper. The sight of live-fire interdiction drills, flag-plantings on Hans Island, and the flying of a government minister for a live video at the site of the rediscovery of HMS Investigator in Mercy Bay are all signs of how central the issue has become. And yet, while willing to put out a good deal of money and resources for such shows of force, the federal government of Canada has shown much less interest in supporting the social and infrastructure needs of its Arctic inhabitants, particularly the Inuit. How did this state of affairs come about?

With her new book, Polar Imperative, Shelagh D. Grant provides an eloquent and well-documented answer. And, as it turns out, the Harper government is far from the first in Canadian history to discover in the issue of sovereignty a convenient, seemingly innocent vehicle for political advantage. First, however, Grant lays out the kinds of legal and political arguments which have evolved in the field of international law, and without which "sovereignty" as such cannot be understood. There are many ways a claim of sovereignty can be made; prominent among them are discovery (I was here first), cession (you can have it, I don't want it), subjugation (I conquered it), and contiguity (it's in the midst of lands I already claim). One might think, given all the flag-plantings, that discovery was the strongest claim, but it practice is can be the weakest; land discovered but not occupied, or without the effective exercise of control, may be deemed "inchoate" -- undeveloped or temporary -- and thus liable to the claims of others who may, in fact, come much later.

Then comes the history; Grant offers both a panoramic view and a number of illustrative episodes of the most significant turning points in Canada's, and other nations, Arctic claims. It turns out that Canada has acquired its northern lands by nearly all of the above means: British explorers discovered it; having done so they then ceded it to Canada; Ellesmere Island, though in parts first discovered by Americans, lost its claims there because Canada both occupied them and exercised control. Indeed, Canada's two most northerly outposts, Resolute and Grise Fiord, were both established in order to cement claims of sovereignty. They were also settled, forcibly, when the Canadian government took a number of Inuit families, urged them on with false promises, and then abandoned them. Grant briefly mentions these "High Arctic Exiles," as well as native groups used in a similar manner, but I was disappointed that the larger dimensions of the injustice -- what a nation will do to people in order to wave its flag -- seemed so briefly passed over.

There is, of course, a lot of ground to cover; Grant's narrative stretches from Frobisher's voyage to the D.E.W. line to the era of Russia's underwater flag-scatterings a few years ago. Along the way, there are some fascinating diplomatic dramas, such as the British government's lengthy attempt to "give" the Arctic sea islands north of Barrow Strait to Canada, a move that bounced back and forth through several governments on both sides of the Atlantic before it finally came to pass. Grant touches on the search for Franklin, as well as the later dash for "farthest north," and how these narratives became part of a perceived claim -- by loss of life, as well as discovery -- of the Arctic as a region with a particular role in Canada's history and identity. Here, alas, there are a few errors of fact: Sir Francis Leopold McClintock was never a "whaling captain," and his 1858-59 expedition, although "private" at its outset, was retroactively deemed to have been a period of active service in Her Majesty's Navy. It's a slight, mistake, though in a narrative where "private" and "public" can make such a difference, it's significant.

Nevertheless, the book as a whole is expertly documented and eminently readable. My personal favourites tend toward the grand delusions, none of them more extravagant than the United States' attempt to create a permanent subterranean settlement, "Camp Tuto," deep inside year-round glacial ice; the station was to be powered by a nuclear power plant, and featured tunnels large enough to drive enormous trucks through them. The plan had to be abandoned when shifts in the glacial ice made it clear it could never be stable. Canada, for its part, attempted to establish its own Arctic fortress at Resolute, connecting the oversize airport to the town and Inuit settlement area with a graded highway, under which ran an enormous "Utilidor" pipe, capable of carrying enough raw materials, electricity, water, and fuel for a settlement twenty times its size. Neither side, ultimately, entirely realized their cold-war era dreams, although Thule AFB was built, and the Inughuit inhabitants displaced -- another injustice which has been found illegal by the world court, but the United States refuses to recognize. And this, in the end, is the problem with sovereignty: it turns out that the body of international law on which it is supposedly founded is often in conflict with the views of various nations, and yet these nations cannot be compelled to accept international judgments.

At the present moment, for instance, Canada's sovereignty is under no real threat; though the U.S. and others may believe the Northwest Passage to be an international waterway, they still go through the motions of asking to use it; though the Russians may scatter little titanium flags on the floor of the Arctic Ocean near the Pole, they as yet have shown no sign of searching for resources there (although contracts are being signed for their Arctic oil reserves closer to the mainland). Canadians, at least, should be able to sleep a bit better at night, the more so if this book is on their nightstand. By showing the long history of the vagaries of Arctic sovereignty, Grant's book makes it clear that these fears and posturings are nothing new, and in this case at least, the more we know about this history, the less likely we are to hit the panic button when next it rears its head.