The Arctic Contested

by Keith Battarbee (Volume editor) John Erik Fossum (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 320 Pages


In recent decades, and in particular as a result of global climate change, the significance of the Arctic has radically shifted, from a remote periphery to a region of intensifying political and academic interest and of conflicting interests.
This collection of texts examines in particular how national and international politics and law impact on Arctic governance, communications and indigenous rights; and in parallel, explores perceptions and experiences of the North in literature and the dramatic arts. The book thus offers a platform for cross-disciplinary dialogue, in order to highlight that the Arctic is too multi-faceted and complex for any one discipline or approach adequately to encompass.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction. Contesting the Arctic
  • Part One: Territory and Politics in the Arctic
  • Contesting the Arctic. Territory and Politics
  • Responding to Change in the North. Comparing Recent Canadian and American Foreign Policies in the Arctic
  • Asia as a Complicating Factor in Canada-US Northern Diplomacy
  • A Canadian Dire Strait. The Northwest Passage from a Legalist Perspective
  • Cold Peace. Arctic Cooperation and Canadian Foreign Policy
  • Breaking the Ice. The European Union and the Arctic
  • The Other Sovereignties. Québec and the Arctic
  • Part Two: Indigenous Perspectives in the Arctic
  • Living in the Arctic. Indigenous Perspectives and Issues
  • Inuit in Canada
  • Canadian Inuit. Where we have been and where we are going
  • The Promises of Consultations?
  • Aboriginal Title. Bounds and Parcels of Aboriginal Lands in Canada and Norway
  • Shifting Language Policy Priorities in Arctic North America. Pragmatism, Privilege, and Political Correctness
  • Part Three: Representations and Experiences of the Arctic
  • Experiencing the Arctic. Representations and Responses
  • “We Stand on Guard”. The “True North Strong and Free” War, the Arts, and the Canadian North
  • “Stillness destroys them”. Northern Space and Movement in Rudy Wiebe’s Writing
  • North. Of Beauty, Of Love, and Of Stairways to Heaven
  • Series Index


This book has its origins in the various networks that NACS – the Nordic Association for Canadian Studies, an academic coalition linking together researchers and teachers across the five Nordic countries – has with Canadian and other scholars who are interested in things Canadian and Arctic: above all, in the academic fields of the humanities and the social sciences. NACS was first established in the 1970s, and benefited for many years from the generous support which successive Canadian Governments provided for academic research and teaching abroad on topics relating to Canada. Those golden years have now come to an end, with the winding-down by the Harper governments of the Understanding Canada program, but its achievements live on – not least in the dynamic networks of enthusiastic ‘Canadianists’ around the world, but especially in Europe. The Nordic Association is just one of 12 registered European associations.

We are particularly grateful to International Journal and SAGE for permission to reprint four articles: Michael Byers Cold Peace: Arctic Cooperation and Canadian Foreign Policy; Steffen Weber & Iulian Romanyshyn Breaking the Ice: The European Union and the Arctic; Stéphane Roussel & Jean-François Payette: The Other Sovereignties: Québec and the Arctic; and Mary Simon Canadian Inuit – Where we have been and where we are going that initially appeared in a two volume special issue on the Arctic in 2010 and 2011 (co-edited by John Erik Fossum and Stephane Roussel).

As the editors of this volume know well from their own experience, one of the striking features of ‘area studies’, but possibly especially so for Canadian Studies, is the way in which scholars from very different academic fields come together in close collaboration. In the ‘real world’ of the university campus, political scientists, literary critics, art historians, migration studies scholars, linguists, and students of indigenous societies and cultures all too easily carry out their research and their teaching in relative isolation from each other’s disciplines; but at Canadianist conferences and seminars, they find themselves speaking on the same platform, listening to the same speakers, eating and drinking at the same table, responding to the same writers and film-makers and musicians. Again and again, it is this multi-disciplinary (and social) character, and the cross-disciplinarity collaboration that this generates, which Canadianists will highlight as the distinctive joy of these networks. ← 9 | 10 →

Therein, too, lies the germ idea of this book. There are plenty of forums for the separate disciplines; genuinely cross-disciplinary forums are fewer, and harder to maintain, since unlike narrower dedicated mono-disciplinary forums, they do not feed as seamlessly into the intense promotion pathways of professional academic life. Yet for a sound and adequate understanding of a subject such as the Arctic, interdisciplinarity is crucial. Multi-disciplinarity is an important first step, where the different voices are each heard, but in parallel; genuine inter- or cross-disciplinarity is yet a greater challenge, where the voices engage in fruitful dialogue. We hope that in its own modest way this book can contribute to the furthering of that dialogue about the Arctic.

