Arctic expert and legal scholar Michael Byers on how Canada can take the lead on northern issues
The Arctic expert and legal scholar on how Canada can take the lead on northern issues
TThe Arctic is hot right now, both literally and figuratively. Faced with the prospect of icefree Arctic summers, Canada has critical decisions to make for the future of its longest coastline, on everything from shipping regulation to resource extraction to national defence. But are we acting quickly enough to keep pace with the cascading effects of climate change in the region? Michael Byers, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s department of political science, holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law and is frequently called upon to comment on Arctic issues. Here, he discusses what it means to be an Arctic nation and how that positions Canada to lead in an era of global upheaval.
On what it means to be an Arctic country
I’m very conscious of the fact that when I turn and face north, I’m looking toward thousands of kilometres of Canada. We need to be aware of this and we need to celebrate it because we’re drawn by very powerful forces to look south. Doing so can be unfortunate and sometimes debilitating because we miss out on important responsibilities and opportunities in the part of Canada that’s not right beside the United States.
On the problem of Arctic sovereignty
My law background makes me think of Arctic sovereignty in the context of Canada’s small number of unresolved disputes with other countries. But the other conception of sovereignty is the political and emotional one, which involves politicians playing on nationalist emotions to win elections. When this happens, it becomes difficult to get on with practical solutions to relatively narrow or easily resolved disputes with other countries. For example, no Canadian government since the Mulroney era has had the courage to engage the United States on the Northwest Passage issue because of the domestic political context. [ Byers believes the United States would acknowledge Canada’s legal claim to the passage in exchange for access and certain infrastructure and search and rescue commitments. —Ed.]
On the challenges and opportunities of Arctic sea ice loss
You can identify small silver linings in the big, dark, dangerous cloud of climate change. One of them is improved shipping accessibility, which would make it easier to supply Arctic communities and access natural resources. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of destruction that’s being caused in the Arctic, but I believe we can address the really big challenges and also take up some of the small opportunities that arise. For example, tourism: I’m a big fan of small-scale ecotourism that respects the natural environment, works with northern communities and
Michael Byers aboard a ship in the Northwest Passage, a route that’s set to profoundly influence the future of Canada’s Arctic.