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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (yfned.ca)
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Most Read