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A Tale of Two Cities: Washington, Ottawa, and Arctic Governance

By Ron Macnab

Shorten version. Full article is available in the newsletter Meridian, Fall/Winter 2009, pp. 22-28, attached as the PDF file at the end of this page



In recent months, both Canada and the US have issued documents that focus on their respective national priorities in the Arctic region, and which outline actions that are being taken or considered to achieve those priorities. Not unexpectedly, the two countries address a number of common concerns in those documents; by advocating similar approaches for some issues and different approaches for others, the documents offer an interesting juxtaposition of outlooks and concepts that currently underpin the theory and practice of Arctic governance on either side of the Canada-US border.

This article reviews the two documents, comparing their contents and gauging their effectiveness in articulating national priorities for responding to the many issues that affect the management and administration of northern regions.


Issued in January 2009 by President George W. Bush during the waning days of his administration, this document was at least two years in the making and entailed a comprehensive process of consultation with government, academia, industry, and northern indigenous groups.

The new policy succeeds one issued in 1994 during the Clinton administration. Though never publicly circulated, its six primary objectives appeared in a US Department of State Dispatch dated Dec 26, 1994. At least one, involvement of indigenous people, does not appear explicitly in the 2009 objectives, although it is mentioned in the body of the new policy. Two new objectives appear in the 2009 policy: extended continental shelf and boundary issues; and maritime transportation. There can be little doubt that the inclusion of these new objectives reflects recent developments in the Arctic that have been prompted by the continental shelf provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and by the melting of the permanent polar ice pack.

Assuming that the 1994 and 2009 objectives appear in order of importance, the most significant changes between the two lists are the reversed positions of the first and last items in each list: whereas in 1994 protecting the Arctic environment and conserving its biological resources was at the top, in 2009 it reappears at the bottom as environmental protection and conservation of natural resources. The item at the bottom of the 1994 list, meeting post-cold war national security and defense needs, has been transferred to the top of the 2009 list as national security and homeland security. In a post 9/11 world, it is hardly surprising to see this inversion as an expression of US determination to seal its boundaries against unfriendly incursions.

Objectives and Implementation of the 2009 US Arctic Policy

The following paragraphs highlight the primary objectives of the new policy and their implementation goals. The objectives appear in Table B along with the departments and agencies charged with their implementation. The text below summarizes and paraphrases information from the original.

National Security and Home land Security

Objectives: The US will take necessary measures to safeguard its security interests in the Arctic region. It will maintain an “active and influential presence” in the region through sea power and by exercising national authority within its zones of sovereignty. Central to its maritime policy will be freedom of the seas, championing the principle of unfettered access to the Northwest Passage and to the Northern Sea Route as a way of bolstering similar claims for access to restricted waterways in other parts of the world.

Implementation: Develop greater capabilities to protect US borders in the Arctic. Increase domain awareness to protect maritime commerce, critical infrastructure, and key resources. Preserve mobility of US military and civilian vessels and aircraft throughout the Arctic while projecting a sovereign US maritime presence in support of US interests. Encourage the peaceful resolution of disputes.

International Governance

Objectives:The US will continue to participate in international fora and will maintain bilateral contacts that promote its interests in the Arctic; moreover, it recognizes that changing circumstances may require new or enhanced arrangements. The US supports the role and the accomplishments of the Arctic Council; while it would be amenable to appropriate restructuring of the Council, it would not favour its transformation into a formal international organization such as the Antarctic Treaty. The US recognizes that ratification of UNCLOS would serve its interests not only in the Arctic, but also worldwide.

Implementation: Cooperate with other countries on Arctic issues. Consider new or enhanced international arrangements to deal with ongoing developments. Review Arctic Council policy recommendations and ensure that other Arctic governments do likewise. Seek US Senate approval to ratify UNCLOS.

Extended Continental Shelf and Boundary Issues

Objectives: The US intends to develop its extended continental shelf and to claim sovereign rights over seabed resources within that zone; it recognizes that UNCLOS provides a legitimate mechanism for so doing. The US acknowledges its unresolved boundary with Canada in the Beaufort Sea, and is ready to honour the 1990 US-Russia agreement for maritime boundary in the Chukchi Sea, once the Russian Parliament ratifies the agreement.

Implementation: Take necessary action to establish the outer limit of the US outer continental shelf (OCS). Consider conservation and management of OCS resources. Urge the Russian Federation to ratify the 1990 maritime boundary agreement.

