Seventy-five years ago, when vast areas of Canada’s Arctic remained unmapped and only loosely claimed, explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson began raising money in the United States to finance a major expedition to the Canadian Arctic. Stefansson, an American born of Icelandic parents near Gimli, Man., was following a familiar pattern in 1912. Then, and for decades before that, the Arctic’s islands and icy waters were dominated by adventurous American and European navigators, whalers and cross-country explorers who were often sponsored by their governments. That activity provoked growing concern in distant Ottawa, where politicians were preoccupied with consolidating control over a vast but thinly populated land and with establishing a navy to guard Canada’s coasts.
Presence: Foreign domination of the Far North had persisted even after the Arctic mainland became part of Canada in 1870 and Britain nominally ceded the arctic islands to Ottawa in 1880. During the first decade of the new century, when the Royal NorthWest Mounted Police finally established an official Canadian presence on the Arctic’s mainland shore, it was Norwegian Roald Amundsen who completed the first voyage through the Northwest Passage and American Admiral Robert Peary, on a trek from Ellesmere Island, who first reached the North Pole. Those foreign ventures testified to Canada’s tenuous grip on a polar hinterland that Stefansson accurately predicted would prove to hold both mineral wealth and strategic importance.
But before Stefansson set out in June, 1913, on an epic journey of discovery that was to last five years, Canada at last exerted its sovereign claim over the high Arctic in a practical manner—by taking over the sponsorship of his venture. When Stefansson asked Ottawa to round out his $75,000 expedition budget with a $5,000 grant, then-prime minister Robert Borden— as the 1913 Canadian Annual Review relates—“took the view that it should be a Canadian expedition entirely and this was accordingly arranged.”
As a result, previously unknown is-
lands discovered by Stefansson were claimed for Canada and later named for Canadian leaders, including Borden, Arthur Meighen and Mackenzie King. Since then successive federal governments have tried to reinforce sovereignty claims by investing spo-
radically in the Arctic’s use, including resource development, law enforcement, exploration and tourism.
Sparse: Still, the Canadian arctic presence remains sparse, scattered and often transient. The 1986 census figures released last month show that the Northwest Territories and the Yukon-more than one-third of Canada’s land—have only 75,742 residents. Only about 15,000 of them live in the Arctic. And after 75 years of fitful attempts by Ottawa to buy an arctic presence, the region remains remote from Cana-
dian society. Now the federal government is preoccupied by attempts to affirm sovereignty over the waters between the arctic islands, and notably the Northwest Passage.
That disputed claim, says External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, is Canada’s “one pure sovereignty issue of truly major proportions.” At a meeting of the House of Commons defence committee last week, Clark said that at present the major threat to Canadian sovereignty “comes from our friends, the United States.” He said that the defiant 1985 voyage of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage “brought home to all of us, in a shocking way, the
reality that we cannot assert our dominion there with words alone.”
To assert its claim, the Mulroney government has drawn a sovereignty line around the entire arctic archipelago in what Clark has declared was “a signal to the world at large that those waters are Canadian, period.” At the same time, the government has ordered the construction of the world’s biggest icebreaker and—under the North American Aerospace Defence
Command pact with Washington—the upgrading of five northern landing strips for jet fighters. As well, Clark confirmed last week that the federal cabinet is actively considering the purchase of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for surveillance in the Arctic, where U.S. and Soviet submarines already operate under ice-covered waters—the American boats with Ottawa’s agreement under mutual defence arrangements.
Demand: Still, none of those programs ensures Canadian control or U.S. compliance with Canada’s arctic waters claim—nor even with Ottawa’s demand that Washington seek prior Canadian consent for each future sur-
face voyage in the Canadian Arctic. Despite President Ronald Reagan’s public undertaking in Ottawa last month to seek a solution to the impasse, Washington has shown no signs of retreating from its basic position. Washington insists that yielding to Canada’s claim to exclusive control of the Northwest Passage might encourage comparable claims to similar shipping straits in the Pacific and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.
Meanwhile, Ottawa continues to sponsor adventuring, cultural and political visits in the Arctic which federal officials conclude may generate publicity and reinforce Canadian claims to sovereignty. Sponsorships of the current Qitdlak expedition include $10,000 in federal funds (page 22). A year ago Vancouver artist Toni Onley and Quebec poet Claude Péloquin took what Onley described as “a sovereignty trip” aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship Des Groseilliers. The ship accompanied the ore carrier Arctic on its way to Nanisivik on northern Baffin Island in early June—the first time such a voyage had been attempted so early in the season. Recently, federal cabinet ministers have been visiting the Arctic at a rate of one visit every six weeks because, said one ministerial aide, “the government is very hot on sovereignty right now.”
In order to provide maximum effect in support of sovereignty claims, such arctic ventures are designed to attract outside attention. Both Onley and Péloquin, as well as the Qitdlak trekkers, are publishing books on their experiences. But Federal Energy Minister Marcel Masse postponed indefinitely a proposed late-April visit to Canada’s polar floating ice station—where scientists are conducting weather and ocean studies off Ellesmere Islandafter news media organizations turned down invitations to accompany him. An aide cited “scheduling conflicts.” Feature: Ottawa’s eagerness to generate publicity about its arctic activities has been a feature of its sovereignty programs since they began. More than 70 years ago there were fears in Ottawa that the federal investment in Stefansson’s sovereignty expedition may have been wasted. Not only was his journey upstaged by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, but for months there was no word on his whereabouts.
Then, more than two years after Stefansson’s departure, the government received his first report, relayed by travellers. It proved, says the 1915 Canadian Annual Review, “that he was alive after being for months given up as lost.” The explorer’s report told the relieved Ottawa sponsors “of hitherto unknown territory discovered in the far northern Beaufort Sea, of thrilling adventure and many privations and dangers.” Although Stefansson was to fall out of official favor within 10 years— after enmeshing Ottawa in an international dispute by claiming a Soviet island for Canada—his discoveries remain one of Ottawa’s most productive investments in arctic sovereignty.
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