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The World Wildlife Fund expects the Arctic region to heat up three times faster than the rest of the world. Many negative consequences are expected to arise from this catastrophe: the melting of glaciers, changes in climate patterns and sea habitats worldwide, and associated impacts on Indigenous lifestyles and livelihoods in the North. The change in climate patterns has already affected animal habitats, for example, making Arctic communities less safe for their residents and making hunting and fishing more difficult. 

Rather than prevent the runaway effects of glaciers melting, global governments and transnational corporations instead see the de-thawing of the Arctic as a potential opportunity for resource exploitation and economic development. Northern Canada holds vast quantities of extractable natural resources, for example, oil, uranium, and rare minerals (such as diamonds and gold). A less frigid environment in the Arctic would make resource extraction operations much more feasible and allow for more resource extraction, as well as the opportunity to expand (already unsustainable) supply chains by opening up shipping lanes through the Canadian Arctic, providing an alternate shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic. One example is Exxon and BP, which are currently drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea. 

The government has also gotten in on the action: the Canadian government has published a Northern policy framework that tries to develop these resources and the overall region. Among other things, this plan seeks to improve infrastructure in the North, such as rail, road, and sea links for cargo and people, as the Canadian government seeks to make the Northwest Passage a reality for shipping and tourism. Furthermore, due to its increased value economically, Russia and China, among others, have become more interested in the region in recent years. Russia, for example, has aimed to massively ramp up both its economic and military footprint in the region, investing billions into oil extraction in the region. To counter this, the Canadian government has also vowed to increase defences in the region to defend it from foreign governments.

More than 65,000 Inuit live in Canada, with a majority living in Northern Canada. Indigenous peoples make up the majority in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut and a sizable minority in Yukon. For them, the climate crisis threatens their way of life; but could the economic development in the region do even more harm? Furthermore, how could climate change affect geopolitics in the Arctic region?

Environmental Impacts of Further Development

Increased development in the region could benefit employment. However, the environmental effects of more economic development in the Arctic could be catastrophic, even if the mine didn’t include the mining of radioactive material. If nothing else, the increased movement of ships through the Canadian Arctic would almost inevitably affect the region’s fishing, hunting, and air quality, due to sound and chemical pollution from ships. The transport and mining industries are also major polluters and CO2 emitters, and growth in these industries will inevitably worsen the climate crisis in the region unless green technology is widely adopted. 

The environmental effects should not be ignored, either. A study involving a uranium mine in northern Saskatchewan found that waste runoff from mines (water sources nearby mines that get contaminated, often with toxic metals) could potentially build up in the local fish stock. Past mining operations in the Canadian North have almost inevitably led to environmental degradation, such as scaring away animal herds and polluting water sources traditionally consumed by Indigenous residents. This has many concerned about the environmental effects of further economic development in the region; however, a 1994 paper shows that with modern designs, the effects of mining on the local environment and fish stocks in the region can be minimised. Fishing and hunting are integral parts of the Inuit lifestyle, so any damage to sea life would be devastating for Inuit peoples and their food security. 

While these mines have brought economic benefits to local communities, many Inuit are torn over mining due to its environmental effects. Furthermore, they are frustrated by the compensation given by mining companies for the environmental damages caused by mining, which under the Nunavut Agreement mostly goes to select Inuit groups such as the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), rather than local communities. (The Nunavut Agreement, also known as the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement 1993, is an agreement signed between the Canadian government and Nunavut Inuit leaders in 1993. The agreement returns to Inuit groups’ powers to manage land use within the territory of Nunavut.) “We are given very little money and we know that money will not bring back wildlife,” said Nunavut resident Tom Naqitarvik. 

These conflicts are revealed by the 2021 protests in Mary River, Nunavut, where local Inuit populations protested against the further expansion of the Baffinland iron mine. An Inuit group blockaded the Baffinland iron mine in Mary River after the Baffinland company proposed to expand said mine by doubling output, as well as building a railroad from the mine to a local seaport in order to aid with exports. Local Inuit residents, meanwhile, were concerned that the increased activity in the mine would drive away caribou and other traditionally hunted animals; the Nunavut Impact Review Board has agreed, issuing a report against the proposed expansion on environmental grounds.

The report noted that the proposed mine expansion “has the potential to result in significant adverse ecosystemic effects on marine mammals and fish, caribou and other terrestrial wildlife, along with vegetation and freshwater, and these effects could lead to associated significant adverse socio-economic effects on Inuit harvesting, culture, land use and food security in Nunavut.” This is symbolic of the impacts of unregulated economic development on the North.

Geopolitics in the Arctic: Battleground in Canada’s North?

Besides the socioeconomic and environmental consequences, more economic development in the Arctic may turn the region into the latest international arena of geopolitical conflict. In recent years, China and Russia have been eyeing the region due to its economic (vast amounts of resources) and geopolitical (important trade route) importance. Russia’s Arctic regions are already an important contributor to the Russian economy, making up 20% of the country’s exports. The region is also important to the Moscow regime defensively, as many of Russia’s Cold War-era missile bases are based in the North. Thus, the government in Moscow has bolstered defences in the area, “through the refurbishing of Soviet-era airfields, the expansion of its network of air and coastal [defence] missile systems and the strengthening of its anti-access and area-denial capabilities.”

The fight over the Arctic is not new; during the Cold War, missile bases and military instalments were placed all around the Arctic due to its strategic importance as the only direct point of contact between the Soviet Union and North America. One prime example of this was the NORAD air defence system over the Canadian Arctic and Alaska, which would have served as a warning should missiles ever come from the North to attack the Americas. Thus, the militarisation of the Arctic is a continuation of a Cold War-era policy thought that will only intensify as the Arctic becomes more important. 

Various Arctic nations including Canada have also fought over exclusive economic zones in the Northern oceans to try to claim more resources; this battle has extended onto land, with countries such as Norway and Russia funding unprofitable coal mines in order to bolster their claim to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Russia has even built new military bases in the Arctic in an attempt to strengthen its hold over the region. 

To counter this, the Canadian government will need to invest in mining and transportation throughout the Arctic to improve the Northern economy. At the same time, the government needs to consider and minimise the harm done to Inuit and other Indigenous communities in the region while weighing further economic development in the region, as well as the Arctic environment. To do this, Indigenous communities that have used and maintained the land must be consulted and have their concerns prioritised, and adequate compensation is directed to them rather than Inuit groups. The Arctic is shaping to be an area of contention geopolitically, and the Canadian government should work to defend national interests in the area; however, we should not ignore the potentially negative effects on the area itself.

Edited by Majeed Malhas

Jonathan Chan

Born in Hong Kong and living in Vancouver, Canada since 2016, Jonathan (he/him) is currently a first-year student in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. He is passionate about...