Promoting International Scientific Cooperation

Objectives: Scientific research is vital to US northern interests. Northern research requires access throughout the Arctic Ocean and mechanisms for sharing research platforms and data exchange. The US promotes collaboration with international consortia and individual states, and supports development of broad-based partnerships that advance understanding of changes that affect climate and the environment. The US supports the joint and coordinated mobilizations of research facilities and platforms.

Implementation: Play a leadership role in research. Promote full access to research sites. Partner with other nations to establish a circumpolar observing network. Encourage at high levels the international sharing of information concerning research opportunities and the coordination of research programs. Promote an internal domestic dialogue to enable and facilitate research linked to US policies. Strengthen partnerships with academic and research institutions and build upon their relationships with counterparts in other countries.

Maritime Transportation

Objectives: US priorities in the region focus on navigation, protection of maritime commerce, and environmental protection. The US recognizes a need for substantial infrastructure development in support of safe, secure, and environmentally sound maritime commerce. Working through the International Maritime Organization, the US promotes new or strengthened measures to improve the safety and security of maritime transportation and to protect the maritime environment.

Implementation: In cooperation with other nations, address issues arising from increased shipping in the Arctic. Establish a risk-based capability to deal with hazards in the arctic environment. Develop waterways management schemes that conform to international standards. Evaluate feasibility of channelling strategic sealift, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief through the Arctic.

Economic Issues, Including Energy

Objectives: The US will incorporate stakeholder input in decisions related to economic and energy security, and to the adaptation of Arctic communities to climate change. The US anticipates a demand for northern energy resources and will seek to balance their development with the interests of indigenous communities and environmental protection. The US recognizes the value and effectiveness of existing international fora.

Implementation: Increase the study of climate change with a view to preserving and enhancing economic opportunity. Ensure that best practices and international standards are followed in hydrocarbon and other development. Consult with other states concerning development and management of shared resources. Protect US environmental and economic interests with respect to hydrocarbon reservoirs that straddle national boundaries. Identify opportunities for international cooperation in methane hydrate and other issues. Explore need for additional fora to review hydrocarbon issues and shared infrastructure projects. Emphasize cooperative mechanisms to address common concerns.

Environmental Protection and Conservation of Natural Resources

Objectives: Recognizing the impact of increased human activity on northern communities and ecosystems, the US assigns a high priority to the development of better knowledge concerning changes in the environment, in order to ensure effective long-term resource management and to address socioeconomic impacts of resource usage. Decisions relating to environmental protection and to resource conservation will be based on the best available information. The US adheres to the 1995 Fisheries Agreement on Straddling Stocks and endorses the protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems to safeguard living marine resources. It recognizes that warming in the Arctic region will likely precipitate the release of ice- and soil-bound contaminants that will add to existing sources of pollution.

Implementation: Cooperate with other nations in responding to environmental challenges. Conserve, protect, and sustainably manage Arctic species and ensure adequate enforcement to safeguard living marine resources. Address changing and expanding commercial fisheries, with consideration of international agreements or organizations to govern future operations. Pursue ecosystem-based management. Develop more scientific information on adverse effects of pollutants on human health and the environment, working with other nations to reduce the introduction of key pollutants.

Resources and Assets

The implementation of certain policy elements will require appropriate resources and assets. Implementers must respect applicable laws and regulations and consider budgetary and other constraints. Heads of responsible departments and agencies are instructed to identify future budget, administrative, personnel, or legislative proposal requirements.


Canada’s Northern Strategy was formally introduced at a July 2009 news conference in Gatineau, Quebec hosted by the federal ministers of Foreign Affairs; Indian Affairs and North ern Development, and Science and Technology.

Buttressed with sidebars containing several earnest ministerial declarations (two apiece from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern development; one each from the Ministers of Health and of Foreign Affairs) , the Strategy is a compendium of current and proposed initiatives, most of which have been presented to the Canadian public previously.

The methodology applied in developing the Strategy is not revealed – however the prominence of Government ministers within its pages and during its public release suggests the document is part of a political action plan. Indeed, much of its contents appear to have been culled from recent ministerial declarations, policy and program pronouncements, and existing departmental work plans.

There is little evidence of extensive con - sultation to gather non-governmental input from northern stakeholders, although at least one initiative – upgrading key research facilities across the North – appears related to the outcome of an independent consultation process conducted recently by the Canadian Polar Commission to assess the research community’s needs and priorities.

Written in English, French, and Inuktitut and profusely illustrated with iconic images of Canada’s north, the document’s fifty pages concentrate on four priority areas.


