Arctic cooperation

The scientific cooperation that Canada has sometimes undertaken with other Arctic countries is a reminder that, far from being a recipe for conflict and confrontation, the region also offers opportunities for different states to work closer together. This is why, over the past few decades, there have been a good number of bilateral agreements to conserve the region and prevent it from being too heavily exploited.

During the Cold War, for example, the Arctic's distinctive environmental challenges helped to heal international differences and reduce tensions. When discussions between Canadian and Soviet scientists began in 1972, efforts were made to identify areas of common concern in the Arctic region. In 1984 this led to the signing of a formal 'Protocol of Consultation' and, less than a decade later, an 'Agreement on Cooperation in the Arctic and the North'. At the same time the Canadian government was building closer ties with the Americans, and in 1988 the two countries signed an 'Arctic Cooperation Agreement'. Under this deal, they affirmed the need to advance 'their shared interests in Arctic development and security' and 'their understanding of the marine environment', as well as to 'facilitate and develop cooperative measures for navigation by their icebreakers in their respective Arctic waters'.

Although there have been numerous bilateral initiatives and agreements over the Arctic region, there have been far fewer deals between more than two partners. Nonetheless in 1911 a number of countries signed a deal to end the exploitation of fur seals in the Bering Sea, and 9 years later reached a compromise to determine the future of the Svalbard archipelago.39 In 1973 Canada, Denmark, Norway, the Soviet Union and the United States struck a deal to try to conserve the polar bear, while in 1991 the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was signed. And in March 2009 the 'Arctic Five' met in Tromsoe to reaffirm their commitment to preserving the polar bear at a time when it seems under increasing threat.

In other words, the Arctic region can bring people together to confront shared challenges and solve common problems and obstacles, as well as creating and aggravating international tension. In the same cooperative spirit, some of the disagreements over the status of the waters in the Canadian archipelago are likely to be amicably resolved. Because the Canadian coast guard has far greater powers over any ships that make their way through 'internal waters' than a 'strait', United States officials have sometimes admitted that American national security might even be enhanced if they recognize Ottawa's claim. 'We are looking at everything through the terrorism prism', as the then United States ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, said in November 2004. 'Our top priority is to stop the terrorists. So perhaps when this is brought to the table again, we may have to take another look.' And as one leading authority on the region, Professor Michael Byers, has argued, the Canadian government would never deny a request from the United States to allow one of its ships or submarines through the Northwest Passage.40

Conversely there may be other moments of serious tension and disagreement between the two capitals, perhaps leading not just to an exchange of harsh words but conceivably inciting popular protests. This is what happened in the early to mid-1980s, for example, when a reluctant Canadian government gave Washington permission to test-fire cruise missiles over its territory, triggering huge demonstrations by the Canadian public.

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