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Alaska boundary dispute redux

Last year, Norway and Russia reached a compromise deal on their decades-long dispute over their Arctic Ocean boundary.

Last year, Norway and Russia reached a compromise deal on their decades-long dispute over their Arctic Ocean boundary. Last week, word leaked out of a compromise agreement between Canada and Denmark to divide disputed Hans Island in the strait between Nunavut and Greenland.

Which brings us to the Yukon’s maritime boundary with Alaska in the Beaufort Sea. The Alaska boundary dispute that was resolved 100 years ago dealt with the Alaskan Panhandle. It left the Beaufort boundary squabble for later generations to deal with.

The Alaska boundary dispute was a big deal back in 1903. former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt approached the issue with his classic “walk softly and carry a big stick” approach and wasn’t shy about sending emissaries to London to remind the British that the U.S. fleet and army were a lot bigger than they had been in 1812.

Roosevelt bluntly told the British and Canadians that there was no way Congress and the American people would stand for giving up American territory, as they saw it, around Skagway. Meanwhile, Canadians were outraged when the tribunal voted 4-2 in favour of the current boundary, with the British judge famously voting with the Americans against the two Canadians. The legal facts of the case quickly disappeared into clouds of nationalist myth on both sides of the new border.

The rancour of 1903 explains why politicians haven’t been scrambling eagerly to open negotiations on the Beaufort boundary. It’s a no-win situation. Neither side can convince the other to abandon its claim and no one wants to be the politician who “gave up our sovereignty.”

As a result, Canadian maps keep showing the boundary going straight north from the coast, continuing the land border up the 141st meridian. American maps, on the other hand, use the traditional international law principle of “equidistance.” Conveniently for them, the way the shore angles southeast means this method gives Alaska more seabed.

The Norwegian ambassador to Canada, Else Eikeland, visited Whitehorse last week and told Yukoners about her country’s deal with Russia. (She also opened the Roald Amundsen show at the MacBride Museum).

The Norway-Russia dispute had similar issues to ours and had also dragged on for decades. Putin’s Russia isn’t much easier to deal with on border and security issues than the Soviet Union was. But last year’s deal ended up splitting the difference, requiring compromise from both sides. It also layered on agreements to co-operate on rescues, the environment and energy.

It was, of course, oil and gas that provided a major push to reach a deal after all these years. As with the Beaufort, oil companies on both sides of the border wanted badly to get Arctic gas to market. Remember that last month U.S. regulators approved Shell’s Beaufort oil spill response plan. Some say drilling could begin as early as this summer.

We know that the U.S. and Canadian governments have been in talks about the Beaufort boundary lately, although the details remain secret. A deal modelled on the Norway-Russia agreement is probably what they are talking about.

One intriguing new development could make a deal easier. Under the UN Law of the Sea, polar countries are mapping the seabed to extend their claims to the edge of the continental shelf beyond the traditional 200-mile limit.

The American “equidistance” principle makes its line jog east into Yukon waters in the 200-mile zone. But farther out, the N.W.T. islands make an equidistance line-jog west. So the American position may end up giving Canada large gas-rich territories farther out. The Yukon and N.W.T. don’t have a defined offshore boundary yet, but a glance at the map suggests equidistance would make an eventual Yukon zone smaller and the N.W.T. zone bigger.

Of course, Obama won’t be looking forward to what Sarah Palin is going to say if he “hands over U.S. territory to Canada.” Nor will our PM be looking forward to sending new maps to every school in Canada with the maritime border in the Beaufort becoming a squiggly line that moves a bit to the right of where it is now. Especially after working so hard to position himself as a defender of Canadian sovereignty.

So there is a powerful incentive to do nothing, especially before the presidential election in November.

Furthermore, the fallout from any compromise deal with the Americans will be harder for Stephen Harper to manage than it was for Wilfrid Laurier back in 1903. Firstly, the British aren’t around to blame this time. Secondly, in Laurier’s day the opposition was more pro-British than he was and didn’t attack the deal too vigorously. This time, non-Tories will leap at the chance to accuse the prime minister of “selling out” to the Americans. Environmentalists will know that killing the deal means no drilling in the disputed areas.

The Yukon Party, our Conservative MP and our unelected Conservative senator will be in a tough spot.

They will have to support a compromise deal concocted by the feds, “handing over” Yukon offshore territory to the Americans and opening up vast new tracts of Arctic seabed for drilling. Think how mad that will get everyone. It will be like when Jean Chretien tried to rename Mount Logan, but 1,000 times more intense.

Their only hope is to talk Ottawa into sweetening the deal with something big for the Yukon, namely a real offshore deal giving us rights over the Beaufort like the maritime provinces have over their offshore.

And it has to be a real deal, a lot more specific than the vague promise to future offshore negotiations we got during devolution a decade ago.

That is the marker they should be laying down now with their Tory friends in Ottawa and what we should be expecting to see if a deal is ever announced.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.