Canadian Arctic Sovereignty

Arctic sovereignty is a key part of Canada’s history and future. The country has 162,000 km of Arctic coastline. Forty per cent of Canada’s landmass is in its three northern territories. Sovereignty over the area has become a national priority for Canadian governments in the 21st century. There has been growing international interest in the Arctic due to resource development, climate change, control of the Northwest Passage and access to transportation routes. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in 2008, “The geopolitical importance of the Arctic and Canada’s interests in it have never been greater.”

Arctic sovereignty is a key part of Canada’s history and future. The country has 162,000 km of Arctic coastline. Forty per cent of Canada’s landmass is in its three northern territories. Sovereignty over the area has become a national priority for Canadian governments in the 21st century. There has been growing international interest in the Arctic due to resource development, climate change, control of the Northwest Passage and access to transportation routes. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in 2008, “The geopolitical importance of the Arctic and Canada’s interests in it have never been greater.”

Arctic Circle
The Arctic Circle appears in blue on this map.

International Law

A country’s claim to sovereignty over land or sea depends on the complexities of international law. Generally accepted proofs of sovereignty include discovery of territory; the ceding of territory from one nation to another; conquest; and administration. The historical notion that Indigenous people have no legal title to the land they live in — that they do not “own” it — has been central to the idea of European sovereignty over North American territory. This way of thinking has asserted that Indigenous people merely have Indigenous rights, particularly “usufructuary” rights, or the right to use the land and its products. (See also Aboriginal Title.)

In recent years, however, the federal government, particularly under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has argued that the long-time presence of Inuit and other Indigenous peoples in Canada’s Arctic territories has helped establish Canada’s historic title to those lands.

Indigenous traditional territories.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/

Canada’s Claim to the North

Canada’s claim to its North rests first on the charter granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) by Charles II in 1670. This gave the company legal title to Rupert’s Land (the watershed of Hudson Bay, or about half of present-day Canada). In 1821, the rest of the present-day Northwest Territories and Nunavut south of the Arctic Coast were added to the HBC charter. The company transferred title to its lands to Canada in June 1870; the new Dominion thus acquired sovereignty over all of the present-day Northwest Territories and Nunavut except for the Arctic islands. This sovereignty has never been questioned.

Where doubt has risen over Canada’s claims to Arctic sovereignty is in the islands north of the Canadian mainland. Some of the early explorers here were British (Martin Frobisher in 1576; John Davis in 1585 and 1587, and others). But many of these islands were reached and explored by Scandinavians or Americans. (See Arctic Exploration.)

Sir Martin Frobisher
Frobisher discovered the bay now named for him on Baffin Island, but was deceived by the pyrites, which he took for gold.
Explorations of Martin Frobisher
Explorations of John Davis

In July 1880, the British government transferred the rest of its possessions in the Arctic to Canada. This included “all Islands adjacent to any such Territories” whether reached or not. This is a feeble basis for a claim of sovereignty, because the British had a dubious right to give Canada islands which had not yet been discovered by foreigners. The Colonial Boundaries Act of 1895 attempted to alleviate these doubts; but it still contained a vague definition of the territory claimed.

Meanwhile, although the United States made no formal claims, they were particularly active around Ellesmere Island. Lieutenant A. Greely led a scientific expedition there from 1881 to 1884. In 1909, Robert Peary reached the North Pole from his base on northern Ellesmere. The greatest danger to Canada’s claims came via the expedition of Otto Sverdrup; between 1898 and 1902, he reached Axel Heiberg Island, Ellef Ringnes Island and Amund Ringnes Island. Sverdrup is believed to be the first European to set foot on them. He claimed all his discoveries — about 275,000 km2 — for Norway. Other large Arctic islands were also reached by non-British explorers.

Ellesmere Island
Map showing the location of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut (courtesy Jaelyn J. Eberle)

Early Voyages and J.E. Bernier

In the 1880s, the Canadian government sponsored periodic voyages to the Eastern Arctic. The goal was to establish a presence there in support of its territorial claims. In 1897, a series of Arctic patrols began. Captain William Wakeham raised the Royal Union Flag on Kekerten Island, claiming “Baffin’s Land” for the Dominion. (See Baffin Island.) In 1904, A.P. Low sailed up to Cape Herschel on Ellesmere Island, which he mapped and claimed for Canada. Captain J.E. Bernier carried out numerous voyages between 1904 and 1925. Perhaps the most important was that of 1909; he set up a plaque on Melville Island, claiming the Arctic archipelago for Canada, from the mainland to the North Pole.

