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SIS 495C: Task Force on Arctic Sovereignty

February 28, 2009

by Patrick Lennon

Above: The Task Force students were extremely fortunate to attend a lecture by former Nunavut premier, Paul Okalik, at a Carleton University alumni event during the Fact-Finding Mission to Ottawa. From left, front row, Nadine Fabbi (co-faculty), Jamie Stroble, Paul Okalik, Alison McKay, Patrick Lennon, Gus Andreasen, Andrew Schwartz. Back row, from left, Marta Schwendeman, Naama Sheffer, Julia Troutt, Kristen Olson, and April Nishimura. Mike Pinder Photography

During this past fall quarter, I was faced with the question that awaits every student in International Studies – which Task Force do you want to take? Task Force is our senior capstone project, where we work in groups to write a policy paper about a current issue. When I looked at the list of choices, one jumped out at me immediately – Arctic Sovereignty. It was a topic that I didn’t even know existed, but it encompasses several of my interests including international law and human rights, particularly the rights of indigenous peoples. And so, after an interview in which I correctly answered the entry exam question, that Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister, not President, of Canada, it began.

Most of us came to the course with little knowledge of the Arctic region. We received a brief but intensive introduction to the issues through a series of readings assigned over winter break. In the first weeks of the quarter, our group discussed the issues we had learned about and how we wanted to split up the topics. I was assigned, along with Emily Epsten, to write the chapter on North America and the Arctic. Canada and the United States both have significant interests there, so Emily and I dove in to the wealth of information from governments, academics, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We chose to focus on the Northwest Passage, which runs through Canada’s Arctic archipelago, and is slowly opening to increased shipping as ice cover melts. The US and Canada dispute the legal status of the Passage, so we thought it would make the most interesting case study for our chapter.

Our thoughts about the Northwest Passage were supported when we visited Ottawa, Canada, as a part of the course. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade funded this fact-finding mission for the students of the Task Force to enable us to meet with a variety of diplomats, government officials, and NGOs to learn more about their perspectives on Arctic sovereignty issues. While on the Ottawa trip, we heard about the Northwest Passage from every embassy we met with, as well as several Canadian federal departments. This made Emily and I even more certain that although the Northwest Passage is not a dispute that could turn violent, it is certainly the hottest issue for North America in the Arctic.

The Ottawa trip definitely refined our thoughts on the issue, because of the broad variety of perspectives we heard. But the trip was an amazing experience beyond just that. I had never been anywhere so cold, for starters! But we also learned a great deal about Canadian culture and politics. I have Canadian family, which is a large part of my interest in the topic of Arctic sovereignty, but even having grown up visiting Canada often, there was a lot to learn in this beautiful, bilingual capital city.

Since the trip, which took place at the end of January, we have all worked feverishly to write our chapters that, combined, created a 300-plus page report on how to resolve competing interests in the Arctic. Climate change, as it is impacting the Arctic, will affect the rest of the world, so we should all be involved in dealing with it. This course was a great introduction to the problem, and is a good start for exposing more Americans to what is going on in the North.

Click on the following links to read the task force report, news reports from the University of Ottawa and the University of Washington and the task force poster. More information can be found on the task force  website.

Patrick Lennon is a newly-minted alumnus of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He was one of 13 International Studies students enrolled in SIS 495C Task Force on Arctic Sovereignty taught by Canadian Studies Center Associate Director, Nadine Fabbi and Center Affiliate, Vincent Gallucci, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. After graduation, Patrick plans to work and consider his options for graduate school.

Task Force has been part of the International Studies major since the program’s inception in 1982. It operates much like a Presidential Commission or other investigating group whose object is to arrive at a set of policy recommendations. Arctic Sovereignty was one of seven Task Force issues offered in Winter Quarter 2009 and only the second Task Force to offer a fact-finding mission abroad to facilitate “on the ground” research. This program was funded, in part, by a grant from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and by a Title VI Grant, International Education Programs Service, US Department of Education.