Arctic sovereignty is a key part of Canada’s history and future — 40 per cent of the country’s landmass is in its three northern territories, and the country has 162,000 kilometers of Arctic coastline. Sovereignty over the area has become a national priority for Canadians in the 21st century, thanks to growing international interest in the Arctic due to resource development, climate change, control of the Northwest Passage and access to transportation routes. Said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008: “The geopolitical importance of the Arctic and Canada’s interests in it have never been greater."

International Law

A country's claim to sovereignty over land or sea depends on the complexities of international law. Among generally accepted proofs of sovereignty are discovery of territory, the ceding of territory from one nation to another, conquest, and administration. Central to the idea of European sovereignty over North American territory was the historical notion that Aboriginal people have no legal title to the land they live in — they do not "own" it — but merely have Aboriginal rights, particularly "usufructuary," or the rights to use the land and its products.

In recent years, however, the Canadian Government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has argued that the long-time presence of Inuit and other Aboriginal peoples in Canada's Arctic territories has helped establish Canada's historic title to those lands.

Canada's Claim to North

Canada's claim to its North rests first on the charter granted to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) 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). In 1821, the rest of the present-day Northwest Territories and Nunavut south of the Arctic coast were added to the HBC charter. When the company transferred title to its lands to Canada in June 1870, 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 the rest of its possessions in the Arctic to Canada, 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 via the expedition of Otto Sverdrup, who between 1898-1902 discovered Axel Heiberg, Ellef Ringnes and Amund Ringnes islands. Sverdrup is believed to be the first person (including the Inuit) to set foot on them. All his discoveries — about 275 000 square kilometers — he claimed for Norway. Other large Arctic islands were also discovered by non-British explorers.

Hans Island

In recent years, Canada and Denmark have argued over a tiny, uninhabited island — a 1.3 km barren piece of rock halfway between Ellesmere Island and Greenland known as Hans Island. Officials from both countries have travelled to Hans Island to raise flags and the two countries have spent years negotiating over the island. In 2005, both sides agreed to work together to settle the territorial dispute.

Early Voyages and Bernier

In the 1880s, the Canadian government sponsored periodic voyages to the eastern Arctic in order to establish a presence there in support of its territorial claims. In 1897, a series of Arctic patrols began, as Captain W. Wakeham raised the Canadian 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.

Police Posts Established

The first vigorous assertion of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic came with the establishment of a North-West Mounted Police (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 the First World War, 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 a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) post was established at Craig Harbour and at the south end of the island, and at Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. In 1923, another detachment was placed at Pangnirtung, and in 1924 at Dundas Harbour, on Devon Island. In 1926, the Bache Peninsula detachment was established on the east coast of Ellesmere Island, at 79° N latitude.

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. In 1929, a patrol commanded by Inspector A.H. Joy covered 3,000 km by dog team. Some new land was discovered. In 1928, Constable T.C. Makinson discovered the large inlet off Smith Sound which now bears his name.

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.

Controversy over Arctic Sovereignty

Though Canada's claim to its Arctic land area is now secure, the fact that large sections are uninhabited and virtually undefended raises the possibility that it may not be secure forever. More important is the fact 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 United States has increasingly seen the Northwest Passage as international waters, open to all, and has demonstrated this belief by sending the oil tanker Manhattan (1969) and the United States Coast Guard Ship Polar Sea (1985) into Canada's Arctic. The Manhattan was escorted through the Northwest Passage with the help of Canadian and American icebreakers. And although the U.S. didn't officially seek permission for the Polar Sea voyage from the Canadian government, Canada was notified about the event. Both countries co-operated on the matter, and Canada stationed official observers on board during the voyage.

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.

In 2010 the federal government announced plans to build a fleet of six to eight "ice-capable, Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships," to enforce Canada's sovereignty on all of its coasts, including the Arctic. As of 2014 the Canadian Coast Guard also operated a fleet of six icebreakers — including two heavy ice-breakers, the CCGS Louis St. Laurent (built in 1969) and the CCGS Terry Fox (1983), both based on the East Coast — for work in the Arctic.