Keith Battarbee, Turku
John Erik Fossum, Oslo
← 10 | 11 →


Contesting the Arctic


Formerly Senior Lecturer in English, and Coordinator, North American Studies program, University of Turku, Finland; former President, Nordic Association for Canadian Studies (NACS)

John Erik FOSSUM

Professor, ARENA Center for European Studies, University of Oslo; Vice President, Nordic Association for Canadian Studies (NACS)


Permission to use an updated version of this map, and a high-resolution image for printing purposes, has been kindly provided by the copyright-holders, the Norwegian Polar Institute.
← 11 | 12 →

1.  Nordicité: the Arctic as trope

The Arctic is getting ‘hotter’ in climatic, as well as in political-economic terms.1 The rapid climate changes associated with global warming have given added impetus to the social construction of the Arctic as a distinct region. That might sound somewhat strange, as geographically speaking, at the heart of the Arctic there is (melting) ice and water. The Arctic is “an ocean surrounded by continents” (Byers, this volume), and each state within those continents has its own distinctive take on what the Arctic is and signifies. At the same time, there is an Arctic framing discourse, and there are arrangements in place to give this region some institutional presence and credibility. Canada has played a central framing role in terms of conceptualizing the Arctic, and Canada was also the instigator of the main Arctic governing mechanism, the Arctic Council; thus it is quite natural that we give special attention to Canada. At the same time it is important to stress that the Canadian way of framing the Arctic draws on particular understandings of the Arctic that relate to how it understands and frames ‘the North’ – from an Arctic regional perspective at the same time a unifying and differentiating concept. Nevertheless, in order to understand the Arctic as trope, we must lean on and draw from the great preoccupation with ‘the North’ and the Northern dimension of all those countries that are associated with the Arctic.

The North is, by definition, a relative concept, and northernness – nordicité – even in its literal, geophysical meaning, is perceived very differently, depending on how far south the question is asked. As Nordic and Canadian scholars, we are already ‘north’ in relation to our respective European and American continental contexts. ‘Northernness’ is not merely a matter of geography, however; it has also been seen as a different cast of mind, a distinctive frame of experience and values, specifically characteristic of societies or cultures in part defined by their northern location or, better, their northern orientation.

It has long been a familiar flourish of Canadian political rhetoric to proclaim Canada as a ‘northern’ nation, but what this often means is primarily that Canada is distinct from, and lies geographically to the north of, the United States. In ways more specifically rooted in the experience of personal encounter with the far North, however, many artists and writers, including Aritha van Herk (one of our contributors) and Rudy Wiebe (discussed in two other contributions) have reiterated the importance for Canada of recognizing its own northernness, its nordicité.

On the other hand, in Northern Experience and the Myths of Canadian Culture, Renée Hulan has questioned how far nordicité can really be ← 12 | 13 → said to characterize mainstream contemporary Canada as a society or a culture. She rejects “the belief that the north, in both its geographical and discursive meanings, belongs to Canadians. I believe, on the contrary, that the north has little if anything to do with being a Canadian today. Or, at least, its relevance to the majority of Canadians is obscure…” (p. 27). Although almost all of the geographical area of Canada lies north of the meteorological line beyond which there are on average less than 120 frostfree days annually – where, one might, say, non-winter comprises less than a third of the year – a very high proportion of the Canadian population actually lives in the zone with 120 to 180 days without frost, or indeed over 200 days in coastal southern BC: in areas where frost is more of an intrusive occurrence, rather than a default state.

Southern Canada is a mainstream Western society and culture, well protected except in exceptional storm conditions by its technology and infrastructure against the peripheralizing impact of climate and distance that characterize the Arctic and sub-Arctic region. From a totally different perspective, therefore, namely that of seeking to better understand the character of southern Canadian culture and society, Hulan thus arrives at a position consistent with those scholars and artists who have emphasized the difference, the Otherness, of the high North – what Aritha van Herk calls the “north north”.

In 1967, the brilliant and quirky Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, directed an experimental documentary for the CBC, called The Idea of North (later reworked as a CBC/PBS film (1970)). More recently, two marvelous books have been written which play on Gould’s title, The Idea of North, exploring how such northernness has been expressed in literature and the arts. One (The Idea of North, Reaktion, 2005) by Peter Davidson, from the University of Aberdeen, explores northernness in the arts understood very widely; and reflecting his Scottish context, his understanding of ‘the North’ reaches far further south than ours does. The other (Canada and the Idea of North, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001) is by Sherrill Grace, of the University of British Columbia, a contributor to this volume. Grace’s study is a classic exploration of Northernness in the Canadian arts and imagination, and one of the most powerful and influential statements of the perception of Canada as a Northern society and nation.

