Ceremonies of Possession, Science, and Sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic

Rosanna 1

Presenting my research at the ‘Arctic Imaginations’ symposium on 16th March 2015

In presenting a paper on my PhD research at the British Library, I considered how multifaceted, performative ceremonies of possession – which have historically served to effectively occupy space – continue to be used in the Canadian Arctic to justify and legitimise sovereignty claims over the North. In particular, I suggested that scientific research, like mapping, memorialising historical explorers, re-militarising activities or planting underwater flags, functions equally as effectively as a geopolitical tool.

The fantastic symposium on Arctic Imaginations, hosted by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, ran alongside their current exhibition Lines in the Ice, which ends on 19th April. The exhibition challenges the long-held assumptions of the history of exploration in the Arctic as a purely European affair and has been designed to reflect on the production and re-production of imaginative geographies. The exhibition presents a range of visual, textual and oral materials which depict numerous narratives of European explorers that have been drawn to the Arctic in search of scientific, economic and political treasures, helping to reveal the myriad effects that these voyages had on the Arctic’s indigenous peoples. The evening of the symposium culminated in a public panel entitled, ‘The Future of the Arctic’, which included Alan Kessel, the Deputy High Commissioner of the Canadian High Commission. Kessel mentioned the need for Canada to study ‘her’ (sic.) environment in the Arctic through scientific cooperation and research ‘in our own back yard’, and that Canada’s aim is to be a world leader in Arctic scientific research once the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) becomes operational in 2017 – coinciding with the ceremonial celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Indeed, Harper’s administration is publicly committed to promoting Canadian Arctic sovereignty and fostering an explicitly geopolitical agenda intent on performing the idea that the ‘Arctic is embedded in Canadian history and Culture, and in the Canadian Soul’. Speaking in 2007, for example, Harper made it explicitly clear that defending Arctic sovereignty was a priority: ‘Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic, we either use it or lose it’. Defending Canada’s Arctic sovereignty becomes a political performance through scientific enterprise as much as one facilitated by military, diplomatic and cultural investment. In an effort to possess sovereignty over the Arctic and insure Canadians are indeed ‘using it’, CHARS acts as a visual marker and material flagpole through which Canada can assert its sovereignty over the Arctic.

Canadian High Arctic Research Station, Architectural Plans

Canadian High Arctic Research Station, Architectural Plans

In her analysis of a distinctively English cultural complex associated with the possession of territorial units, Patricia Seed notes that the English occupation in North America prominently featured descriptions of building houses, planting gardens, and erecting fences or hedges – all acts that serve to occupy and domesticate the land in a highly visible way. In 1922, the Canadian Mounties were given a new post to occupy on Ellsemere Island; the new settlement was to combine the roles of a police station, a customs house and the most northerly post office in the world, all of which provided Canada with solid stable markers in the Arctic. Janice Carvell observed that ‘there was no formal declaration of sovereignty at the new post. Instead, the performance of scientific and administrative work affirmed the fact of Canada’s ownership’. In this way, like its 1922 outpost, CHARS is emblematic of the role of science as a political tool that facilitates a state’s performance of power. The importance of acts of possession are intensified when it concerns regions that are ‘framed’ as vast, inhospitable, remote, or challenging to occupy as they are removed from the centre of political and commercial activities. Nations are faced with the challenge of establishing the robust perception that they are both physically and symbolically present in a frontier region in their efforts to assert the legitimacy of any sovereign ownership claim made through the principles of effective occupation and effective governance. The physical materiality of CHARS, like the English constructions of fences and buildings, acts as a visible, stable, permanent structure and, as such, a marker of effective occupation and, at the same time, sovereignty.

Canadian High Arctic Research Station, Architectural Plans

Canadian High Arctic Research Station, Architectural Plans

But, it’s not just scientific stations that function as political tools in this way; mining, building, industry and even (indigenous and non-indigenous) bodies can serve geopolitical functions.

The blanket declaration of Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic by Joseph Bernier in 1909, did little more than symbolically restate claims under the sector theory. Bernier went on to assert that ‘we have annexed them, we want the people to settle there now’; in this observation, he drew attention to the need for bodies to ensure an effective and continued occupation of a region. One way of performing effective occupation of a region with bodies is by framing the remote space as a testing space where frontier masculinity can be performed; this masculinity can be thought of as an assemblage of constructed identity characteristics, often representing the ideal qualities of historically celebrated explorers or settlers.

In the early 1920s, Canada established a Royal Canadian Mountain Police post at Craig Harbour. By 1950, concerned about Arctic sovereignty in the face of the Cold War, Canadian officials wished to find a way to settle permanent residents in the east Arctic Archipelago and indigenous communities could be, as Klaus Dodds has observed, ‘positioned as useful static markers of effective occupation’. A federal press release at the time stated that:

“In addition to placing the Eskimos in new regions where game is more abundant and work more regular, there is the angle of occupation of the country…to forestall any such future claims, the Dominion is occupying the Arctic island to within nearly 700 miles of the North Pole.”

Knowing that the Inuit population were having an increasingly difficult time surviving as subsistence hunters, the Canadian Government’s solution was simple: uproot three families outside of Inukjuak and deposit them on Ellesmere Island, offering a return ticket in one year’s time if the Inuit were unhappy’. In reality, their new ‘home’ could have been described, as the harshest terrain that humans have ever continuously inhabited. The full impact of the policy did not truly come to light until hearings took place in the early 1990s as part of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which ultimately recommended Ottawa officially apologise to the Inuit communities, something which did not take place until 2010.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, unlike the uneasy British imperial legacy that is left behind by his predecessors, it is much more convenient politically for Harper to relocate scientists rather than  indigenous families as markers of effective occupation. In light of this, one might assert that the materiality of the bodies of the scientists who will be conducting research at the station in Cambridge Bay also act to effectively occupy the region. The scientific exploratory patrols frame Cambridge Bay as a testing space in which scientific ‘frontier masculinity’ can take place (once again).

By Rosanna White

Rosanna is a second year PhD student researching geopolitics and exploration in the polar regions at Royal Holloway university of london in collaboration with the Eccles Centre, British Library. Her particular research interests include Canadian sovereignty displays in the Arctic; she is hoping to travel to Canada to do research this year. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s