On August 20th, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Honourable Lawrence Cannon, issue a new Canadian Arctic Foreign Policy Statement. What follows is a very brief summary of that 29-page document.

The Policy asserts that the Arctic is “embedded in Canadian history and culture and in the Canadian soul.” The policy is founded on the four pillars of the Government’s “Northern Strategy”: 1) exercising Canadian sovereignty; 2) promoting economic and social development; 3) protecting the Arctic environment; and 4) improving and devolving governance.

Exercising Sovereignty: “Exercising sovereignty over Canada’s North, as over the rest of Canada, is our number one Arctic foreign policy priority.”

The document asserts that Canada’s sovereignty claim is “long-standing, well established and based on historic title, founded in part on the presence of Inuit and other indigenous peoples since time immemorial.” Various initiatives that the Government has taken or will take to exercise sovereignty responsibly over the Arctic are then reviewed, including:

  • Launching a new polar icebreaker in the next decade;  
  • Building Arctic patrol ships capable of operating in first-year ice to monitor Northern waters as they become more accessible to shipping;  
  • Providing a berthing and refuelling facility in Nanisivik;  
  • Expanding the size and capabilities of the Canadian Rangers (the largely Inuit patrol force mobilized in the Arctic);  
  • Setting up a new Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre in Resolute Bay;  
  • Continuing the annual “Operation Nanook” sovereignty operation of the Canadian Forces, which in 2010 includes collaboration with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard and the Royal Danish Navy, to improve response capability to emerging cross-border challenges;  
  • Cooperation with the U.S. through NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command, and enhanced surveillance capability for the Canadian Forces through new technologies.  

The Statement commits the Government to seek resolution of outstanding maritime boundary issues, in accordance with international law, with Denmark (over tiny Hans Island and a small portion of the Lincoln Sea), and with the U.S. over the maritime boundary in the Beaufort Sea. In addition, Canada aims to secure international recognition of its sovereign rights over the extended Continental Shelf (beyond 200 nautical miles from the coastal baselines), thus giving it control of the (reputedly) vast resources of the seabed and subsoil below those waters. Canada is already heavily engaged in carrying out the scientific, technical and legal work to that end, in order to make the required submission to the United Nations Commission on the Continental Shelf by the deadline of December 2013.  

The Government also undertakes to work through the eight-nation Arctic Council (consisting of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States) on issues such as search and rescue, and problems related to emergencies that may occur as activity and traffic in the North increase (including environmental challenges, organized crime and illegal trafficking in drugs and people).  


Canada’s North is laden with natural resources. Already the country is the world’s third largest diamond producer, and one-fifth of the world’s petroleum resources are thought to lie in the soil of the Canadian Arctic. The Government promises to create appropriate international conditions for sustainable development in the Arctic, especially in respect of oil and gas production. The Statement cites the role Canada has played and is playing in:  

  • The review of offshore drilling undertaken by the National Energy Board and the moratorium on drilling in Canada’s deep Beaufort Sea until at least 2014;  
  • The 2007 Arctic Council Oil and Gas Assessment, examining the impacts of oil and gas activities in the Arctic;
  • The 2009 Arctic Offshore Oil and Gas Guidelines, recommending standards, technical and environmental best practices, management policy and regulatory controls for Arctic offshore oil and gas operations;  
  • The 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, the first comprehensive review of circumpolar shipping activities, present and future;  
  • Assisting the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in developing an international polar code, and promoting an international agreement on search and rescue;  
  • Providing navigational warning and meteorological services for marine traffic in two Arctic areas, including the Northwest Passage;  
  • Establishing the Arctic Regional Hydrographic Commission;  
  • Enhancing trade with other Arctic States;  
  • Improving air and sea transportation links (e.g. upgrading the Port of Churchill);  
  • Supporting human development of the Northern population through the Arctic Council (e.g. preserving indigenous languages, developing circumpolar health care systems, respecting traditional knowledge, culture and practices, including support for sealing). 


