Bookmark and Share

The Shifting Arctic

Sovereignty, security and the manipulation of meaning in the Canadian North

Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer with Trent Alumna Shelagh Grant at the North at Trent Lecture Series
Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer with Trent Alumna Shelagh Grant at the North at Trent Lecture Series

If current media reports are correct, Canada is now facing a “polar peril” - the menace of climate change and melting ice floes calling up the image of the once illusory Northwest Passage as a soon-to-be international thoroughfare. But is the sovereignty crisis as dire as Canadians are being led to believe? And what, if anything, does past wrangling over Canada’s northern territories have to tell us about current perceived threats to Canadian arctic sovereignty?

At the third of three talks in the North at Trent Lecture series, sponsored by the Roberta Bondar Fellowship Fund and the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies, Dr. P. Whitney Lackenbauer commanded the packed room. He provided a vivid narrative of the arctic region’s history, complemented by images and stories from his extensive personal experience in Canada’s Arctic.

According to Professor Lackenbauer, associate professor and chair of the department of History, St. Jerome's University, University of Waterloo, the past is key to understanding the true perils facing the region today and into the future. “Our sovereignty, we are told, is on thinning ice and as the ice melts, so too will our claim to the arctic,” he said. “We are susceptible to alarmism that lacks context.”

As an historian, Prof. Lackenbauer is naturally predisposed to situating current crises in historic context, but he noted that northern people also have long memories. “In my talks with Inuit, their concern for the future of the arctic is framed by their past experiences,” said Prof. Lackenbauer. "So should ours be."

“What southern Canadians tend to forget is that our interest in the North tends to be very episodic and we've been very apt to forget the region once the sovereignty crises abate (as they always seem to do) and we slip back into apathy. Northerners do not have that luxury.”

The common thread in these episodes, said Prof. Lackenbauer, was crisis, noting dryly “crises can't wait for protracted negotiations.” The result? “Southern Canadians have not had a sustained interest in the North because we haven't had a continuous dialogue with Northerners.”

In the 1970s, growing aboriginal self-awareness and politicization encouraged governments to start taking aboriginal concerns into account. Indigenous leaders such as George Erasmus and Mary Simon began speaking out for environmental, economic and cultural security, expanding the debate - and the meaning – of security, considerably.

“One of the lessons of history is that Northerners should have a say in northern strategy because they are the people most affected by it. They have been marginalized historically and they are marginalized today when we adopt a crisis mentality that leaves no time for dialogue,” concluded Prof. Lackenbauer. “Is the real crisis in the North sovereignty, or is it social, economic, and environmental security? If we're prepared to talk about a crisis in this country, let's just be sure we’re getting the right one.”

One of Prof. Lackenbauer’s primary areas of study is the Canadian Rangers, members of the Canadian Forces who live and serve in remote communities across Canada.  In the far north, Inuit Rangers guide and train southern troops, as well as learning from them.  Prof. Lackenbauer contends that the Rangers are a great success story because they embody the spirit of an ongoing dialogue between the military and Northerners, as well as acting as a visible symbol of sovereignty by providing “mukluks on the ground.”

Sponsored by the Roberta Bondar Fellowship Fund and the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies, Trent University is proud to host the annual North at Trent lecture series, featuring free public lectures from Trent and visiting professors about Indigenous, health and security topics in Canada’s north.

Posted on Friday, February 15, 2013.

Read More News ยป