Canada & the Race for the North

By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada (DSC_7816 – Ice Cube Maker!), via Wikimedia Commons

Ninety billion. That’s the amount of oil, in barrels, that is estimated to be resting underneath the North Pole today. That’s only part of part of the picture. In addition to the oil, the US Geological Survey concluded that there is also an estimated 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas trapped in the Arctic. Add this untapped reservoir of resources with the fact that the polar ice caps are slowly melting, it doesn’t take long to realize that the Arctic may be donning a particularly new appeal for countries that surround it. With Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway, and Russia all laying geographical claim to the land, the battle to own the North Pole may very well be the world’s new modern-day arms race.

The geopolitical significance of the region is not lost upon Canada’s newly elected Prime Minster. In a recent interview this past March with Huffington Post, Trudeau stated “Well, everybody knows that the North Pole is in Canada,” a comment which received more than a few chuckles due to its cheekiness. The statement was in response to Vladimir Putin’s claims that Russia has the right to exert economic control over nearly half a million square miles of the Arctic Ocean.

This idea of boasting ownership over the North is not anything new. Two years ago, scientists in Denmark publicly stated that the “Lomonosov ridge is the natural extension of the Greenland shelf.” The United States has laid claim to the territory through the far-reaching state of Alaska, and Norway has made a claim to an area that has also been declared by Russia to belong to them instead. When it comes down to it, regardless of political moves, power plays, and shows of passive aggressive ownership (i.e, Russia planting a flag on the seabed of the North Pole in 2007), the question of which country will claim Santa’s home town ultimately will depend on science.

Mapping, calculations, and oceanographic evidence is what the United Nations will use to vet submissions by countries that claim territorial rights. Canada submitted its own bid to the UN, spending nearly 120 million dollars to map parts of the Arctic that could be proven to connect to Canada’s continental shelf. However, regardless of the fact that science will play the key role in deciding ownership, no one country is seemingly ready to back down and each nation is respectively preparing themselves to be the front-runners in the race. Where preparation is concerned, Canada is falling behind.

As it stands, Canada’s icebreaking fleet consists of two heavy icebreakers and four medium icebreakers. Only two of these ships are younger than thirty years which, frankly, makes Canada’s fleet dated and abysmally small compared to the likes of Russia. Not only does Russia already have 36 ships, the Federation is constructing nuclear and modernized icebreakers to add to its portfolio. Even countries that aren’t in the bidding to attain ownership of the North Pole have greater capacity than Canada to protect and explore it. Sweden and Finland, who often share their icebreakers, have 15 ships in total, and even China – a country that has no geographical connection to the North Pole – has constructed and commissioned modern icebreakers as recently as January of this year.

Despite efforts to catch up, Canada continues to lag. A few years ago, the government had announced a $39 billion national shipbuilding procurement strategy to update and build new ships, but as of December of 2015, the government began to cite budget and improper estimation issues. Certain projects are now on the verge of being cancelled. The reason why this matters is because if Canada cannot modernize its fleet, it essentially will not be able to properly monitor any commercial activity related to shipping or drilling. In a period of history where countries are hungry for the North Pole, Canada has almost taken a back seat. For example, in an attempt to further integrate themselves with matters of the North, Chinese diplomats have been collaborating with Nordic countries to assist with Polar Research Projects. Where Canada is concerned, the Director of The Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration Mr. Qu said that collaboration is “comparatively less” even though the Chinese are open to it. In fact, it has been so minimal that it has resorted to espionage. A Canadian-Chinese man in 2013 was arrested for attempting to pass confidential information to the Chinese government about Canada’s Arctic patrol ships, an assertion that China has denied involvement in fervently. However, the fact remains that, to other nations, Canada’s involvement in the Arctic appears minimal and closed-off.  

Ultimately, the Arctic is important to Canada. It is important for environmental reasons, climate reasons, and for the controversial amount of resources stored under its surface. What’s also important is that Canada needs to refocus its strategy regarding the North. It is not enough to simply claim ownership of the North Pole and place a bid for the region. Rather, there needs to be a proper investment in the modernization of fleets, research, and capacity to preserve it. In a meeting with Obama on March 11, 2016 Trudeau pledged to make the long-term health of the Arctic a priority. Only time will tell if Canada will be able to catch up fast enough to do so.

Sarah Israr (2 Posts)

Sarah Israr is a published writer and freelance journalist. Having completed an Honors Bachelor of Arts in Business and English Literature at the University of Toronto, she has developed a keen interest in technology, cybersecurity, and foreign policy. Her work as a reporter has been published in the South China Morning Post’s country business reports, and her literary pursuits have been recognized by the University of Toronto which awarded her the Sonny Ladoo Book Prize award in 2014. Trilingual, and having lived in three continents by the age of ten, she is an avid traveler and is infinitely passionate about ethical consumption and sustainable change.


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