The Statement stresses that strong environmental protection is an essential component of sustainable development and another way in which Canada exercises its sovereignty in the North. Examples of Canadian initiatives in this regard include:  

  • The 2009 amendment to the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act of 1970, extending Canadian marine environmental protection from 100 to 200 nautical miles in waters north of the 60th parallel;  
  • The requirement for most vessels to report when entering and operating in Canada’s Arctic waters, as of July 1, 2010 (NORDREG);  
  • The plan to establish a national marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound;  
  • Adopting an “ecosystem-based management approach” in collaboration with Canada’s Arctic neighbours, e.g. in respect of managing marine species in the Beaufort Sea, as well as caribou, polar bears, and Arctic birds, whose habitat crosses national borders, and developing best practices in ocean management by working on the Arctic Council’s Arctic Ocean Review;  
  • Leading the Arctic Council’s Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program;  
  • Adding 70,000 square kilometers of protected areas to the 80 protected areas already designated, covering some 400,000 square kilometers, and finalizing a Policy Framework for Canada’s National Network of Marine Protected Areas;  
  • Addressing climate change by reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions;  
  • Working to strengthen international standards, for example concerning contaminants and waste management practices in the North, and global negotiations to reduce mercury emissions;  
  • Establishing a world class Arctic science and research station in the High Arctic (Cambridge Bay has been announced as the site);  
  • Hosting the wrap-up event of the International Polar Year in Montreal in April 2012 and taking a lead role in the Arctic Council’s Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks project.  

The recent judgment of the Nunavut Court of Justice in Quiktani Inuit Association v. Canada (Minister of Natural Resources), granting an interlocutory injunction to prohibit seismic testing in Lancaster Sound, can be seen as one example of the “judicial” exercise of sovereignty in respect of Canada’s Arctic environment. As referenced above, Madam Justice Cooper ruled that the testing could have a potentially disruptive impact on marine mammals and thus threatened the historic lifestyle of Inuit in the North Baffin region of Nunavut (particularly as regards access to traditional food and its sharing within the community, the making of traditional clothing and participation in the hunt).


The Foreign Policy Statement emphasizes that the Canadian Government is committed to providing Northerners with more control over their economic and political destiny and is taking steps to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in a manner consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws. In particular, the Statement commits the federal government:

  • To engage with Northerners on Canada’s Arctic foreign policy, through the Canadian Arctic Council Advisory Committee;  
  • To support Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations in Canada (Arctic Indigenous organizations at the Arctic Council) and to contribute, including financially, to strengthening their capacity to participate in Arctic Council activities, while encouraging other Arctic Council States to do likewise;  
  • To provide Canadian youth with opportunities to participate in circumpolar dialogue, as was done at the 2009 Arctic Council Ministerial meeting.

The Statement stresses the importance of the Arctic Council as the “leading multilateral forum through which we advance our Arctic foreign policy and promote Canadian Northern interests.” Canada was the first chair of the Council (1996-1998) and it will chair again starting in 2013. The Statement promises that Canada will play a proactive role in the Council in encouraging the implementation of guidelines, developing “best practices” and negotiating policy instruments, such as the proposed search and rescue agreement, as well as in supporting research. Canada also proposes to lead efforts in developing a more strategic communications role for the Council and to work with other member States to address the organization’s structural needs. In addition, the Statement states that Canada will work through other multilateral institutions, such as IMO and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, towards global solutions to issues like polar shipping regulations and climate change. The United States is also identified as “our premier partner in the Arctic”, with whom to engage on Arctic issues of common concern.

The Statement concludes by quoting a 1961 declaration by Prime Minister Diefenbaker that there is a “… new world emerging above the Arctic Circle.” The Arctic Foreign Policy Statement is an ambitious (and probably expensive) road map suggesting how the demands of that “new world” should be addressed, in a spirit of responsible stewardship, in collaboration with other nations and international organizations, and in accordance with Canada’s traditions of cooperation, diplomacy and respect for international law.

Time alone will tell whether the lofty goals and noble vision articulated in this ringing declaration will be achieved in practice. Much will depend on the political will of present and future governments, on the availability of funding and on the cooperation of other countries and the people of our North.