The paragraphs below outline the primary objectives and sub-objectives of the Strategy, along with the steps that have been taken or proposed to achieve those goals.

Exercising Arctic Sovereignty

Strengthening Arctic presence: Canada will enhance its northern presence by increasing military capability there by mobilizing more patrols, monitoring activities through RADARSAT II, and through continued participation in NORAD. Proposed new patrol ships and a polar icebreaker remain cornerstones of the Strategy, as does a deep-water berthing and fuelling facility in Nanisivik, Nunavut.

Enhancing stewardship: Canada will tighten its regulatory authority over maritime zones by instituting new regulations for ballast water control, and by extending the reach of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA) to 200 nautical miles. Vessels entering Canadian waters will be obligated to report their presence and intentions to Canadian authorities under a strengthened Northern Canada Traffic Regulation System (NORDREG). Search and Rescue capacity will be bolstered to deal with expected emergencies.

Defining domain and advancing knowl edge of the Arctic: Canada will continue its work to define the outer limit of the extended continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. Exchanges with Denmark will consider options for resolving the issue of Hans Island. Maritime boundary disagreements with the US in the Beaufort Sea and with Denmark in the Lincoln Sea will be addressed. Disa - greements over international shipping in the North west Passage will be managed.

The human dimension: Canada will continue to promote the involvement of northerners in the work of international indigenous peoples’ groups.

Promoting Social and Economic Development

Supporting exploration and development: Canada will establish new or improve existing regulatory, financial, and institutional arrangements that enable sustainable natural resource development. Aboriginal participation in resource development will be sought, and measures will be taken to protect the northern environment. Increased funding will be available for tourism promotion, along with support for local and community cultural and heritage institutions.

Addressing critical infrastructure needs: Canada will support infrastructure programs tailored to local needs, for example a commercial fishing harbour in Pangnirtung, Nunavut.

Supporting northerners’ well-being: Canada is committed to programs to help develop and improve community and regional infrastructures for health care, nutrition, education, housing, and labour training. Opportunities will be pursued for sustainable employment for Aboriginal people in major industries. Air quality and climate change issues will be investigated, and socio-economic research will focus on such areas as industrial innovation, economic development, and Arctic human health from an international perspective.

Protecting the North’s Environmental Heritage

Being a global leader in Arctic science: Canada’s IPY program has supported research on climate change impacts and adaptation, and in the improvement of northerners’ health and welfare. A baseline of Arctic environmental knowledge is under development. A new world-class research station is being planned in the High Arctic, and key research facilities across the North are being upgraded.

Protecting northern lands and waters: Canada will protect environmentally sensitive lands and waters and is considering the establishment of new National Wildlife Areas and at least one National Park. Ecosystemsbased ocean management will be employed to protect the marine environment, including fish and fish habitat. Equipment and emergency response systems will be developed to deal with marine pollution and to remediate contaminated sites. New regulatory requirements will be introduced for safe and environmentally sound industrial development.

Improving and Devolving Northern Governance

Made-in-the-North policies and strategies: More self-government agreements will be negotiated, enabling local management of lands and resources.

Providing the right tools: Outstanding land claims will be resolved, with funding for northern governments to deal with regional issues. Practical, innovative, and efficient governance models will be developed and applied.

The International Dimension of Canada’s Northern Strategy

The Strategy refers to Canada’s record of working with northern neighbours to advance Canadian priorities, achieving common goals in the region, and address emerging issues – through cooperation, diplomacy, and adherence to international law.

The document asserts that Canada must demonstrate effective stewardship of its Arctic territory while promoting its national interests. Canada has developed bi- and multilateral partnerships with Arctic and non- Arctic nations for dealing cooperatively with such matters as indigenous issues, environmental stewardship, sustainable resource development, safety and security, trading relationships, and transportation routes. In continuing to support the Arctic Council and other significant fora, Canada will promote improved worldwide understanding of the Arc tic and international cooperation toward addressing the Arctic implications of major global challenges.


Tables B and C illustrate the clear contrast between the US Arctic Policy and Canada’s Northern Strategy. Perhaps most striking is the assertive US stance on protection of its national interests across the region partly through increased military presence and use of sea power to support the Freedom of Navigation program. This contrasts with Canada’s determination to safeguard its territorial sovereignty through military surveillance, regulatory measures, and maritime boundary initiatives.

On the military front the US can exercise Arctic sovereign rights over significantly less area than Canada, but is ready to use its substantial military resources to defend those rights. In contrast, while Canada’s concerns apply over a much larger area, it is unlikely to increase its military capacity beyond a token amount.

