The Canadian Arctic covers three Canadian territories: the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut. As the Arctic is also defined by temperature and the treeline, it further extends southward along Hudson Bay into northern parts of Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Labrador.
Covering almost 5000 miles / 8000 km from east to west, the Arctic area stretches from the treeline northward to the world's largest archipelago, with 20 large and many smaller islands. This archipelago is famous for Arctic exploration and the search for the Northwest Passage explorers entering a dramatic area of ice-capped mountains in the northeast near Greenland as they fought their way though the ice westward.
Canada's Arctic makes up over 40% of the total Canadian landmass and is home to more than 100,000 Canadians. It is an essential part of their national identity and an area of growing importance internationally.
For Canadians the Arctic Canada is a vast treasure that they hold in trust for future generations. Northeners, including indigenous peoples who comprise 80 percent of the population in some regions, have also brought a number of issues to the world's attention: the dangers and challenges posed by climate change the need for sustainable economic development; and the importance of sharing experiences and knowledge across the Arctic and beyond Canada's Arctic foreign policy is based on four pillars - protecting Canada's environmental heritage, promoting economic and social development, improving and devolving northern governance and exercising Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic.
Canada has focused global efforts on the impact of climate change in the region being a major player in the negotiation of international environmental instruments that address critical issues such as pollution and the need to protect and preserve our unique Arctic environment.
Canada´s claims over the Arctic lands and waters started to emerge when the obvious climate change effects occurred and melting ice made the Canadian Arctic more accessible for all who might had been concerned. Canada´s claims over the Arctic territories and waters have been strongly connected with the government´s will to preserve natural environment and its resources, peoples of the North and their aboriginal way of life, also the development of opportunities for both, local northern communities and the non - Arctic part of Canada.
Territorial and marine claims differ under the international set of rights. Sovereignty of the land can be based on several factors most commonly, on other states recognition. However, if more than one state claims rights to particular territory, occupation, cession, prescription and operations of nature, can be recognized as the way of making the claim. In the same time, claims over the waters are done according to the rules of international law of the sea, mostly regulated by United Nation Convention on Law of the Sea, with the extent of jurisdiction of the costal state varying according to the type of maritime zone involved in the process.
Currently Canadian Federation claims executive sovereign rights over the Arctic Archipelago and Hans Island. Canadian Arctic Archipelago is located north from the mainland, covering 1,424,500 km2 mostly of Northwest Territories and Nunavut and including close to 50 large islands while the Hans Island lies in the in the Nares Strait, in the centre of the Kennedy Channel, between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Both Canada and Denmark claim the rights to the Hans Island.
While the case of Arctic Archipelago is being rather clear under rules of international law, the matter of Hans Island is still not quite settled. Because of the United Kingdom´s grants given to Canada over its northern territories, Canada´s activities on the Arctic islands since the cession took place and country´s self determination to process with those activities even further, give Canada rights to exercise its sovereignty. What is more, Canada´s presence and authority over the Arctic Archipelago has been fully recognized by other states.
Even though the Hans Island is only 1, 3 km2 and completely inhabited, the possibility of exercising sovereign rights over its territory, send important message to international actors, both from Denmark and Canada. States express involvement and strengthen their position within the Arctic region. The dispute over the little island, which could significantly change the size of the respective maritime zones around those regions, has been going on since early 70s and has not been settled yet. Both countries clearly stated that they would continue disputes until the bilateral agreement was not created.
While the general land claims are regulated by common rules of international law, United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea defines the bases for the Canadian claims over its waters. Those claims are being strictly connected with disputes over the land.
Canada as a coastal state has a capacity to claim and determine its territorial sea and exclusive economic zone from the baselines that mark the end of the state´s territory and the beginning of its maritime extension. In other words, the bigger and wider land, the longer maritime zone can be claimed.
The question arises with regards to the Northwest Passage and delimitation of Beaufort Sea. By virtue of the historical title and state´s location on the landward side of the baselines drawn around the Arctic Archipelago in 1985, Canada claims Northwest Passage as its internal waters while the United States government argues the Northwest Passage to be an international strait as it connects to bodies that is Davis Strait and Baffin Bay and it is used for international traffic.
The Canadian argument states that Northwest Passage has not been explored internationally while the US brings up the climate change issue, causing the opening of the Arctic waters and the future plan for the Passage to become one of the main Arctic international shipping routes. Both states decided to give them control over the Northwest Passage to monitor the route and ensure compliance with international legal standards for security and freedom of navigation.
While the dispute over the Northwest Passage has been driving the recent Canadian – US relations, Canadian claims over the Beaufort Sea have been raised. The area, rich in its natural resources has the maritime extension of the land boundary between two territories, Canadian Yukon and American Alaska. Canadian government asserts that the maritime border is an extension of the territorial boundary between those two, agreed with United States. The dispute had been going on as government of US argues that the border can be only set by using the equidistance principle, one of the most significant for UNCLOS. If the principle could be fully implemented, it would produce the largest world maritime zone.
Even though Canada´s marine and land claims seem rather solid and well recognized by international players, some still are being disputed. After all, Canadian sovereign rights loudly respond to challenges in the Arctic region such as matters of security, Arctic environment and natural resources.
Sources: Canadian government CIA World Factbook Canada´s Legal Claims over the Arctic Territory and Waters