Canada's Claim to Its North
Canada's claim to its North rests first on the charter granted to the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY by Charles II in 1670, giving the company title to RUPERT'S LAND (the watershed of Hudson Bay, or about half of present-day Canada). To this in 1821 was added the rest of the present-day Northwest Territories and Nunavut south of the arctic coast. Thus when in June 1870 the HBC transferred title to its lands to Canada, the new Dominion acquired sovereignty over all of the present-day Northwest Territories and Nunavut except for the arctic islands. This sovereignty has never been questioned.
Where doubt has risen over Canada's claims to arctic sovereignty is in the islands north of the Canadian mainland. Some of the early explorers here were British (Martin FROBISHER, 1576, John DAVIS, 1585 and 1587, and others) but many of these islands were discovered and explored by Scandinavians or Americans. In July 1880 the British government transferred to Canada the rest of its possessions in the Arctic, including "all Islands adjacent to any such Territories" whether discovered or not - a feeble basis for a claim of sovereignty, since the British had a dubious right to give Canada islands which had not yet been discovered, or which had been discovered by foreigners. The Colonial Boundaries Act of 1895 attempted to alleviate these doubts, but still contained a vague definition of the territory claimed.
Meanwhile, although Americans made no formal claims, they were particularly active around ELLESMERE ISLAND. Lieutenant A. Greely led a scientific expedition in 1881-84, and in 1909 Robert Peary reached the NORTH POLE from his base on northern Ellesmere. The greatest danger to Canada's claims came from the expedition of Otto SVERDRUP, who between 1898-1902 discovered Axel Heiberg, Ellef Ringnes and Amund Ringnes islands - the first person (including the Inuit) to set foot on them. All his discoveries, about 275 000 km2, he claimed for Norway. Other large arctic islands were also discovered by non-British explorers.
Beginning in the 1880s the Canadian government sponsored periodic voyages to the eastern Arctic in order to establish a presence there in support of its claims. Beginning in 1897 a series of arctic patrols was begun, as Captain W. Wakeham raised the flag on Kekerton Island, claiming "Baffin's Land" for the Dominion. In 1904 A.P. LOW sailed up to Cape Herschel on Ellesmere Island, which he mapped and claimed for Canada. Captain J.-E. BERNIER carried out numerous voyages between 1904 and 1925. Perhaps the most important was that of 1909, when he set up a plaque on Melville Island, claiming the ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO for Canada, from the mainland to the North Pole.
In the western Arctic from 1913-18, Vilhjalmur STEFANSSON discovered the last of the arctic islands and claimed them for Canada. But these symbolic acts of raising flags and erecting plaques carried little weight in international law since they were not accompanied by effective occupation or administration.
Unquestionable Canadian Sovereignty
The first vigorous assertion of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic came with the establishment of a NWMP post at HERSCHEL ISLAND in 1903; set up to control the activities of American whalers in the Western Arctic, it enforced Canadian laws and showed the flag in the region, making Canada's sovereignty there unquestionable.
After WWI the Americans and Danes showed signs of ignoring Canada's claims to the High Arctic, particularly to Ellesmere Island, which the Danish government stated in 1919 was a no-man's land. This was a direct challenge to Canada's arctic sovereignty, and was met by a plan for effective occupation of Ellesmere and other islands. In 1922 an RCMP post was established at Craig Harbour
Though there were no Canadians living within hundreds of kilometres of Bache peninsula, the RCMP operated a post office there (mail delivery was once a year), because operation of a post office was an internationally recognized proof of sovereignty. The RCMP also continued its extensive patrols; on Ellesmere Island, where there was no population, these were exploratory.
On Baffin Island the police visited each Inuit camp annually, took the census, explained the law and reported to Ottawa on local conditions - all demonstrations of sovereignty. Where necessary they enforced the criminal law, as in the murder of the Newfoundland trader Robert Janes near Pond Inlet in 1920. This activity further strengthened Canada's claims to the Arctic. In 1931 Norway formally abandoned its claim to the SVERDRUP ISLANDS and Ottawa paid Sverdrup $67 000 for the records of his expeditions (1930). This made Canada's formal claim secure.
Present-day Controversy over Arctic Sovereignty
Current controversy arises from 2 causes. First, though Canada's claim to its arctic land area is now secure, the fact that large areas are uninhabited and virtually undefended raises the possibility that it may not be secure forever. Second, and more important, is that there is international consensus only about the land area; the channels and straits - particularly the NORTHWEST PASSAGE - are not universally recognized as Canadian.
Canada regards the channels and straits as internal waters through which foreign vessels must request permission to pass. With the prospect of bringing home oil from arctic discoveries off Alaska, the US has increasingly seen them as international waters, open to all, and has demonstrated this belief by sending the oil tankers Manhattan (1969) and the Polar Sea (1985) into Canada's Arctic without permission. There is a legal case to be made on both sides, and Canada has offered to submit the matter to the International Court of Justice.
The outcry in Canada over these 2 voyages might be taken to indicate that Canadians care deeply about the Arctic. More likely it is a manifestation of Canadian nationalism (or anti-Americanism) that basically has little to do with an active interest in the region, for as soon as the danger passes, Canadians return to their habit of ignoring the NORTH. As a result of the 1985 voyage of the Polar Sea, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark put forward plans for a new $500 million ICEBREAKER. It fell victim to cost-cutting and was never built. In 1987 the government also announced that it would build and station nuclear-powered submarines in arctic waters, but this has as much to do with Canada's role in continental defence as with sovereignty.
