This story was included in our November 2023 issue, devoted to some of the best writing The Walrus has published. You’ll find the rest of our selections here.

Direct, unsparingly honest, and delivered with her signature wit, Mary Simon’s 2007 essay on Arctic sovereignty lays out Canada’s failings in the North. While many of the details have changed, her argument still holds up: the government isn’t doing enough. There continues to be a shortage of affordable, good-quality housing. The Nanisivik Naval Facility, an Arctic deepwater port announced in 2007, is expected to open in 2025, more than a decade behind schedule. Meanwhile, the effects of the climate crisis and security threats caused by competing geopolitical interests have become more acute.

Lisa Qiluqqi Koperqualuk, Inuit Circumpolar Council vice chair and the president of ICC Canada, acknowledges that while there is a lot of work to be done, there is a growing understanding in Canada that Inuit and other Indigenous groups need to be involved in decisions that affect them. “Sovereignty is using our knowledge in an equitable and ethical manner,” she says, “where we are completely engaged in all aspects of research and policy making and political decisions.” Simon now serves as Canada’s governor general, representing the country’s sovereign. “That is saying, ‘Look, we are here,’” says Koperqualuk. “We are part of and equal to you.” —Samia Madwar, senior editor, November 2023 issue

For generations, Canadians have professed to be a “people of the North.” The reality, however, is that the Arctic has been on the margins of Canadian consciousness. This is about to change, not because there has been a radical shift in the Canadian collective consciousness but rather because the Arctic has become a geopolitical hot potato.

Climate change and sovereignty have parachuted the region into the media spotlight. Increasingly, the average Canadian sees the Arctic as being at risk from the devastating impact of climate change, the implications of which will be felt in every backyard. All of a sudden, control of the Arctic and the famed Northwest Passage—the stuff of poetry and lore—might fall into the hands of others!

At the same time, the federal government has backed away from commitments to Inuit (along with First Nations and Métis) by not pursuing the historic Kelowna Accord, which was to inject long-promised and much-needed funding into critical infrastructure and programs to improve living conditions for Inuit. Key among these was substantive funding for housing, where overcrowding and hidden homelessness are rampant. Kelowna promised 1,200 housing units over five years. These vanished when the Liberal government fell. The current government did earmark $200 million for new housing in Nunavut, but it has not provided the needed funding in other regions where Inuit are located. Similarly, $1.3 billion for Indigenous health care and $1.8 billion for education have not been provided.

Canada is sending mixed signals about its commitments to the Arctic. The federal Conservatives have done away with our ambassador for circumpolar affairs, shelved the Northern Strategy initiative launched by the Martin Liberals, missed opportunities to build vital scientific research infrastructure, which could have been a legacy of the International Polar Year, downgraded Canada’s attendance at the 2006 Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Salekhard, Russia, and backed away from election promises to build heavy icebreakers.

For the past half century, Arctic sovereignty crises have appeared every ten to fifteen years. The building of the Alaska Highway during World War II led Mackenzie King to write in his diary that it was like the finger of a giant American hand reaching for the Arctic. In the 1950s, Cold War concerns about Soviet attacks forced Canada to get into bed with the US to build the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radar system.

Then came the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968, prompting the US to send the supertanker Manhattan through the Northwest Passage in 1969 and again in 1970. The Central Intelligence Agency published an atlas in the early 1970s that labelled the Beaufort Sea of “undetermined” ownership. In August 1985, the US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea voyaged through the Northwest Passage without permission from the Canadian government. Canada and the US also have an ongoing dispute over the maritime boundary between Alaska and the Yukon in the Beaufort Sea. Each side has claimed authority to issue oil-and-gas leases in the disputed area. In 2005, Canada got into a flap with Denmark—a new chapter in an old story—over claims to tiny Hans Island in the Nares Strait between northern Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Now, with the advent of climate change, the period between crises appears to be shortening. It has been only a few years since the Hans Island episode, and Canada is again in crisis-response mode over Russia’s planting of a flag on the ocean bottom at the North Pole.

Why is Canada prone to these crises? After all, Canada is a northern nation, with full sovereignty over its Arctic waters and territories, right? We become indignant when anyone suggests otherwise. Prime minister Stephen Harper confirmed this recently: “Even Canadians who have never been north of sixty feel it. It’s embedded in our history, our literature, our art, our music, and our Canadian soul. That’s why we react so strongly when other countries show disrespect for our sovereignty over the Arctic.”

The key word here is “react.” If we look back over the past century, it is clear that Canada has rarely been out in front on the Arctic sovereignty issue. Instead, federal politicians have typically been caught in frenzies of chest thumping in response to the actions of other states. This points to the embarrassing reality that we have been asleep at our posts when it comes to Arctic affairs.

The Manhattan voyage led to urgent legislative action: the enactment of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, which was intended to demonstrate control, on paper at least. The preamble to the act states:

Parliament . . . recognizes and is determined to fulfil its obligation to see that the natural resources of the Canadian arctic are developed and exploited and the arctic waters adjacent to the mainland and islands of the Canadian arctic are navigated only in a manner that takes cognizance of Canada’s responsibility for the welfare of the Inuit and other inhabitants of the Canadian arctic and the preservation of the peculiar ecological balance that now exists in the water, ice and land areas of the Canadian arctic . . .

Fine words indeed, but statements of principle do not secure sovereignty.