One major shift in perceptions of the North in recent decades has been the belated recognition that there are peoples living there who are not merely peripheral and unimportant, but in their history and their ecology have much to teach us about an environment so starkly different from that of mainstream Western society. Not everyone sees the North in this way, acknowledging what could be called an ‘endocentric’ view. Among ← 13 | 14 → the varied perspectives of intellectual enquiry, economists, perhaps, are likely to approach the North from an ‘exocentric’ point of view, using broadly speaking the same concepts and methodologies as they would apply anywhere else, i.e. treating the North as a peripheral region of the national and global societies and economies. The dominance of this exocentric perspective was more true of earlier decades. A generation ago, in their textbook The Circumpolar North: A political and economic geography of the Arctic and sub-Arctic (1978), for example, the authors Terence Armstrong (Cambridge, UK), George Rogers (University of Alaska) and Graham Rowley (Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Ottawa) framed what is in many ways an excellent overview textbook of its day by noting (p. 2): “There are a number of ways in which interest in these regions is becoming apparent. The most important at this moment is the search for, and exploitation, of, raw materials.” The underlying perspective, then, was of the north as a reiteration of the western frontier in the expansion of the North American societies and economies, a locus of expansion to bring more and more resources within reach of an expanding Western economy. An economic perspective is implicitly prioritized.

Natural scientists are unavoidably pushed more forcibly than economists or economic geographers into recalibrating their conceptual and methodological apparatus in order to take into account the extreme climatic conditions and the extreme way that these impact on other factors under examination. Anthropology and history, on the other hand, but above all, storytellers – writers and film-makers – are compelled from the beginning to confront the fact that the North is not simply a somewhat more extreme instance of conditions found elsewhere, but that for the people who live there or go there, it seems to operate in ways radically different from the conventions and expectations of human cultures further south. The extremes of cold, of physical expanse, of winter darkness and summer light, each push human experience beyond the frames and limits of mainstream late-modern Western society and culture.

More recently, the North – or more precisely, the Arctic – has been the subject of very extensive public debate in the very varied contexts of the social sciences, ecology, political science, international and constitutional law, public policy, and military security. This interest is to a great extent due to the growing awareness of global climate change and its particularly acute impact in the Arctic and peri-Arctic North. Climate warming creates a severe threat to the previously existing ways of life and environments and populations in the North (both human and other). As the summer thawing of the Arctic Ocean offers a longer season of access for intercontinental freight transport by sea, and the identification and exploration of potentially highly valuable mineral and fossil resources located in fragile, vulnerable environments, it is ← 14 | 15 → also a platform for major new opportunities, and risks. The focus on opportunities may be said to be set in a frame of seeing the North as an extreme periphery, but one functioning in ways essentially similar to elsewhere; the risks arise, in part, from the Otherness that the writers and historians have recognized and which from a southern distance is not always adequately recognized.

The late 20th and early 21st centuries have indeed brought about far-reaching changes in the culture and way of life of the North. Perhaps the most obvious instances of this impact are in settlement patterns, transportation and telecommunications; in the resource-extraction industries; and currently, in climate change. The consequences of environmental warming for the fauna of the region, for human economic activities and the built environment, and for the geopolitics of military strategy are still only partly known, but they will clearly be massive; and the pace of climate change, or at least of our recognition of it, appears to be accelerating.

These concerns give added urgency to consideration of the militarization of the Arctic, and the contestation of territorial rights between the Arctic-littoral states. Nonetheless, even in these contexts, it is not always clear that a northern or Arctic frame of reference is necessarily the only, or the most appropriate or useful one. Just as the Nordic societies need to be seen not merely in a northern, but also in an Atlantic or Baltic setting, so also Alaska – and especially urban Alaska – is defined in a Pacific frame of reference as much as, or more than, an Arctic one. Security concerns, and the logistics of a summer-navigable Northwest or Northeast Passage, have to be understood in a global context, not merely a regional one. It is important to keep these intersecting perspectives constantly, consistently and coherently in balance with each other, in order to understand the region and its potential significance well.

2.  The circum-Arctic global context

The circum-Arctic North is a global zone peripheral to the main concentrations of human settlement on the planet, defined not only by high latitude, but also, over most of its extent, by extreme geographic and climatic conditions. (See, for example, Nuttall 2005.) The term Arctic, and its several associated terms and near-synonyms (circum-Arctic, sub-Arctic, circumpolar, etc.), are used somewhat fluidly in political, human and cultural geography. In this book, they are used to refer to those areas which either are directly adjacent to the Arctic Ocean, or are mainly located north of the 60th parallel.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (October)
climate change governance indigenous rights literature dramatic arts
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 320 pp., 2 ill., 11 tables

Biographical notes

Keith Battarbee (Volume editor) John Erik Fossum (Volume editor)

Keith Battarbee is a former Senior Lecturer in English, and founder and coordinator of the North American Studies program, at the University of Turku, Finland. His current research is focused on language policy issues in multiple-language societies. He holds a BA and PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and before moving to Finland taught at the University of Tübingen, Germany. He is a former President of the Nordic Association for Canadian Studies (NACS), and now divides his time between the UK and Finland. John Erik Fossum is a Professor at the ARENA Center for European Studies, University of Oslo, and Vice President, Nordic Association for Canadian Studies. He studied Political Science at the University of Bergen, Norway, and took a Master’s at the University of California in Santa Barbara and his PhD at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Before moving to ARENA he taught at the University of Bergen. He is author and co-author of many publications relating to issues of constitutionalism and democracy in Canada, Norway and the European Union.


Title: The Arctic Contested
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322 pages