Queen's University

Heated interest in Canada’s Arctic

As the planet warms and the polar ice caps melt, global interest in Canada’s far north – and in the work of geographer Peter Harrison – is also heating up.

Hans Island, tiny and uninhabited, sits on the international boundary between Canada and Denmark – smack in the middle of the Nares Strait, which is midway between Ellesmere Island and Greenland

The Danish have planted their flag on Hans Island. The Canadian government insists the land belongs to Canada. Even though negotiations, which have been ongoing for years, are mostly friendly – the Danish military have left behind bottles of Schnapps on the island for the Canadians, and the Canadians have left Canadian whisky for the Danish – the ownership question remains unresolved.

[photo of Peter Harrison] Prof. Peter Harrison – geographer, Stauffer-Dunning Chair, and
Director of the School of Policy Studies

Prof. Peter Harrison, a geographer by training and the Stauffer-Dunning Chair and Director of the School of Policy Studies, is an expert on ocean and coastal policy and management pertaining to the Arctic Ocean. As such, he cautions that we’d be wise to prepare for greater global interest in the Arctic region.

“As the Arctic ice retreats and the region becomes increasingly accessible, nations of the Arctic circumpolar region are looking to see how they might access what’s thought to be potentially the largest warehouse of resource wealth on Earth, and so are other jurisdictions such as China,” he says.

Two major Maritime concerns already are looming for Canada. One concerns the maritime boundary between Alaska and the Yukon, the other the Northwest Passage. Washington is claiming right of “innocent passage” through the Northwest Passage.

“To date, about 100 vessels have transited the Passage,” says Harrison, who points out that there are, in fact, several routes, all of which begin and end in Canadian territory and travel entirely through Canadian waters. That, he says, would appear to refute the U.S. claim that the Passage is an international waterway. “These jurisdictional issues are inevitable and useful in a way, because they bring the matters to the attention of the media and the world.”

Harrison came to Queen’s in 2008 as the Skelton-Clark Fellow following a 30-year civil service career. He was a key player in the resolution of Indian Residential Schools concerns and he was also responsible for shepherding Canada’s 2003 ratification of the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea.

When Ottawa allocated a $150-million investment in research for the International Polar Year in 2007-2008, Harrison was the deputy minister responsible. “During the International Polar Year, we saw an unprecedented level of interest in polar regions,” says Harrison, “Not since Diefenbaker was Prime Minister [1957-63] has there been such a focus on the Arctic.”

Harrison chaired of the 2012 International Polar Year (IPY) Conference held in Montreal. “From Knowledge to Action” was one of the largest polar-related gatherings ever. More than 3,200 delegates attended the event, which was the culminating conference in a series of three. In all, nearly 50,000 scientists and researchers from around the world were involved in International Polar Year-related activities.

“The Montreal conference was unique in that we had not only scientists and researchers in attendance, but also politicians, lawyers, representatives from international shipping companies, businesses, and affected citizens, among them a significant number of people representing ­indigenous communities,” says Harrison. “It was interesting because we had a hard time convincing the scientists that this might be useful to them, we had difficulty convincing the non-scientists that their input would be useful and welcomed.”

Although it was held at the height of the student protests in Montreal, in the end, the conference was a success. One reason was that indigenous attendees shared their perspectives on the issues ­affecting their communities, including ocean management, melting sea ice, ­melting permafrost, and changing migration patterns. “Their participation was paramount,” says Harrison.

However, he warns, it’s not just Arctic communities that should be concerned about climate change. What happens at the North and South Poles will impact all human and economic development. Says Harrison, “Interest in the Arctic is heating up because, simply put, the Arctic is heating up. Climate change is happening more rapidly than scientists predicted, and though it is terribly ominous, the key is adaptation.”

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Queen's Alumni Review, 2013 Issue #2Queen's Alumni Review
2013 Issue #2
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