Access to northern waterways is likely to remain a contentious issue: the US asserts its right to follow sea routes throughout most of the Arctic, while Canada vows to defend its waterways against unrestricted international traffic.

The US Policy and the Canadian Strategy also differ significantly in overall form and content: the US Policy, tightly scripted as an action plan, specifically defines main objectives, implementation goals, and responsible parties; the Canadian strategy features a vague wordiness that strives to showcase in the best possible light the full range of current initiatives and proposals, but without outlining areas of responsibility and accountability, and with little in the way of completion dates. Indeed, the Canadian document should more properly be labelled a manifesto (dictionary definition: a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives), rather than a strategy; this contrasts with a policy (a definite course of action adopted for the sake of expediency or facility).

A significant focus of the US policy is on international issues where national interests need to be advanced and defended; it is not surprising therefore, that the US State Department, the nation’s primary channel for international communications and relations, appears to have been designated as the lead implementing organization for all aspects of the Policy. The Canadian Strategy, in contrast, is characterized by a heavy domestic agenda that addresses a wide range of urgent socioeconomic conditions, from the health and wel - fare of individual northerners (particularly the indigenous population) to the development of an efficient infrastructure that can meet a plethora of administrative, social, and industrial challenges; in this context, it is not at all clear where the overall federal leadership is coming from – nor where final accountability rests.

As already pointed out, the US policy and the Canadian Strategy went through two very different gestation processes: preparation of the US policy entailed an extensive two-year consultation with a broad community of northern stakeholders. With its mix of broad pursuits and specific initiatives, the Canadian strategy reads generally as a repackaging of government information that has been in the public eye for some time: there is little evidence that its authors sought new views and opinions through extensive dialogue with individuals and organizations outside of Government circles – although at least one element of the Strategy closely echoes (without attribution) the findings of a consultation process conducted by the Canadian Polar Commission concerning upgrades to northern research facilities.

Neither document includes information on projected costs of its initiatives. The US policy recognizes that appropriate “resources and assets” will be required to achieve its stated objectives, and it instructs implementing organizations to take the necessary steps to obtain those resources and assets. Despite the fact that the Canadian Strategy describes a suite of programs and activities that are now or will soon be operational, the document offers few specifics concerning the financial commitments that have been made in support of those initiatives – nor does it identify the departments responsible for the commitments.


The US Arctic Policy and Canada’s Northern Strategy both seem to spring from the recognition that change in the Arctic region is making it necessary to develop coherent approaches to problems that occupy a wide spectrum of issues. To name a few, these issues relate to: social development; northerners’ quality of life; infrastructure expansion and improvement; regional policing and national security; environmental protection; sustainable resource exploitation; marine transportation; local and international governance models; and maritime boundaries.

While many of the problems listed above are common to both countries, they may reside at different levels of importance on each side of the Canada-US border. Clearly each country views the Arctic through the prisms of its self-interest and of prevailing circumstances on the domestic and global stages. Unsurprisingly, the US Arctic Policy and Canada’s Northern Strategy reflect their originating countries’ responses to these factors.

In Canada, recent history would suggest additionally that the Arctic is periodically used as a football to score political points by announcing – or reaffirming – northern commitments that all too often disappear from the agenda when they are determined subsequently to be impractical or too costly. An illustration of this cycle of commitment and retrenchment is the recent deferral of plans to construct northern patrol vessels for the Navy, along with a polar class icebreaker for the Coast Guard. Ironically, these deferrals were announced at about the same time that Canada’s Northern Strategy was released with great fanfare.

In this light, Canada’s Northern Strategy is written in a tone that verges on the selfcongratulatory: a cynical reader could be forgiven for concluding that its main purpose is to reiterate current actions and policies in order to paint a picture of an administration that is earnest in purpose and effective in execution. It remains to be seen whether Canada’s Northern Strategy will turn out to be comparable to the US Arctic Policy, which is a blueprint for progress – or whether it will wind up as yet another catalogue of unfulfilled Arctic ambitions.


The author is indebted to John Farrell, Executive Director of the US Arctic Research Commission, for informal discussions concerning the US Arctic Policy. John Farrell also reviewed the draft manuscript and offered suggestions for improvement, as did John Bennett of the Canadian Polar Commission. Views and opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s, and do not represent the perceptions or positions of any government or agency in Canada, the USA, or elsewhere. Errors of fact or of interpretation are the author’s own.

Ron Macnab is a geophysicist (Geological Survey of Canada, retired) based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.