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Profiling Arctic Histories while Imagining Arctic Futures: Ensuring peace and safety North of 60?

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
9 November 2014 - 1:14pm

At this time of year many of us are thinking about the contributions and sacrifices of the Canadian forces over the last 100 years around the world. With recent attacks on military and political personnel at home, we are also considering the ways peace and safety are ensured in our own communities.

If we expand our understanding of peace and safety to include self-determination, food security, search and rescue services, and environmental protection - as many Indigenous (and other) peoples in Canada have articulated we must - the picture becomes more complicated... and important. For many Canadians, rights to distinct identity and language, nutrition and homes, justice and safety are relatively accessible, even if we all struggle with unexpected environmental crises in the short and long term.

What is Canada's responsibility to those who do not find these rights as easily accessible? What does history tell us about why Arctic peoples enjoy less security than those closer to the 49th parallel?

What services are warranted to protect peace and safety in our more isolated regions? Can history help us understand these issues and participate in addressing them? Here are some lines of possible inquiry:

History: Lately, the history of the loss of the Sir John Franklin expedition, the subsequent difficulty finding it, and the question of whether the HMS Erebus signifies anything important to Canadians has been a hot topic. Among other things, this raises the issue that travel (especially by boat) in the Arctic is often a matter of life and death. 

Present/Future: Conditions have not necessarily become any more hospitable in the Arctic Ocean (Canada's longest and oft-forgotten coast) even with better technology. In fact climate change makes conditions such as ice patterns unpredictable - adding a layer of challenge to everything that has been done in the past, including Inuit traditional knowledge about weather. Canadians are still waiting for new icebreakers - desperately needed and increasingly making us an embarrassment to our neighborsMapping and surveying the Arctic seabed to navigate between islands and ice shelves helped find the Franklin ship, but what is more important is that it provides Inuit hunters/travellers and search & rescue personnel with information when they are in dire need. This investment is well overdue.


History: Relations between Canada, the US and Russia over the North Pole were so frigid in the post-WWII period that distant early warning monitoring sites were set up across the Arctic. The American presence in the Arctic contributed to bringing the Canadian welfare state to the North and subsequent colonization of Inuit. Russian submarines have visited our waters for years. We thought the Cold War was over... is it?  

Present/Future: At a high diplomatic level - but hardly anywhere else - we seem to talk continuously about contemporary Canadian sovereignty and sharing international waters. Are our waters and territories vulnerable to other circumpolar states? One thing is for certain: this discourse often presents Indigenous perspectives on the topic as a mere shadow to international state relations and policies. The big powers continue to posture while Arctic residents receive lip service, as suggested in a recent speech by Terry Audla, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Canadians are not responding adequately to the implementation of Indigenous rights agreed to through land claims at home, and we are not profiling Indigenous agreements in, and with, other circumpolar countries.


History: I wonder if the history of the Exxon Valdez spill is less familiar to Canadians than to Alaskans?

Present/Future: Questions of access to the Arctic and Northwest Passage for shipping oil and gas, among other things, raises anxiety over our ability to provide emergency response. Recent reports present worrisome findings: wdo not have the capacity to respond to an environmental crisis, such as a spill by an international cargo ship in the Northwest Passage. On another environmental topic, recently an unprecedented reconciliation-of-sorts between an Inuit community (Clyde River) and Greenpeace, following many years of dispute over seal hunting, raises the profile of conflict over seismic testing in the Arctic. These are key issues in the health and wellbeing of Arctic peoples and the environment that we all depend on.


History: Search and rescue personnel (professional and community volunteers) put their lives at risk regularly in the Arctic, and unfortunately some have died on duty. If you follow any Arctic news you know that search and rescue is a huge responsibility and involves huge investment of funds

Present/Future: The Canadian government does not practice cost recovery with wealthy tourists from outside Canada. Yet, it also does not provide adequate search and rescue services - both in terms of financial resources and human resources. Risks could be minimized with the right training and equipment. We must clarify what is expected of military, search and rescue, and other personnel - including Canadian Arctic Rangers - tasked with protecting other Canadians. And provide them with adequate supports.


The issues above warrant greater discussion about what Canadians expect, and are willing to invest in, so that our Arctic shores offer residents and visitors the type of peace and safety to which they are entitled.

When we hear from the federal Conservatives on these issues, it is difficult to know what is being said in the interests of Arctic Canadians and Arctic visitors, and what is being said in support of Harper’s partisan political agenda, and what is being said amidst massive confusion - perhaps there is a heavy dose of persistent historical ignorance on all fronts?

We don't have much excuse to be uneducated on these issues, considering how large a role the Arctic may play in our shared Canadian future - not to mention the role it has played in our past. In particular, Canadians might listen better and more often to the expressed needs of Arctic residents. Perhaps advocacy and engagement with federal Arctic policies will better reflect the views of those who live there - and those who believe Canada should stand behind its commitments to peace, security and land claims/treaty rights within our shared territories and waters.

For more resources on the Arctic, check out:

Arctic Yearbook


Arctic Council

Inuit Circumpolar Council

Arctic Studies Centre

Canadian Polar Commission

Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation

Northern Public Affairs

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami


Photo Credit: Heather McGregor