Treaty could make Arctic safer

A major accomplishment of the Arctic Council is a big embarrassment for Canada, says Yukon MP Larry Bagnell. "For five years I've been telling the government to put search-and-rescue equipment North of 60," he says.

A major accomplishment of the Arctic Council is a big embarrassment for Canada, says Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.

“For five years I’ve been telling the government to put search-and-rescue equipment North of 60,” he says. “And it’s kind of embarrassing that we’re going to sign an agreement where we have a big part to play and we don’t have the search-and-rescue equipment for our own country, let alone helping out in other countries.”

While no one knows the details, nor have they seen a copy, Ottawa announced it will sign a search-and-rescue treaty with seven other Arctic nations.

That is expected to happen in May.

The agreement will force Canada to do what Bagnell has been asking it to do for years – put permanent military search-and-rescue equipment in the North, he says.

That may not happen, says Whitney Lakenbauer, an author and professor of Canada’s history and military in the Far North.

“The main purpose is to strengthen co-operation,” he says. “We don’t know how much new responsibility it places on Canada, it’s really an attempt to consolidate the efforts of all the different states.”

So the treaty may not generate more equipment, just make better use of what already exists, he says.

For example, the North’s difficult geography could dictate more efficient rescue routes that ignore national boundaries.

Currently, all eight countries assume responsibility for search and rescue in their own territory, but some countries aren’t even sure where those lines are, says Lakenbauer.

The coming agreement won’t help map those borders, it is more an emergency plan, laid out legally, so that everyone knows what to do when something happens in a particular place, he says.

“It’s about responsibilities, not rights,” he says.

But responsibility tends to dictate rights, just as the same is true in reverse.

While agreeing they are two different things, Bagnell says legalizing search-and-rescue responsibility will emphasize the importance of solving territory and sovereignty disputes in the Arctic, like the one between Canada and the United States in the Beaufort Sea.

As well, it is a strong symbol to other countries, like China and South Korea, which have been expressing more interest in the North, that the Arctic nations own the area, says Bagnell.

“By legislating this treaty related to a particular topic, which happens to be search and rescue, it shows those other countries that the eight Arctic nations are actually the ones in charge of the Arctic,” he says.

Again, Lakenbauer disagrees.

But they do agree the treaty is a success for the Arctic Council.

Many believe this treaty came from the events this past summer, when two cruise ships were grounded in the Canadian Arctic.

But it actually began in April 2009, when the council appointed a task force to examine the issue.

“So for those who have criticized the Arctic Council for being too soft and not having any teeth, this sends a really strong signal that the Arctic Council does have a lot of relevance and is actually producing really important instruments that benefit all the different Arctic states,” says Lakenbauer, noting northern indigenous groups play a large role on the council.

In the end, this treaty is finally forcing attention where it has been long overdue, says Bagnell.

“They just keep saying there’s not enough rescues in the North to warrant it,” he says about government’s responses to his calls for more equipment in the North.

“But why should we be treated less than other Canadians and not have quick access to military search and rescue?”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

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