Thursday, January 20, 2011

“The Polar Imperative” Shortlisted for Gelber Prize

The Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America by by historian Shelagh Grant, on the race to claim sovereignty in the Arctic, has been shortlisted as a potential contender for the Lionel Gelber Prize. According to the website, the prize is award to the English-language book that “seeks to deepen public debate on significant global issues”. We'll find out who won on March 1.

Grant is adjunct professor of history at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, and was recently interviewed in Maclean's Magazine entitled "Do we really own the Arctic? Why we can’t protect our far North". She talks about the effect of climate change now and in the past on the Arctic and its people, Chinese northern ambitions and Canadian sovereignty claims. Though far too brief as such things are, it is worth the read.

It is interesting in the way a knowledgeable informed understanding of sovereignty and the North blows away the silly invented sovereignty threats for partisan gain that politicians, like the current Canadian government, do to drum up patriotic fervour to increase electoral chances rather than increasing standards of living or scientific knowledge or action.

Grant's book explores the early settlements of the Arctic by indigenous peoples to the most recent efforts of several circumpolar nations – and ultimately, the victory of the Canadians – in exercising sovereignty in the Arctic.

In a review, Doug Saunders summarizes Grant's analysis of the Canadian government's efforts and endeavours in the North:

The obverse side of this strategy has been Ottawa's repeated, century-long habit of announcing investments in the Arctic that never materialize. In this, Canada is in notable contrast to Denmark, which has spent large sums developing and supporting Greenland (which became an independent state last year) and its mainly Inuit people, even though it is even further from Copenhagen than Canada's Arctic possession is from Ottawa.

Grant lists Ottawa's recent history of empty flourishes: “plans for a nuclear-powered icebreaker were dropped; plans for a fleet of nuclear submarines were shelved; orders for search and rescue helicopters were cancelled.” The list of Arctic initiatives announced by Harper in 2008, including a deep-sea port and a fleet of icebreakers, proved to amount to almost nothing: Much was old spending, or promises without commitments, or cheaper projects in the Subarctic that did nothing for the far north.

It is only the Inuit themselves who have been able to establish a real Canadian presence in the North. The creation of the territory of Nunavut in 1999 has turned Iqaluit into a real centre (albeit one just below the Arctic Circle); the independence of Greenland last year shows that Inuit are far more willing than Europeans or their descendents were to exploit the Arctic's resources and turn their region into an economic hub.

In her conclusion, Grant lists the dozen “visionaries who were responsible for changing the map of the Arctic,” from Erik the Red and Martin Frobisher through Roald Amundsen and Vitus Bering; significantly, there is not a single Canadian among them. It may be on our maps and in our anthem, but the Arctic remains an utterly alien place to Canadians.

All the more so now, sadly, where the false concerns over "Arctic sovereignty" and the melding of sovereignty with legal issues over international vs national waterways are played up for giant political photo ops at the expense (literally) of real development desperately needed.

I have not yet read Grant's book but it is timely and I will. All of the best to her with the Gelber Prize nomination.

1 comment:

Russell Potter said...

Ted, thanks for the heads up on this ... I've requested a review copy and hope to have it in hand shortly; will write a review for ABR.