yes virginia the north pole is in the yukon

Is the North Pole in the Yukon, as this correspondent has been telling small children for years? Of course it is. Look at a map. The North Pole is just a quick sleigh ride straight up from Old Crow.

Is the North Pole in the Yukon, as this correspondent has been telling small children for years?

Of course it is. Look at a map. The North Pole is just a quick sleigh ride straight up from Old Crow.

The Norwegians, Finns, Swedes and Greenlanders are mere imposters. The Alaskans have a town named North Pole but there is no sign of Santa beyond some tacky tourist paraphernalia.

The idea of the North Pole being in the Northwest Territories or Nunavut is simply too ridiculous to discuss. The location of “Santa’s Village” near Bracebridge, Ontario, is only slightly less sad than hosting Klondike Days in Edmonton.

That, until recently, was the tone of the debate over who owned the North Pole.

The Russians, however, recently upped the ante by despatching a submarine to plant their flag at the North Pole. It was like the old days in Moscow, with threatening speeches from grumpy generals covered in medals. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon blustered jingoistically in response that Canada “would not be bullied” by the Russians in the Arctic.

Ownership of the North Pole and the rest of the Arctic seabed is important to the Yukon.

But before we get to that, we must delve into the delightfully obscure world of maritime diplomacy (prepare yourself for words like “pelagic”) and why—after years frozen in obscurity—the Arctic issue has surfaced in the newspapers.

The first reason is that climate change appears to be causing the Arctic ice to melt. This will open up previously inaccessible territory to navigation and oil exploration.

Second, oil prices are prompting intense interest in the vast amounts of energy locked under the melting Arctic ice.

Russia’s dependence on oil revenues and America’s desire to limit its reliance on politically unsavoury petro-regimes have heightened the interest.

Finally, the deadlines that were agreed long ago in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are approaching.

Following Winston Churchill’s dictum that “to jaw jaw is always better than to war war,” diplomats in the 1990s defined a lengthy process to resolve the disputed ownership of the Arctic seabed. Countries gave themselves years to ratify the Convention and then up to 10 years to submit their claims, backed by scientific and mapping data. Some countries are already filing, although Canada has until 2013 since we ratified the treaty later.

The idea is for Arctic countries to divide up more of the currently international waters among themselves. Most countries already have a 12-nautical-mile territorial limit with full sovereignty, plus a 200-nautical-mile “exclusive economic zone” agreed upon in the 1970s.

While foreign ships can pass through this zone, all the fish and oil belong to the coastal country.

Now, governments are extending their boundaries past the 200-nautical-mile zone if they have what the United Nations calls “extended continental shelves.” Ownership rights in these areas will be weaker than in the exclusive economic zone, including oil, gas and bottom-dwelling creatures but not “pelagic” fish stocks; Arctic crabs and scallops will become Canadian but the fish swimming above them will not.

Diplomats have developed more convoluted definitions of the continental shelf, but think of it as “submerged land,” which continues underwater until a sudden dropoff marks the beginning of deep-water ocean.

This is important, because under the new rules your country can claim extra territory if your shelf goes farther than the old 200-nautical-mile limit. In the Arctic, Canada and its neighbours appear to have very large “extended” (and apparently overlapping) continental shelves that they will now claim. The Law of the Sea process is meant to carefully weigh these claims using scientific data and an agreed set of rules, rather than the geopolitical equivalent of a staking rush.

So what does all this mean for the Yukon?

For one thing, it’s an opportunity for Canada to claim potentially billions in oil and gas. However, this may not mean much for the Yukon for two reasons. At the moment, unlike the Maritime provinces, we have no control or rights over offshore resources in the Beaufort Sea. Any new resources would be federal unless we signed a new offshore deal. And the development spinoffs would mostly occur in the Mackenzie Delta.

The other reason is that the continental shelf doesn’t go out very far from northern Yukon’s beaches. Your correspondent has not viewed the bathymetric data from inside a Russian submarine, but it appears the Yukon’s continental shelf ends within 200 nautical miles of shore. Farther west, the Alaskans will claim an area the size of California. The Russians will claim the North Pole itself. Canada will make a big claim off the NWT and Nunavut, but there likely won’t be much of an “extended” shelf off the Yukon.

On the other hand, one benefit is that the process will direct greater attention to the Arctic, perhaps giving us a chance to talk to our neighbours about strengthening environmental controls in this ecologically fragile region.

Finally, it is also possible that all the attention might reawaken the dispute between Canada and the United States over a large but little-known disputed triangle in the Beaufort Sea off the Yukon coast. This is not officially on the agenda, but some mischievous politicians might seize the opportunity for some vote-winning posturing.

Indeed, the main reason we are likely to hear more about the Law of the Sea process is that for politicians from Moscow to Juneau to Ottawa, it’s a chance to distract disgruntled voters with patriotic speeches about sovereignty and devious foreigners. It’s ideal for Canadian ministers, because they can enjoy a rare opportunity to talk tough to the superpowers, confident that any embarrassing real-world compromises won’t happen until after 2013 when some other minister will be in charge.

Keith Halliday is a former Canadian foreign service officer and author of a children’s historical adventure novel set during the 1903 Alaska-Canada border dispute. His next book Game On Yukon! appears shortly.