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.

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