Easy Chair — From the January 2018 issue


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In the summer of 2008, Stephen Harper, then the prime minister of Canada, announced a partnership with private explorers to find the Erebus and the Terror. At the time, Harper was working to assert Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic, not just over its own territory but all the way to the North Pole. It was a land grab, or rather a water grab, since there’s no land north of Canada. “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. Either we use it or we lose it,” said Harper.

His administration renewed interest in the Arctic. The polar regions have long been considered international territory, but also sources of power and wealth. In the seventeenth century, fishing ships around Greenland and Svalbard, the archipelago far north of Norway, were decimating the whale population in the area. In 1613, a fleet of British warships patrolled the international waters of Svalbard to defend British whalers and drive off ships from Holland and Denmark. By the Cold War, the United States had built an enormous air base in northern Greenland, less than a thousand miles from the North Pole. Later that decade, a US Air Force colonel noted that “the Arctic is to us what the Mediterranean was to the Greeks and Romans — the center of the world.”

As prime minister, Harper vowed to make Canada an “energy superpower,” in part by exploiting the Alberta tar sands through a vastly destructive recovery process. He was a staunch opponent of climate-change research, but he was well aware that global warming offered two opportunities. As the summer ice in the Arctic melted faster and faster with each passing year, trade through the Northwest Passage would become a reality, and lucrative for whoever controlled it. In addition, the enormous oil reserves are currently worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

When the first ship, the Erebus, was discovered in 2014, Harper used it to bolster a claim to historical legitimacy. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history,” he declared, “given that his expeditions, which took place nearly two hundred years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”

It seemed peculiar for Harper to claim Franklin as a legitimizing predecessor. As the Inuit politician Jack Anawak put it, “Honoring somebody who’s a failure I don’t think is a good idea. I mean, he failed at first at finding the Northwest Passage, and secondly, failed at surviving in the North.”

When Justin Trudeau replaced Harper in 2015, he charmed many Americans, yet he pursued the development of the Alberta tar sands and their attendant pipelines, launched by the previous administration. In doing so, he ignored warnings from climate scientists, including James Hansen, who predicted that fully exploiting the immense reserves in the tar sands would lead to runaway climate change.

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