× Dismiss

Never Miss an Update.

Arctic Deeply is designed to help you understand the complex web of environmental, social and economic issues in the High North. Our editors and expert contributors are working around the clock to bring you greater clarity and comprehensive coverage of Arctic issues.

Sign up to our newsletter to receive our weekly updates, special reports, and featured insights on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Thank You, Deeply

Dear Arctic Deeply Community,

As issues in the Arctic continue to evolve, as does news coverage of the region, we have decided to transition how we cover the Arctic as of September 15, 2017.

Ongoing Arctic coverage will be folded into our newest platform, Oceans Deeply, on a dedicated channel. You can sign up for the Oceans Deeply newsletter here.

Our trove of Arctic news will remain available through an archived version of the site, allowing you to explore and reference our published articles since December 2015.

We are currently exploring the creation of a community platform focused on Indigenous Life, in the Arctic and in diverse communities around the world. If that platform is of interest to you, please let us know below – we would love your input as we shape this initiative.

Thank you for being part of the Arctic Deeply community.


Lara Setrakian, CEO and Co-Founder, News Deeply
Todd Woody, Executive Editor, Environment, News Deeply

Romantic Notions About the Arctic Must Not Forget Indigenous Rights

Canadians’ perceptions of the Arctic are sometimes out of sync with the political and legal realities of the governance of the region, says Danita Catherine Burke, a postdoc at the University of Southern Denmark.

Written by Danita Catherine Burke Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Jerry Natanine, the former mayor of Clyde River, Nunavut, helped his community win a recent fight against a National Energy Board decision that would permit seismic testing in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait.Photo Courtesy of Jerry Natanine

The Arctic is many things to many people. In Canada, this malleability has made the region an incredibly valuable vehicle for nation-building and identity construction.

As a Newfoundland-born international politics scholar and author who researches Canada’s relationship with the Arctic, I believe that very pliability of the Arctic is an important feature of Canadian society, one that’s been cultivated for decades. The Arctic has intrigued many of us for myriad reasons since Confederation.

Canada’s most famous painters, the Group of Seven, focused extensively on the Canadian North in their work, and Lawren Harris, in particular, immortalized the imagery of a vast frozen landscape devoid of life into the national psyche and brand.

Folklore about the Yukon Gold Rush tapped into the notion of the Arctic as resource-rich frontier with massive wealth for determined risk-takers to grab. The doomed Franklin Expedition of the 1840s has captivated Canadians for generations, with interest renewed when the sunken ships were located in recent years in Canada’s Arctic waters.

More recently, the impact of climate change on the Arctic and political tensions with Russia have also reignited concerns over security in the region, both environmental and military.

Arctic Unites a Regionalized Country

Most Canadians, however, don’t stop to think why or how the Arctic is such a key part of the Canadian psyche.

I believe the idea of the Arctic is popular in part because Canada is so regionalized. As all Canadians know, it’s the second largest country in the world with a relatively small, spread-out population. Most of us live near the Canada-U.S. border.

And so a place like Canada needs umbrella concepts to help unite it, and beyond maple syrup, hockey and the weather, the range of pan-Canadian topics is rather limited.

Proximity to the United States has always had a major impact on Canadian politics and the evolution of the country. We often feel overshadowed by the cultural behemoth to the south.

Could this be why we have such romantic and protective feelings about the Arctic? A vast Arctic frontier is something Americans don’t really have, except for portions of Alaska, after all. It differentiates Canada from the United States.

Nonetheless, to dismiss our relationship with the Arctic as a byproduct of anti-Americanism is an injustice to Canada’s own sense of its unique character, and the efforts by generations of its people to cultivate, expand and define our national identity.

Indigenous Being Heard

Canada’s ties to the Arctic are very much rooted in a desire to expand and grow as a country based on its own merits and accomplishments.

But as we give more consideration to Arctic development now that the sea ice shrinks, we risk alienating Canada’s Indigenous peoples – even as we’re being warned not to.

Increasingly, the Indigenous peoples in the Canadian North are being heard. In the 1960s, they began to make headway in defining their rights within Canada’s legal frameworks.

In the Arctic, the landmark recommendations by Justice Thomas Berger in 1977 to halt the construction of a natural gas pipeline from the Mackenzie Delta down to southern Canada signaled changing times in Canada’s political and legal landscape.

The inquiry recommended further environmental assessments and the completion of the federal government’s land claims negotiations with Indigenous peoples first.

Most recently, the Supreme Court of Canada ruling about seismic testing near Clyde River underscores the increasing influence of Indigenous people over Arctic governance.

The Inuit of Clyde River took the National Energy Board to court and won. They argued that the National Energy Board did not properly consult them about seismic testing plans by a Norwegian consortium looking for offshore oil near the Clyde River, and Canada’s highest court agreed.

In the past, Canada has expanded its territory in the Arctic via land transfers, supporting expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and disputes with neighboring countries like Norway and Denmark.

Today, however, Canada’s approach to the Arctic has been labeled colonial – and that’s an approach the courts are making clear must not extend to our treatment of the Indigenous peoples of the North.

Canadian attempts to claim the North Pole have been cited as an example of our alleged colonialism.

Canadians would be forgiven for assuming the North Pole was Canada’s. For more than 100 years, the Canadian government has published maps that show Canada’s boundaries up to the North Pole from the most eastern and westerly reaches of the mainland using a principle called sector theory.

Even when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally renounced the use of these boundaries in 2006, maps with the boundaries have continued to appear in official documents.

Notions about the Arctic – and yes, apparently the North Pole – play a part in the country’s journey to define itself.

But creative license has been heavily employed in the construction of ideas about the Arctic. This has had both positive and negative implications.

On the one hand, the Arctic is whatever it needs to be to pull Canadians together: a last vestige of pristine nature; a dangerous and mythical other world shrouded in the mysteries of lost 19th-century expeditions; a frontier full of treasure that only the bravest and strongest can obtain; or the front line in military and environmental defense.

But that’s a lot for one region to encompass. Canada’s Arctic manages this and more. The trick is to be all of this at the same time.

As Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, it’s time to recognize what the courts are acknowledging: that Canadian romantic perceptions of the Arctic are sometimes out of sync with the political and legal realities of the governance of the region.

If an awareness and appreciation of Indigenous peoples and their rights do not become a major part of our national narratives about the Arctic, the region’s unifying power over our national identity will be slowly eroded.

This article originally appeared at The Conversation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

The Conversation

Some content here

Become a Contributor.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more