• A Festival of Ideas
  • January to May 2022
  • Guelph

Commentary on Arctic Sovereignty

The global debate about Arctic sovereignty has rekindled Canadian interest in the far North. A curious conjunction of northern issues—the melting of Arctic ice, rival claims to the Arctic seabed, and a race for oil and gas—has challenged Canadians to rethink their approach to the Arctic. These issues are important, but the public debate has overshadowed the remarkable transitions underway across the territorial North.

Only thirty years ago, the Canadian North functioned as colonies of southern Canada. Appointed commissioners ran the governments of the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Aboriginal people rarely participated in regional politics, and negotiations designed to resolve Indigenous land claims moved slowly. The once promising resource economy had stalled. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry led by Thomas Berger drew the nation’s attention to the aspirations of Aboriginal communities and countered the pro-development ethos that had dominated the post-World War II era. Many Aboriginal communities were mired in social, cultural and economic despair.

What a difference three decades can make. For this entire time, the North has been engaged in a seemingly endless round of negotiations and political discussions, but with impressive results. The unwieldy Northwest Territories was divided through the creation of the Inuit-dominated jurisdiction of Nunavut. The three northern territories received a substantial measure of responsible government. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut adopted a fascinating experiment in non-party, consensus government. The federal government transferred many key government powers and responsibilities to the territories. The Yukon received an updated and much-improved Yukon Act. Aboriginal people moved from the sidelines to the frontlines in territorial politics, reshaping northern agendas in the process.

Aboriginal peoples across the territorial North negotiated impressive comprehensive land claims agreements, starting with the Inuvialuit settlement in the Western Arctic in 1984. These settlements provided Aboriginal governments with cash, land, royalties from future resource developments, and the opportunity for self-government. By the early 21st century, most of the Aboriginal communities in the territories were covered by modern treaties. As a consequence, Indigenous governments now play a major role in the management of territorial affairs, provide many direct services to their communities and ensure that new resource projects protect local ecological systems and contribute positively to social and economic development.

The Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut have been dramatically transformed in the recent past. Southern attention focuses on high profile developments—diamond mines, Russian submarines, sovereignty disputes, and global warming—but a quiet and profound northern revolution has been underway. Significant challenges remain, particularly for Aboriginal peoples and cultures, and the search for a sustainable economic model continues. No other part of Canada has undergone as much political, legal and administrative change, and nowhere else in the country have Aboriginal people assumed as significant a role in regional politics and government. A New North has been created, based on North-centred institutions that give the territories the ability to participate appropriately in emerging international debates about the future of the Far North. Canada is better prepared for the Arctic debates of this generation as a consequence of the empowerment of the territorial North.


Ken Coates is Professor of History and Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo