Together, the two countries account for about 80 per cent of that vast and awesome landmass of tundra, mountains and boreal forest known as the Arctic. But for most of this century, political tensions have kept Canada and the Soviet Union from fostering the sort of special relationship that their common interests in the Arctic would seem to invite. That may begin to change this week, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Moscow, where they are scheduled to sign a wide-ranging agreement for CanadianSoviet Arctic co-operation on several fronts. Declared Yevgeny Shkurenkov, a senior external-affairs official of the Russian Republic who helped to negotiate the Arctic agreement: “By signing this, we are acknowledging the importance of the Arctic.”
Indeed, the accord is only one manifestation of the growing spirit of Arctic co-operation between Canada and the Soviet Union. And optimistic observers are already predicting
that it will lead to further joint action on problems both countries face in the polar region. Canadian Inuit leaders are greeting the agreement particularly warmly, saying that they hope to see it lead to a reduction in the toxic compounds that in the past decade have begun to show up at alarming levels in the Arctic. Said Inuit MLA Peter Emerk, who represents the Northwest Territories riding of Aivilik: “We have to start cleaning up the Arctic to preserve our waters and wilderness for future generations.”
Concern: Still, some critics express concern about what the agreement does not cover. They complain that the Canadian government has failed to respond to Soviet calls for a reduction in military activity in the Arctic and is instead embracing the American view that Arctic arms control must be part of broader East-West arms-reduction talks. Said John Lamb, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, a private, nonpartisan lobby group:
“Canada needs to recognize that it is part of a circumpolar community and to take some responsibility for the security of the region, instead of leaving it merely up to the superpowers.”
Change: In fact, the new agreement represents a dramatic change after four decades in which the North and its natives remained trapped in the diplomatic permafrost of the Cold War. Following the Second World War, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin outlawed any contact between Soviet natives and their aboriginal counterparts in other parts of the Arctic. The policy was aimed mainly at closing the border between Siberia and Alaska, where the Soviet Union and the United States are, at some points, only a few miles apart. But, by 1960, the development of intercontinental missiles and nuclear-powered submarines put Canada’s Arctic—astride the shortest geographic distance between Soviet and U.S. strategic targets—squarely in the middle of the struggle between the two superpowers.
Relations between Canada and the Soviet Union began to thaw in the 1970s, but it took until 1984 for the two countries to agree on limited exchanges among scientists, teachers and engineers. Among other things, the northern neighbors worked together for the first time to protect snow geese, caribou and reindeer. They also shared some Arctic ingenuity: this winter, using Soviet technology, the N.W.T. government hopes to build ice bridges across several rivers.
Relations warmed still further after October, 1987, when Gorbachev made a dramatic
speech in the northern port of Murmansk calling for a common plan to protect the Arctic environment. Gorbachev also called for curbs on military activity in seas surrounding Scandinavia—with the notable exception of the Barents Sea, off the Kola Peninsula, home base of the Soviets’ nuclear-powered Arctic fleet. Said Gorbachev: “Let the north of the globe become a zone of peace. Let the North Pole be a pole of peace.”
Setting aside military disagreements, however, the Canadian government responded to the Murmansk speech by opening negotiations in the areas of possible co-operation—talks that resulted in the accord that Mulroney and Gorbachev were scheduled to sign this week. Senior Canadian and Soviet external affairs officials told Maclean’s that the agreement will, among other things, advance joint scientific research in areas such as ozone depletion, marine pollution and global climate changes. It will also allow for freer exchange visits among scientists, educators and natives—a move particularly welcomed by the Inuit.
The agreement could also help bring several joint ventures, which are already in the planning stage, closer to reality. In one, a team of engineers based in the Northwest Territories hopes to build a model community in the northern Soviet town of Votcha to give the Soviets experience with the lighter construction materials used in the Canadian Arctic. The Soviets, in turn, are offering to design a model day care centre in the Northwest Territories.
Peace: At the same time, Canadian officials have cautioned against expecting any dramatic response from Mulroney to Gorbachev’s Arctic peace overtures. External Affairs Minister Joe Clark has declared Gorbachev’s proposed “zone of peace” unacceptable to Canada, because of its exclusion of the heavily militarized Kola Peninsula. And Ottawa continues to insist that Arctic disarmament should be part of continuing arms-reduction talks between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Said one senior External Affairs official: “It doesn’t make any sense to treat the Arctic as a special region.
Let’s talk about it in Vienna and Geneva, not Moscow and Ottawa.”
But that position annoys critics like the arms control centre’s Lamb, who bluntly stated, “Let’s test the Soviets and see how far they’ll go.” To that end, Lamb and 12 other prominent northern, native and disarmament experts issued their own response to the Murmansk speech last month—and presented it to the Prime Minister’s Office and to Soviet officials at a conference in Ottawa. The report called for, among other things, a mutually verifiable “de-
militarized zone” and a ban on simulated bombing missions in the polar region. Declared Lamb: “I think what’s required is the exercise of some political leadership on this issue, and that falls squarely into Mulroney’s lap.”
But, even if the two leaders do not discuss arms control, the Arctic agreement still high-
lights the remarkable similarities between the Canadian and Soviet arctics—and the potential gains that both countries see arising from closer co-operation. Although the Soviet North is far more developed than Canada’s, it is still, by Soviet standards, sparsely populated, averaging less than one person for every square kilometre. Like Canada’s, the Soviet North is
also rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and coal, which the Soviets have been much quicker to exploit.
But development has taken a devastating toll on the Arctic environment in both nations. Indeed, a four-year series of studies released earlier this year showed that PCBs and chemicals associated with pesticides are showing up in troublingly high concentrations across the Canadian North. The government researchers concluded that the contaminants are carried by air and water currents from developed centres further south—including some in the Soviet Union. The toxins work their way through the food chain into the flesh and organs of fish and marine mammals that form a large part of native diets.
Threats: The aboriginal people who live on both sides of the Arctic are facing other threats. Like their Canadian counterparts, members of the more than 26 distinct aboriginal groups in the Soviet Arctic have suffered through wrenching changes as southerners flooded into their remote regions in pursuit of wealth. Echoing complaints expressed by the Inuit and Dene of Canada’s North, Soviet natives say that their young people are losing their native languages and culture. And both countries’ northern populations suffer from high rates of alcoholism, tuberculosis and other debilitating social problems.
The emerging Arctic détente may help the natives of both countries to address some of those issues with a common voice. One possible vehicle for that is the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a nongovernment group that develops policy proposals on behalf of over 100,000 Inuit living in Canada, Alaska and Greenland. This summer, for the first time since the ICC was founded in 1977, the Soviet Union allowed representatives of its 2,000 Inuit—known as the Yuit—to attend the ICC general assembly in Sisimiut, Greenland. For her part, ICC president Mary Simon, of Kuujjuaq, Que., said, “Years ago, there were no boundaries between the Inuit, no matter where they lived. We are one people.” Loss: In one reflection of that idea, the ICC agreed at its July assembly to develop a standardized script for use by Inuit in all parts of the Arctic— a move Simon believes should help stem the loss of their common tongue. It is with such initiatives as a backdrop that this week’s meeting between Mulroney and Gorbachev could help take the remaining chill out of polar relations.
BRIAN BERGMAN with ANTHONY WILSONSMITH in Moscow and MARC CLARK in Ottawa
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.