Review: Ice-Land

Parliament claims ownership of every rock and iceberg in the Arctic, just as the Beijing Politburo claims every island in the South China Sea. True, Norwegians were the first to travel the Northwest Passage. And American submarines have secretly sailed through Arctic waters since 1958. And Russians have been planting flags at the North Pole since 1962 – but the idea is stuck fast. We pretend to own the Arctic, and the world pretends to care.

Unlike the People’s Daily, Canadians are capable of critical self-analysis of nationalistic land claims – which brings us to Lock, Stock and Icebergs, a fresh look at our stake in the unspoiled North. Author Adam Lajeunesse of the University of Waterloo in meticulous research points out how tenuous our Arctic “territorial integrity” is, and how haphazard Parliament has been in enforcing it.

Consider a case of murder.

In 1970 two U.S. Navy contractors working at an American weather research station on a polar ice flow called Fletcher’s Island quarreled over 15 gallons of homemade raisin wine. Researcher Mario Escamilla shot and killed his co-worker. The murder occurred 200 miles west of Ellesmere Island, in Canadian waters.

Canada’s foreign ministry learned of the shooting two weeks after the fact and produced this tepid memo uncovered by Lajeunesse: “Fortunately the press has not yet raised the question as to whether or not criminal jurisdiction in this case rests with Canadian or American authorities…It has been agreed that for the time being any inquiries from the press would be answered by indicating the Canadian government is aware of the case and that officials are examining all aspects of the question.”

The killer was tried and convicted in a Virginia court.  Escamillo’s lawyers argued prosecutors had no jurisdiction since the killing took place outside the U.S. The Department of External Affairs sent a milquetoast note explaining while it “continues to reserve its position on the question of jurisdiction”, Canada would not press the point. The result was “laughter in the courtroom,” a Canadian diplomat wrote: “Fortunately for Canada the Escamilla case was a relatively isolated incident.”

“What exactly did Canada have, or think it had?” writes Lajeunesse. “With regard to the Arctic lands, the answer was ‘everything’. All lands north of 60, east of Alaska and west of Greenland including every island of the Arctic Archipelago, discovered nor not, were considered Canadian. The justification for Canadian ownership over these lands varied over the decades but the essential fact remained: the government was intent on staking and maintaining its claim to the entire region. With regard to the Arctic waters, however, the question of ownership was far less certain.”

Reading Lajeunesse’s work recalls a snippet of dialogue from the 1981 film Gallipoli, in which a farm boy off to fight the Germans encounters a lone prospector in the fly-specked Great Australian Desert:

  • PROSPECTOR: “Can’t see what it’s got do with us.”
  • BOY: “If we can’t stop ‘em there, they could end up here.”
  • PROSPECTOR (scanning the wasteland): “And they’re welcome to it.”

Lock, Stock and Icebergs notes our northern jingoism is now part of Canada’s cultural narrative. When the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea sailed the Northwest Passage in 1985 “in a perfectly friendly cooperative spirit”, critics howled. It was “part of the cronyism between Brian Mulroney and the Americans,” said then-Liberal leader Jean Chretien. The Montreal Gazette called it “a major flop by a spineless government” that was “enough to enrage even a lukewarm Canadian nationalist.”

Lajeunesse is an honest chronicler of our claim to an icy empire. “No country is actively challenging Canadian sovereignty,” he writes; “In large part, this tranquility is due to global indifference. Climate change and resource development have attracted global attention to the region, but few nations outside of the Arctic states themselves have had much vested interest in the area.”

By Holly Doan

Lock, Stock and Icebergs: A History of Canada’s Arctic Maritime Sovereignty, by Adam Lajeunesse; University of British Columbia Press; 420 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-31093; $34.95

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