Battle for the Arctic

TORONTO — For Canadians, the Arctic has long been a place of imagination. It’s where Inuit shamans fly and explorers disappear without a trace. Vast and forbidding, it has helped imprint in the national psyche an almost debilitating sense of isolation.

Canada’s sovereignty over its portion of this mythical place is now being challenged, most notably by the United States and Russia. It’s part of a bigger rush for the Arctic, the setting for what the conservative Heritage Foundation recently predicted will be a new Cold War.

In short, the scramble for diminishing energy resources has reached one of the most sensitive ecosystems on Earth.

The most dramatic example occurred Feb. 18, the day before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Canada, when two Russia bomber planes provocatively flew to the edge of Canada’s northern airspace. F-18 fighter planes were scrambled to intercept them. Canadian pilots sent the Russians “a strong signal that they should back off,” according to Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay.

The American challenge to Canada’s far north came a month earlier, in one of the last acts of then-President George W. Bush. He issued a presidential directive — the “Arctic Region Policy” — confirming U.S. rejection of Canada’s sovereignty over the fabled Northwest Passage.

The passage is an ice-clogged waterway that meanders through Canada’s archipelago. Since the 16th century, explorers have sought it out as the sea route to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The most famous attempt, in 1845, ended when Britain’s John Franklin, his two ships and crew of 129 men mysteriously disappeared. Some of their skeletons were found many years later.

Today, navigation is possible only during a seven-week summer period, with the help of icebreakers.

And then came global warming. The U.S. Office of Naval Research estimates that by 2050, the Northwest Passage will be ice-free. A container ship from China to New York would save 3,000 miles of travel and, according to one estimate, $2 million in fuel and Panama Canal fees. That’s why the U.S. insists the passage is an international waterway and a “top national priority.”

Some studies predict the entire Arctic could be ice free in summer by as early as 2013. Where some see a devastating example of climate change, Arctic governments and energy corporations see a potential for making big bucks.

A recent report for the Washington-based Heritage Foundation described the riches up for grabs: “The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic might hold as much as 90 billion barrels (13 percent) of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 47.3 trillion cubic meters (30 percent) of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. At current consumption rates … this is enough oil to meet global demand for 1.4 years and U.S. demand for six years. Arctic natural gas reserves may equal Russia’s proven reserves, the world’s largest.”

And so, the five Arctic nations — Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark — have been busy extending their land and water claims. Russia has been the most active: It resumed bomber flights over the Arctic, filed a claim with the United Nations over sovereignty for an area the size of France, Germany and Italy combined, and planted its flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

Canada’s conservative government has made “use it or lose it” the basis of its Arctic policy. It is expanding Canada’s military presence, has extended its jurisdiction over shipping and environment protection from 100 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles, and decreed that foreign ships must report their presence when nearing Canada’s northern waters.

The 100,000 residents of Canada’s northern territories — the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut — have greeted the sudden interest with suspicion. No claim to sovereignty is stronger than their presence in the Arctic for millennia. Yet the Canadian government’s history with indigenous Inuit and Indians is too often one of neglect and abuse.

The last time the Canadian government was concerned about Arctic sovereignty, it used Inuit families as human flagpoles. In the 1950s, government officials put them on boats for month-long journeys north and dumped them on remote and uninhabited islands. Torn from their traditional hunting grounds, some starved to death. Many turned to alcohol.

The relocations were the government’s panicked reaction to the growing number of American citizens working in Canada’s Arctic. They were building and operating the Distant Early Warning Line — 63 radar stations, most of them along a 3,000-mile stretch of Canada’s 66th parallel, set up to detect a Soviet bomber attack during the Cold War.

The hiring of Inuit laborers to build the line triggered a process that eventually transformed a nomadic people into a sedentary one, precipitating a cultural breakdown from which many have never recovered.

The U.S. walked away from the radars when they became obsolete. Left behind are rotting metal and huge garbage dumps leaking toxic waste, including deadly arsenic and PCBs, exposing the Inuit and other people of the Arctic to increased levels of already high contamination.

The uncompleted cleanup of only half of the 42 radar sites on Canadian soil has so far cost Canadian taxpayers $457 million. The U.S. in 1996 gave Canada $100 million for the job and said it wasn’t coughing up any more.

Widespread pollution and the breakdown of indigenous culture is the legacy of the last time the Arctic became the playground for Cold War games. What will its legacy be this time?

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