President Bush appears determined to remain controversial, even as he tidies up old files before next week’s move from the Oval Office into the (likely scathing) history books.
Monday he released the new United States Arctic policy, taking the opportunity to remind Canada of two long-standing disagreements. The first is whether the maritime boundary in the Beaufort Sea between the Yukon and Alaska follows the 141st Meridian, as Canada claims, or the US line which wiggles considerably east. The second is whether the Northwest Passage is an internal Canadian waterway or an international passage for nuclear submarines and leaky oil tankers.
This could be George Bush’s last gift to Canada. It gives our politicians, international relations students and conspiracy theorists a chance to wallow in righteous indignation. If bumper sticker sales skyrocket, it may even help our economy.
Our bumper stickers could read “141 or Fight!” since in a previous dispute the American slogan was “54-40 or Fight!” This referred to the latitude of the southern tip of the Alaska panhandle, which a number of Americans thought would be a great place to put the northern border of … Washington State.
But before we get too excited, we should remember the 1903 Alaska panhandle imbroglio. A dispute simmered with the Americans until resource development brought it to a head. Canadian politicians had encouraged Canadians to have greater confidence in their legal position than an expert jurist might have advised. Canadians were in a nationalist frenzy. Perhaps a “frenzy” is a bit much for Canadians, but our ancestors were at least fired up enough to attend rallies and write strongly worded letters to the editor.
Painfully, all of this was eventually punctured, partly by the legal facts but mostly by the US Navy.
The boundary disputes go back to 1825 when the Russian and British Empires signed a treaty defining the border between Russian Alaska and British possessions in North America.
At first, the border was to follow the 135th meridian, commemorated by a lonely marker near the McCrae Chinese restaurant. This would have put Chadburn Lake safely in the British Empire, but could have consigned Riverdale to years of Russian tyranny.
However, in the final version of the treaty the line was fixed at its current location: the 141st meridian near today’s Beaver Creek. In exchange for some extra bits of the Alaskan panhandle, the Russians gave up the Dawson goldfields. But no one knew that at the time, of course. There were few reliable maps.
Captain Vancouver’s charts of the coast might have been relatively accurate, but the Yukon interior was a large blank space named “New Norfolk” after Captain Vancouver’s home region. Furthermore, the treaty’s drafters had never visited Alaska and probably hoped never to be ordered to do so.
The Americans inherited this treaty when they bought Alaska for $7.2 million in 1867. The treaty was a beautiful document, in elegant diplomatic French, but its text was maddeningly vague on many important points.
Nothing much happened for decades, until the gold rush made locating the border important. Mountie Sam Steele was sent by the Canadian government to restore order in the North, including the den of iniquity known as “Skaguay.” Observing how many armed Americans were in town, and how much whisky they had, Steele decided it might be more prudent to establish his post at the summit of the Chilkoot Trail.
The lingering dispute finally became a crisis in 1903, threatening war between the United States, Canada and Britain.
“Walk softly and carry a big stick,” said former US president Teddy Roosevelt, referring to the newly strengthened US Navy. TR, as everyone called him, thought the US legal case was unassailable and quietly passed word to the British cabinet that he was prepared to use the fleet.
With the Germans building battleships as fast as they could, the British decided not to call TR’s bluff. The Colombians, who did call TR’s bluff around the same time, soon found the US fleet anchored offshore helping Colombia’s Panamanian provinces declare “independence.”
In the end, a panel of six — three Americans, a British judge and two Canadians — established the current boundary. Since the British member voted with the Americans, an enormous outcry occurred in Canada.
In some ways, the outcome was the best the Canadian government could have hoped for, given how shaky its case was. They avoided a war with the Americans and the British took the blame. Some observers thought Canada should have accepted the earlier American compromise offer of a Hong Kong-style lease of Pyramid Harbour near Haines and the right to build a railway into the Yukon. But they were ignored in a wave of anti-British protest.
The same confusing treaty is behind the Beaufort boundary dispute.
It is unclear whether the land boundary along the 141st meridian continues into the Arctic Ocean. Canada says that it does, while the Americans insist that the “equidistance” principle of maritime international law applies.
The equidistance principle would chart a line that is equally distant from the undulations of each country’s seacoast in the area. Not surprisingly, each country’s position would give it a larger slice of the potentially oil-rich Arctic seabed.
The Northwest Passage is another complex issue.
Canada asserts the straits between the Arctic islands are Canadian waters, while the US considers them an international strait open to navigation. There are volumes of international law studies on what constitutes an “international strait” and the Americans are leery of setting a precedent. For example, up to a quarter of the world’s oil passes near Iran through the Strait of Hormuz and Washington wants to ensure the Iranians do not acquire any legal ability to block the flow.
So far both of these disputes have remained unresolved because there has been no need to resolve them, as with the Alaska panhandle before the gold rush. Further melting of the Arctic ice allowing tankers to actually use the Northwest Passage or further Beaufort gas discoveries would change this. As would any attempt by a more aggressive Canadian government to push the issues to a definitive conclusion.
To date, Canadian governments have confined themselves largely to rhetoric. Prime ministers of both parties have paid lip service to “sovereignty” and have (sometimes) even backed it up with money for Arctic patrols or icebreakers.
Other politicians, including the premier of the NWT, have tried to use the sovereignty issue to justify Dempster Highway upgrades, arctic ports and other pork-barrelling. Since no other country disputes Canadian possession of the Arctic islands (except for the Danes and Hans Island), these projects will have little impact on the ultimate resolution of the Beaufort or Northwest Passage disputes.
In fact, as in 1903, Canada may find that it has a weaker case than its politicians have led us to believe. And even if our case is strong, it will not be easy convincing the Americans. This is likely why the Canadian government has not pressed particularly hard to finally resolve either issue, either bilaterally or via arbitration. If we did, we might find ourselves forced to accept a messy compromise or worse. And without the British to blame this time.
Keith Halliday is a former Canadian foreign service officer and author of Yukon Secret Agents, a historical children’s adventure novel set during the 1903 Canada-Alaska