Review: “Who Owns the Arctic” (by Michael Byers)

The Globe and Mail – “The strongest element in Canada’s [sovereignty] claim,” Byers writes, “is the historical occupation by the Inuit, who have hunted, fished, travelled and lived on the Northwest Passage for millennia.” Together, the Inuit constitute “a powerful manifestation” of Canada’s legal position. Byers has found that, when he articulates Canada’s stance abroad, “the thousands of years of Inuit use and occupancy of the sea ice is the only dimension of our legal position that resonates with non-Canadians.”

Despite this, when the Harper government decided, rightly, to build a deep-water port in the Arctic, Byers writes, “it ignored Inuit views on the appropriate site.” Instead, it chose a disused lead-and-zinc mine, even though the Inuit “had lobbied hard for a similar facility at Iqaluit” with a view to serving the larger purpose while also boosting the local economy. As one Inuit leader later observed, that kind of decision-making “is not going to work.”

In this comprehensive book, Byers addresses ownership of the oil and gas reserves in the Beaufort Sea, the Arctic activities of the Russians (we shouldn’t feel threatened), and the not-so-burning question of who owns tiny Hans Island. As an Arctic-issues primer, this timely, cogent, focused work cannot be beat.

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