Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Arctic sovereignty author wins foreign affairs writing prize

Shelagh Grant is an adjunct professor in the Canadian Studies Program at Trent University and author of 'Polar Imperative'.
Shelagh Grant is an adjunct professor in the Canadian Studies Program at Trent University and author of 'Polar Imperative'.

Her fierce devotion to the north makes Sarah “Mama Grizzly” Palin look like a teddy bear.
For 30 years Shelagh Grant’s life has been focused on territory so rugged that some fear to tread on its icy shores, and her work has been translated into Inuktitut and read by students on remote Baffin Island.
But the winner of this year’s Lionel Gelber Prize for foreign affairs writing is undaunted by the physical or intellectual challenges of one of the world’s least understood regions.
Her book Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America is the result of decades of personal and archival research that has taken her from the farthest reaches of Canada to northern Russia, Iceland, Finland, Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard Islands in a quest to discover how the planet’s new must-have territory was carved up over centuries of struggle that continues today.
Grant abandoned a nursing career for the north, writing three books on the territory and its people, teaching at Trent University, and becoming the first woman to win the Northern Science Award.
On Tuesday she will give the annual Lionel Gelber lecture at University of Toronto and receive the award, jointly sponsored by the Lionel Gelber Foundation, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Foreign Policy magazine.
One of the world’s leading polar historians, she has shown why this mysterious land is ever more vulnerable to changes in climate and technology, even while it is tested by an evolving international law, with growing numbers of countries hungry for its promise of prosperity.
And Grant says, it’s a challenge for which 21st century Canada may be ill prepared.
“There’s no acute sovereignty risk unless somebody actually invades us,” she explains. “But the real concern is our ability to control adjacent waters.”
With climate change melting the polar ice caps, and the long-sought Northwest Passage now within reach, more countries hope to expand their shipping lanes, spreading pollution and carrying cargo that could be hazardous to the pristine environment.
Northern oil drilling — with promoters like Palin, who would exploit 2,000 acres of pristine Alaskan wildlife refuge — also carries a threat. So does multi-national competition for undersea resources rumored to be worth billions of dollars.
But, Grant says, Canada appears in no position to fend off the dangers.
“Our sovereign rights were well protected by sea ice, until the ice began to melt,” Grant points out. “It’s not a case of using or losing it, but of being able to protect it.”
Failure to do that worsens the prospects for ecological disaster, she warns.
The Gulf oil spill, in more accessible waters, took months to bring under control and left untold damage to the environment and the livelihoods of the people who depend on the coast.
In the remote Arctic, says Grant, it could be worse, with the most advanced countries unprepared for cleaning up a major spill. Meanwhile the risks of an environmental disaster are growing.
After decades of research, Grant is reluctant to blame Ottawa for the far north’s vulnerability, which is undiminished by the rhetoric of politicians.
“No single government is at fault,” she says.
Britain transferred the Arctic islands to Canada in 1880, when the newborn country was least able to take charge.
Ottawa tried to maintain control by putting down RCMP posts, but with two world wars and the Depression taking centre stage, the territory was downplayed.
Then Washington staked a muscular military claim during the Cold War. Now Canada is facing challenges to its right to regulate commercial shipping in the far north, and grappling with four other countries’ claims to potentially vast undersea oil and gas reserves.
Is it too late to avoid a potentially disastrous new “gold rush” to the Arctic’s promised riches and passageways?
“The government can’t do it without the support of the electorate,” Grant says. “If people demanded that the Arctic be protected, it could act. But there has to be much more understanding of what’s at stake. There’s no idea of the costs, and it’s not in Ottawa’s feasibility studies.”

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