In The Media

Liberals continue Conservative quest for North Pole

by by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. Joël Plouffe)

February 17, 2016

Canadian researchers will return to the Arctic for a third time this summer to gather data for its continental shelf claim, Global Affairs Canada says—the one that will eventually determine who has dibs on seabed at the North Pole.

Canada has spent hefty sums on the expeditions. Last summer’s trip alone cost $20 million. The data were commissioned by Stephen Harper’s government after Canada reeled back an already-prepared claim that did not include the North Pole in December 2013.

Instead of submitting the finished document, which had been a decade in the making, Canada stalled at the 11th hour, saying it would provide a submission in the fulness of time. A retired expert from the Geological Survey of Canada called this “the way science is done in totalitarian regimes.”

“We’re spending money, millions of dollars, to send scientists and put their lives in danger to do this work,” Joël Plouffe, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said.

Before the about-face from Canada, most submissions had been developed based on shared expeditions and data-gathering trips with other countries. “We actually surprised a lot of our neighbours” by going off on our own, he said.

It gave Canadians the impression the Arctic region is in a tug-of-war, when really, “Canadians don’t know there is a legal, peaceful process going on,” he added.

“The current government would have an interest in highlighting that.”

Preliminary data says Pole belongs to Canada

GAC confirmed Feb. 16, however, that the work the previous Conservative government started is still going ahead under the Liberals. Spokesperson John Babcock called the continental shelf submissions a “lengthy and detailed process.”

“Canada’s forthcoming Arctic submission is expected to have overlaps with our neighbours. This is a normal part of the process and means that we will eventually need to divide these overlaps by delimiting a boundary,” said Mr. Babcock.

“Canada will prepare a submission on the outer limits of the continental shelf in the Arctic that is based on science. Preliminary scientific data shows that Canada’s outer limits will include the North Pole. The collection and analysis of scientific data to support the submission is ongoing.”

Russia submitted an updated claim to the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf last week, which includes the North Pole. Not a peep came from the Canadian government.

“If it were the previous government, I’m sure there would’ve been chest-beating and bolts of lightning from the [Prime Minister’s Office] on that,” said John Higginbotham, a senior distinguished fellow at Carleton University and at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

“They were too occupied about relaunching their foreign policy or defence approach to the Middle East. But there’s nothing much to be said at this point, other than let the actual mechanisms do their work and the scientists do their work,” said Mr. Plouffe.

Experts expect Liberals to trust science

The pairing of scientific data with the North Pole claim wasn’t so explicit under the previous government, experts say.

If scientific evidence ends up indicating that Canada should stop claiming exclusive access to the H0H 0H0 postal code, the government likely won’t dispute that for the sake of rhetoric.

Some experts have long argued that the extension of Canada’s territorial line goes to the west of the North Pole, reason enough to abandon the claim. Mr. Higginbotham said he agrees with this interpretation.

“I think it’s basically a symbolic issue. I don’t think we’ll hear more of that claim from this government,” he said.

Greg Poelzer, the executive chair of the University of Saskatchewan’s International Centre for Northern Governance and Development, was in Finland last week with scholars from Canada and other Arctic countries.

He speculated that Canada would, at the very least, be less bullish than the previous government on claiming the North Pole.

Based on the “hallway talk,” he said it seems no one expects Canada to be in a hurry for its submission. With oil prices going down and the world focused on climate change mitigation, the so-called scramble for the Arctic seems to be on pause—nobody is talking, anymore, about an urgency to carve up the Arctic for oil and natural gas resources present in the seabed.

“At the end of the day, how the borders are going to be delineated is going to be through negotiation. But the reality is, honestly, having a claim of the North Pole itself is not really of anyone’s vital interest,” he said.

“That wouldn’t surprise me, if this current government was not so assertive over that portion of the claim.”

It will likely be a few years before we see the results of Canada’s North Pole adventures, however, and years more—even decades—before the UN commission makes its recommendations and governments decide on the boundaries once and for all.

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