Monday, April 2, 2007

is canada committed to the northern sovereignty

On sovereignty patrol in the frozen Arctic space
Rangers' military mission raises questions about Canada's commitment to the North
KATHERINE HARDING April 2, 2007 TheGlobe&Mail

Allen Pogotak is unfazed about his latest military mission: scouting a trek along one of Canada's last -- and probably least forgiving -- unbeaten paths.

"We will make it. We have to for Canada," the 43-year-old Inuit man said as he inspected his army-issued snowmobile outside of Eureka's weather station, which is located less than 1,200 kilometres south of the North Pole on the western coast of Ellesmere Island.

"I'm proud to be part of this," the Holman, NWT, resident added as -48 C winds whipped around him. The father of three has been a Canadian Ranger since 1994. The rangers are a group of about 1,600 part-time reservists -- most of them Inuit -- who help the Canadian Forces keep watch on the Arctic, an increasingly significant economic and political region, according to the federal government.

Yesterday morning Mr. Pogotak and a small team of soldiers and other Canadian Rangers left Eureka, where they had been resting over the weekend, to travel the entire northwestern coast of Ellesmere Island to Alert, a military base and the country's most northern settlement. There is no record of anyone else ever making the treacherous journey, and the men will plant Canadian flags and cairns as they navigate the frozen tundra.

The group is part of a larger $1-million, 24-member military sovereignty mission that began in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, on March 24. It will have covered 8,000 kilometres of this country's most uninhabited and remote lands by snowmobile before concluding later this month in Alert. Three larger scale Arctic sovereignty patrols are planned for later this year.

But this boots-on-the-ground approach to Arctic military training and asserting sovereignty in Canada's Great White North has gained critics and raised serious questions about the government's commitment to the region.

"If that's what we can muster and we are only going to do this once in a while, it sends the wrong message to the world," said Ken Coates, an expert on Northern Canadian history and the dean of arts at the University of Waterloo.

He is frustrated by the country's long-standing "episodic interest" and "pathetic lack of commitment" to the thinly populated region, which makes up about 40 per cent of Canada's total land mass.

"We have managed to romanticize and mythologize it, but we haven't made it practical in the lives of most Canadians," Prof. Coates explained. "We have an obligation to look after those areas, to understand them well."

Since 1880 when Great Britain transferred the deed to the Arctic Archipelago islands to Canada, the country's activity in the massive area has ebbed and flowed: Federal government action here has been mainly symbolic or reactive.

However, in recent years, climate change has begun to transform the North. As ice melts at alarming rates, traffic of all types has increased as the area becomes more accessible and attractive to other countries eyeing new and faster shipping routes and massive natural-resource deposits such as oil and gas.

During the past federal election, Stephen Harper made Arctic sovereignty and defence a major priority. About $5.3-billion was pledged over five years to pay for big-ticket items such as a new deep-sea water port, three armed navy icebreakers, underwater listening posts and Arctic military training facility.

However, after more than a year in power, the Harper government has made little progress; the military's year-round presence in the region is still relatively small and limited by a lack of resources and equipment. None of the Conservative's major promises have materialized, although Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor says they are still in the works.

Long-standing international disputes also still exist. The most serious is Canada's claim that the fabled Northwest Passage - a maritime shortcut between Asia and Europe -- is an internal strait. Most countries, including the United States, reject Canada's claim to the passage, arguing it is an international waterway, open to all.

Michael Byers, an Arctic expert and international law professor at the University of British Columbia, is disappointed that so little progress has been made on the Tories' promises.

He said that an increased military and government presence is necessary to enforce sovereignty claims and help enforce domestic laws in the region, which is becoming increasingly open to drug and gun smugglers, illegal immigration and environmental disasters.