Harper’s quest for Santa’s Village

Commentary, Natural Resources, Robert Murray

You have to give Prime Minister Stephen Harper some credit. While he has not delivered on his promises of military and ice breaker technology in his quest to solidify Canadian sovereignty over Canada’s Arctic, he has been consistent in making sure Canada’s claims are expressed on the international stage.

Canada has been working for nearly a decade on its official submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, to be filed today. The cost of the submission process has been estimated at over $200 million and is absolutely essential to Canada’s ability to make its case for territorial sovereignty in the Arctic Region.

Of course, Canada is not the only state making claims under the submission process. The other seven Arctic states have unique claims of their own, and Canada’s claims will undergo years of evaluation, study and scientific verification.

Canada’s submission also raises the stakes in the scramble for seabed riches. Harper was unhappy with the draft of the submission report and sent staff and bureaucrats scurrying back to the drawing board with a demand that they extend the claim as far north as the North Pole, the maximum allowable area available to claim under the UN Commission.

By doing so, Canada is now competing directly with Russia and Denmark over rights to the same territory.

Furthermore, it is said that this report is only a preliminary submission, and that Canada reserves the right to make further claims in the future.

The reasoning behind Harper’s move to extend Canada’s territorial claim is two-fold:

First, Harper cannot look weak on circumpolar issues, especially as it has been among the most prevalent policy areas during his tenure as Prime Minister. His yearly Arctic trek, the bolstering of both a military presence and northern development investment are all key components of his Arctic strategy.

At a time when his government is taking heat over the Senate scandal, and the tabling of a private member’s bill by one of his own MPs that could result in a curtailment of his own power, Harper needs to show Canadians that his Arctic rhetoric means something. Studies have shown very clearly that Canadians care about the Arctic and Canada’s sovereignty over Arctic territories. As such, Harper must maintain his political stance on the region.

Second, his move to extend Canada’s claims to the North Pole is more focused on the vast resource base thought to be underneath the Arctic ice caps. Though much of the resource base is conjecture at this point, states are willing to take the risk and have shown, through political, economic and military efforts, that they will do what they can to claim their place. The challenge remains developing the technology capable of extracting the resources if/when the ice melts. Presently, extraction efforts are proving much more difficult in various areas of the Arctic because of ice, weather patterns, and the depth of the water.

In the case of Canada’s submission, an aspect of particular importance is the Lomonosov Ridge. This ridge, rich in minerals and oil, runs very close to the shelf claimed by both Russia and Canada, and the two states are claiming sovereignty over it.

Despite apprehension about a diplomatic dispute with Russia, Canada has little choice but to challenge the claims of other states, especially Russia and Denmark. The North Pole is just a part of Canada’s overall claims and to simply let it fall into the hands of others, knowing the resource potential, would be criminal from a Prime Minister whose reputation is intrinsically tied to the Arctic. It is unknown exactly how Russia and Denmark will respond to Canada extending its claim, as all three states seem to believe their claims to be legitimate and scientifically verifiable.

But regardless of what claims are made now, the real test will come when the UN Commission decides who the territories belong to and how willing those losing states are to accept the UN’s decision.