Canada Making North Pole Claim Despite Not Fully Mapping Area

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Canada says it will try to extend its territorial claims in the Arctic all the way to the North Pole, although it hasn't yet fully mapped the area and does not have the scientific evidence to back the claim. (CP)
Canada says it will try to extend its territorial claims in the Arctic all the way to the North Pole, although it hasn't yet fully mapped the area and does not have the scientific evidence to back the claim. (CP)

OTTAWA - Canada says it will try to extend its territorial claims in the Arctic to include the North Pole, although it hasn't yet fully mapped the area, doesn't have the scientific evidence to back the claim and faces major diplomatic hurdles.

A formal scientific submission was made to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf last week covering 1.2 million square kilometres of territorial claims in the Atlantic, but the government says material submitted for the Arctic Ocean is only preliminary.

Despite saying two years ago that data collection was complete, the federal government plans to send its scientists back into the field for more work mapping a giant undersea mountain range that Ottawa says could secure the sea floor under the top of the world for the Maple Leaf.

"That's why we've asked our officials and scientists to do additional and necessary work to ensure that a submission for the full extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic includes Canada's claim to the North Pole," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Monday.

Baird did not dispute published reports that Prime Minister Stephen Harper stepped in at the last minute to insist that the North Pole be included in Canada's claim after the scientific assessment put the boundary just south of the pole.

The undersea Lomonosov Ridge runs from near Ellesmere Island northward over the pole and would be the geological basis for a Canadian territorial claim. Scientists suggest it looks as if the ridge is connected to the Canadian land mass, but Canada has only done aerial surveys of the ridge once it gets past the pole.

"The reality is the Lomonosov Ridge wasn't fully mapped in the submissions that my department did," Baird said.

"And, frankly, we think it's important when you do this extensive mapping, we wanted to get the entire Arctic map, including on the ridge."

Arctic experts point out that Russia and Denmark also argue the Lomonosov Ridge extends from their shores.

International law expert Michael Byers points out the pole lies on the Danish side of the ridge. It also lies on the Danish side of a line that runs equidistant from Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

"In five or 10 or 20 years, we are going to have to admit that the North Pole is not Canadian," said Byers, who teaches at the University of British Columbia.

"(Harper) does not want to be the prime minister seen publicly as having surrendered the North Pole, even if the scientific facts don't support a Canadian claim. What he's essentially doing here is holding this place, standing up for Canadian sovereignty, while in private he knows full well that position is untenable."

Rob Huebert at the University of Calgary said the pole itself doesn't matter; it's the amount of sea floor that's important.

If all three High Arctic neighbours claim an attachment to the Lomonosov Ridge, Canada might still do well, he suggested. Dividing the ridge equally between Canada, Russia and Denmark would put Canada's boundary 370 kilometres past the North Pole.

"The North Pole doesn't matter," Huebert said. "It's the territory underneath that's important."

"It's politics, I guess," said Wylie Spicer, a Calgary lawyer with a long practice in international law and law of the sea, pointed out that none of the claims will result in a binding decision. They just lay the groundwork for years of future negotiations.

"What's going to have to happen is that it's going to be a political and diplomatic settlement," he said.

Nonetheless, Baird and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq painted the scientific submissions — even the incomplete Arctic claim — as being of historic proportions.

"We are defining Canada's last frontier," said Aglukkaq, Canada's minister on the Arctic Council, the group of eight northern countries that ring the Arctic Circle.

Bureaucrats at a technical briefing Monday on the submission couldn't explain why more work is needed after a 10-year effort that the government itself said was complete in 2012. Nor were they able to offer a timeline or outline what kind of resources it will take to extend Canada's mapping.

Huebert pointed out that even without the unresolved Arctic claim, Canada has now filed claims off its eastern coast that overlaps with Denmark, France and the United States. Those ongoing discussions will add a further layer of complexity to relations with those countries, he said.

— With files from Bob Weber in Edmonton

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