Claiming the Archipelago, 1909
Captain Bernier (with the young muskox) lays a plaque to Parry's Rock, Winter Harbour, proclaiming Canada's jurisdiction, 1 July 1909 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-29604).

The Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE, 1913–18), which included many Iñupiat (Alaskan Inuit), Inuvialuit (Western Arctic Inuit) and Inuinnait (Copper Inuit), asserted Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic archipelago; it also remade the map of the Far North and collected a vast amount of scientific data. It was the first expedition financed and supported by the Canadian government to explore the Western Arctic. The CAE was commanded by the controversial explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson; he charted the last of the Arctic islands and claimed them for Canada.

However, these and similarly symbolic acts of raising flags and erecting plaques carried little weight in international law since they were not accompanied by effective occupation or administration.

Canadian Arctic Expedition
Stefansson's ice party leaving Collinson Point, Alaska, 16 March 1914 (courtesy National Archives of Canada/C-23659).
Arctic Expedition
The 1903 expedition, under the command of A.P. Low, was captained by S.W. Bartlett, shown here at the helm of the "Neptune" (courtesy Library and Archives Canada).

Police Posts Established

The first vigorous assertion of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic came with the establishment of a North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) post at Herschel Island in 1903. It was set up to control the activities of American whalers in the Western Arctic. It enforced Canadian laws and flew the flag in the region, making Canada’s sovereignty there unquestionable.

After the First World War, the Americans and Danes showed signs of ignoring Canada’s claims to the High Arctic; particularly to Ellesmere Island, which the Danish government stated in 1919 was a no-man’s land. This was a direct challenge to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. It was met by a plan for effective occupation of Ellesmere and other islands. In 1922, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) posts were established at Craig Harbour and at the south end of the island; as well as at Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. In 1923, another detachment was placed at Pangnirtung, and in 1924 at Dundas Harbour, on Devon Island. In 1926, the Bache Peninsula detachment was established on the east coast of Ellesmere Island, at 79° N latitude. (See also Bache Peninsula Archaeological Sites.)

Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP)

There were no Canadians living within hundreds of kilometres of Bache Peninsula. But the RCMP operated a post office there (with mail delivery once a year) because operation of a post office was an internationally recognized proof of sovereignty. The RCMP also continued its extensive patrols. On Ellesmere Island, where there was no population, these were exploratory. In 1929, a patrol commanded by Inspector A.H. Joy covered 3,000 km by dog team. Some new land was reached. In 1928, Constable T.C. Makinson reached the large inlet off Smith Sound that now bears his name.

On Baffin Island, the police visited each Inuit camp annually, took the census, explained the law and reported to Ottawa on local conditions. These were all demonstrations of sovereignty. Where necessary, they enforced the criminal law, as in the murder of the Newfoundland trader Robert Janes near Pond Inlet in 1920. This activity further strengthened Canada’s claims to the Arctic. (See also Alikomiak and Tatimagana.) In 1931, Norway formally abandoned its claim to the Sverdrup Islands. Ottawa also paid Sverdrup $67,000 for the records of his expeditions. This made Canada’s formal claim secure.


Canadian Rangers

The Canadian Rangers is an organization within the Canadian Armed Forces. Consisting mainly of local Indigenous people, it provides a paramilitary presence in the North and in other remote areas. The current iteration of the Rangers was established in 1947, when Cold War tensions between the Western and Soviet blocs brought unprecedented attention to the Canadian North. In the decades that followed, the Rangers developed as a sub-component of the Canadian Army Reserve.

Approximately 5,000 Rangers, from 200 communities, help promote Canadian sovereignty in isolated regions today. Their duties include reporting unusual activities; surveillance and sovereignty patrols; search and rescue; disaster relief; and support of Armed Forces operations and survival training.