After much fanfare and political wrangling, the plan to build or buy submarines was quietly abandoned. In early 1996 another plan to patrol the Arctic waters by submarine was abandoned as too expensive. Some of the strong emotions stirred by the issue result from a genuine concern for the fragile arctic environment, but they may also contain an element of guilt; Canadians, while promising to stand on guard for the "True North, strong and free," have been reluctant to display a real commitment to the region.
Author W.R. MORRISON
Links to Other Sites
A brief profile of Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, whose northern voyages helped Canada establish its sovereignty over vast regions of the Arctic. From the Musée maritime du Québec.
Canadian Coast Guard
The official website of the Canadian Coast Guard. Through the Canadian Coast Guard, Canada exerts its influence over its water and its coasts and delivers on public expectations of clean, safe, secure, healthy and productive waters and coastlines.
Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea
The website for the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Covers navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, legal status of resources on the seabed, passage of ships through narrow straits, conservation and management of living marine resources, and more. Search this site for data related to Canadian sovereignty issues.
North Circumpolar Region
View a map of the Arctic region from a vantage point above the North Pole. From the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas.
A multimedia feature about Hans Island in the eastern High Arctic region. Includes maps, photos, and the latest news about Hans Island. From the website for "Canadian Geographic."
This article from the journal “NATURE” focuses on the extent of glaciation at the northern margin of the Canadian/Greenland high-latitude Arctic region over the past 30,000 years. Includes a map showing location of Hans Island.
Major Northwest Passage Exeditions and Explorers
This site offers brief accounts of various European expeditions to North America in search of the Northwest Passage. From the website "Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage," Princeton University.
Northern People, Northern Knowledge
An exceptional collection of rare film clips, photographs and documents from the controversial Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918, the first multi-disciplinary scientific expedition to the Canadian Arctic. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America
See excerpts from Shelagh D. Grant's book that examines challenges to Canadian sovereignty over Arctic territory. From Google Books.
Discovering “everything of value” in Canada’s North
This article chronicles the centuries-old search for the Northwest Passage. Scroll down to page 39 for the article. From “Diplomat & International Canada.” A PDF file.
The Muskox Patrol: High Arctic Sovereignty Revisited
A 2003 article about the role of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the Canadian government’s quest to secure international recognition of its claims to sovereignty over the High Arctic islands. Includes photos of the ship “Beothic,” the Dundas Harbour RCMP Detachment, and more. From the Arctic Institute of North America.
The discovery of the North-West Passage
This site features notes and images from "The discovery of the North-West Passage by H.M.S. “Investigator”... edited by Commander Sherard Osborn...from the logs and journals of Capt. Robert LeM. M’Clure. London, 1856." Images by artist Lt. Samuel Gurney Cresswell. From the Toronto Public Library.
Terra Incognita: Exploration of the Canadian Arctic
A multimedia historical retrospective of 19th and early 20th century expeditions to the Canadian Arctic. From the McCord Museum of Canadian History.
This article offers a glimpse into scientific research and military activities centred around Canadian Forces Station Alert, located at the northern tip of the most northerly island in Canada's Arctic Archipelago. From “Canadian Geographic” magazine.
Polar Imperative and Beyond
A lecture delivered by Shelagh Grant, recipient of the Lionel Gelber Prize for her book, "Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America." From the Munk Centre for Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
Maritime jurisdiction and boundaries in the Arctic region
This map depicts possible boundaries of maritime jurisdiction in the Arctic region. From International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University in the UK.
Bernier Of The North
A profile of explorer Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, whose vogages helped establish Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic region. From the Legion Magazine.
Research boosts Canada's Arctic claim
A news article about scientific research that can support Canada's claims for extended undersea jurisdiction in the Western Arctic hinge. A canada.com website.
New map of Arctic could point to Canadian gas, minerals
A CBC News article about research related to potential mineral and petroleum resources in the North as well as Arctic sovereignty issues.
Time to herald our northern coast?
A news story about proposals to modify Canada's motto so that it recognizes Canada's northern coast, a change that could strengthen Canadian sovereignty claims in the Arctic. From thestar.com.
Inuit were moved 2,000 km in Cold War manoeuvring
This news feature chronicles the outcomes of the federal government's 1950's relocation of the Inuit to the High Arctic wastelands of Ellesmere and Cornwallis Islands, 2,000 kilometres from their home.
Science and Sovereignty
Watch a CBC News story about Canadian scientists working to define the boundaries of Canada's northern continental shelf.
World first: Canada searches for Sir John Franklin’s rescue ship
A news story about a search for the HMS Investigator shipwreck in the Arctic. From thestar.com.
Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America
An interview with historian and professor Shelagh Grant about her book "Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America." From D&M Publishers.
Canada's Arctic Submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf
See an online copy of a report about Canada’s submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf concerning the boundaries of the outer continental shelves of Arctic states. From the Canadian Political Science Association.
Canada’s Maritime Security: A Guide to the Issues
An article about Canada’s maritime security from the Atlantic Council of Canada.
Canadian Arctic Sovereignty: Time To Take Yes for an Answer on the Northwest Passage
An academic paper that examines Canadian jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage and related issues. From the website for the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
Canada, Russia will share Arctic riches, scientist predicts
A news story about the possibility of Canada gaining seabed rights to about 800,000 square kilometres of sub-surface territory in the Arctic. From the Ottawa Citizen.