Similarly, the Polar Sea episode in September 1985 led to an announcement by the then secretary of state for external affairs, Joe Clark, about measures to strengthen Canada’s claim to Arctic waters, specifically the drawing of baselines around the Arctic Archipelago to delineate Canadian internal and territorial waters. Clark also announced increased aerial surveillance and naval patrols and spoke of Canada’s intention to build a class-eight polar icebreaker. In January 1988, Canada signed an agreement with the US on Arctic cooperation.

The current iteration is the “use it or lose it” tour by prime minister Harper, which accompanied announcements of a deepwater port at Nanisivik and an army training base at Resolute Bay. What does Harper mean? Have Inuit not been using the region for millennia? Amid the latest round of promises, has Canada forgotten the northern governments and Indigenous institutions that have been negotiating and implementing arrangements for the better governance of the Arctic for the past thirty-five years? Harper seems genuine, but Canada’s interest must be sustained through comprehensive policy development, infrastructure development, and investment in the people of this region. We cannot continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Luckily for Canada, Inuit are always here. Without Inuit, could we really claim to be masters of the Arctic house? Probably not. Ultimately, the Arctic sovereignty issue will depend on people, not ports or training facilities or military exercises. If Canada is to secure a long-standing and unimpeachable claim to the Arctic, it must be grounded in the daily realities of Inuit and other Canadians who make this region their home. Why does Canada seem to forget that we are there each time a crisis looms?

Canada’s mistreatment of Inuit in using them as human flagpoles to assert sovereignty was laid out with excruciating honesty during hearings convened by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the early 1990s. A settlement was finally achieved and a semi-apology delivered. How ironic now for Canada to brandish the fact that Canadian citizens—Inuit—live in the Arctic in order to add legitimacy to its sovereignty claims.

Inuit across the Arctic see the lack of action by Canada in fulfilling land-claim agreements. In December 2006, for example, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), which represents Nunavut Inuit in these matters, launched a lawsuit against the federal government for violating the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA). NTI is asking for $1 billion in damages. The organization’s president, Paul Kaludjak, explained that Canada was not living up to its responsibilities and that every attempt to negotiate a satisfactory implementation contract had been derailed:

The Government of Canada keeps Inuit dependent and in a state of financial and emotional despair despite promises made when the NLCA was signed in 1993. The Government of Canada is not holding up its end of the bargain. Canada got everything it wanted immediately upon signing the NLCA. Inuit are still waiting for full implementation of the Agreement.

In 2004, Thomas Berger, a former justice of BC’s Supreme Court, was brought in as a conciliator. After conducting a review, Berger concluded that Nunavut is in a state of crisis and that Inuit will get their fair share of jobs in government and elsewhere only when the education and training systems are transformed. Will the recent Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement and the new Nunavik Land Claims Agreement live up to Berger’s recommendations, or will these accords suffer the same fate as the NLCA?

The crisis caused by Russia planting its flag at the North Pole is somewhat different from past episodes, and it holds important messages for Canada. Russia hasn’t strayed into Canadian territory to plant a flag. They have acted first in a contest of interests to demarcate their claims to continental shelf margins. Indeed, Russia acted some time ago, in 2001, by filing a claim with the United Nations, as permitted by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

What has Canada been doing since 2001? The federal government has a plan to act by 2013, as required under UNCLOS, but too often it substitutes press releases for action. In recent interviews, the lead scientist for Canada on this file concedes that the country will be in trouble with its claims if ice conditions hamper scientific studies in the Arctic basin over the next five years. Again, Canada is playing catch-up while Russia’s objectives are clear.

As Eric Posner, professor of law at the University of Chicago, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Russia’s expression of power is credible; Canada’s is not. Canada cannot prevent other countries from sending ships up the Northwest Passage, as the US has demonstrated from time to time for just this purpose.”

Surely some lessons have been learned. The time has come to listen to Arctic voices on the subject of integrating the region with mainstream Canada. Would it not be a better strategy to make this bountiful and magnificent region a part of Canada’s daily experience? The millions spent on political posturing, tours and studies that go nowhere, and press releases could be better spent on lasting, community-oriented infrastructure. Inuit are well-organized politically—regionally, nationally, and on the international level. Together, we have developed an Inuit Action Plan, which was submitted to the federal government in February. We are in the post–land claims era now, and this plan is a testament to that. It identifies the tangible, brick-and-mortar projects that need doing as well as the intangible but no less vital elements of our future: hope for our children, better relationships with the rest of Canada, and so on.

Rather than training military personnel from southern Canada to drive Ski-Doos up and down Ellesmere Island (usually with Inuit guides) to demonstrate our “control” over the Arctic, would it not make more sense to invest in the economies of Nunavut, Nunavik, the Inuvialuit region, and Nunatsiavut to ensure that Inuit youth have meaningful opportunities in their communities? Inuit have offshore rights recognized in their land-claim agreements, for instance. The implementation of these agreements should be seen as a primary element of Canada’s assertion of sovereignty. But, more importantly, it should be seen as a way to integrate this vitally important region with mainstream Canada.

The Arctic is a region whose time has come for Canada. For Inuit, it is our homeland, the place where we want to be. For all Canadians, the Arctic must become part of daily life, not just a remote region with beautiful icescapes and polar bears. It is a place where people live, where families are raised, where problems need solving, and where resources exist that will continue to nurture people and finance this wonderful place called Canada. We are here and we will stay. We are also here to work with governments as stewards and guardians of this homeland.

Mary Simon
Mary Simon is the governor general of Canada.