Canadian Rangers
A member of 5 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, watches the patrol from a safety snowmobile during their return to the town of Nain, Labrador, following a successful cordon-and-search patrol on February 8, 2015 during Exercise NORTHERN SAPPER.
MCpl Robert LeBlanc, 5th Cdn Div Public Affairs

High Arctic Relocation

Also amid Cold War tensions in the postwar era, the Canadian government decided to populate Ellesmere and Cornwallis islands with Inuit, even though both areas were uninhabited. In 1953 and 1955, the RCMP moved a total of 92 Inuit from Inukjuak (formerly Port Harrison) in northern Quebec, and Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) in what is now Nunavut, to settle two locations on the High Arctic islands: Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord. The government ordered the relocations to establish sovereignty in the Arctic. It promised improved housing, education and living conditions. The Inuit were assured plentiful wildlife, but soon found that they had been misled, and endured hardships. Though Inuit were promised an option to return home after two years, they were not permitted to do so. (See Inuit High Arctic Relocations in Canada.)

Formerly known as Resolute Bay.
Grise Fiord

Challenges Enforcing Arctic Sovereignty

Canada’s claim to its Arctic land area is now secure. But the fact that large sections are uninhabited and virtually undefended raises the possibility that it may not be secure forever. More important is the fact that there is international consensus only about the land area; the channels and straits — particularly the Northwest Passage — are not universally recognized as Canadian.

Canada regards the channels and straits as internal waters through which foreign vessels must request permission to pass. With the prospect of bringing home oil from Arctic discoveries off Alaska, the United States has increasingly seen the Northwest Passage as international waters, open to all. It demonstrated this belief by sending the oil tanker Manhattan (1969) and the United States Coast Guard Ship Polar Sea (1985) into Canada’s Arctic. The Manhattan was escorted through the Northwest Passage with the help of Canadian and American icebreakers. The US did not officially seek permission for the Polar Sea voyage from the Canadian government; but Canada was notified about the event. Both countries co-operated on the matter, and Canada stationed official observers onboard during the voyage.

Northwest Passage
A map showing the routes of various expeditions searching for a northwest passage through the Arctic, from 1576 to 1944.

As a result of the 1985 voyage of the Polar Sea, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark put forward plans for a new $500 million icebreaker. It fell victim to cost-cutting and was never built. In 1987, the federal government also announced that it would build and station nuclear-powered submarines in Arctic waters; but this had as much to do with Canada’s role in continental defence as with sovereignty. After much fanfare and political wrangling, the plan to build or buy submarines was quietly abandoned. In early 1996, another plan to patrol the Arctic waters by submarine was abandoned as too expensive.

South Coast of Hans Island
The south coast of Hans Island rises to 140 metres.
(photo by Alexander Grist, courtesy Geological Survey of Canada)

Canada and Denmark have long argued over a tiny, uninhabited island; a 1.3 km2 barren piece of rock halfway between Ellesmere Island and Greenland known as Hans Island. Officials from both countries have travelled to Hans Island to raise flags. The two countries have spent years negotiating over the island. In 2005, both sides agreed to work together to settle the territorial dispute. Periodically, Canadian troops will visit the island to raise the Canadian flag and leave behind a bottle of whisky for the Danes; they in turn visit, raise their flag and leave behind a bottle of schnapps (akvavit).

In 2010, the federal government announced plans to build a fleet of six to eight “ice-capable, Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships,” to enforce Canada’s sovereignty on its coasts, including the Arctic. Due to delays, the ships are not yet operational.

See also Northwest Passage; High Arctic Weather Stations; Law of the Sea; Maclean’s Article: Who Own’s the North Pole?.

Read More // Arctic Sovereignty

Further Reading

  • Jennifer Parks, Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty: Resources, Climate and Conflict (2010).
  • Franklyn Griffiths, Rob Huebert and P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Canada and the Changing Arctic: Sovereignty, Security and Stewardship (2011).
  • Danita Burke, International Disputes and Cultural Ideas in the Canadian Arctic: Arctic Sovereignty in the National Consciousness (2018).
  • Peter Pigott, From Far and Wide: A History of Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty (2011).
  • Terrance Power and Pauline Power, Canada’s Arctic Sovereignty: Under Attack (2014).
  • Gordon W. Smith, A Historical and Legal Study of Sovereignty in the Canadian North: Terrestrial Sovereignty, 1870–1939 (2014).

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