Book Review of Shelagh Grant’s Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America
As the Canadian public and Canadian Government become increasingly concerned with hot topics such as climate change and Arctic oil in the far north and circumpolar regions, it is critical to have an understanding of how the Arctic has changed and developed over time. Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America written by Shelagh Grant, a 540 page book published by Douglas and McIntre, emphasises the history of the Arctic’s sovereignty and presence in Canadian national history. Grant presents a perspective of the far north and sovereignty as a constantly changing construct. Although this work does not look at the entire circumpolar region, the broad understanding of Arctic issues allows the archival information to be accessible to the public.
In order to present 30 years of archival research and to allow the reader to develop the historical understanding of Arctic issues, the book is presented in a chronological order. In the first section “Setting the stage” the reader is introduced to what defines the arctic, through location and culture. The history of the Palaeo-Eskimos from Siberia, the Norse families from Iceland and the Thule culture who originated in Alaska and travelled though the Canadian Arctic, from 3000 BC to 1500 BC. The early European and Russian trade companies from 1500-1814 are explored as we see the beginnings of exploiting the Arctic for marine and fur resources. This section emphasises that sovereignty was claimed through exploration.
In the second section “The Nineteenth Century” the reader follows the British as they seek to claim sovereignty from 1818 – 1853, as well as the sale of Alaska from 1818-1867 and the purchase of Rupert’s Land in 1870. Grant demonstrates how sovereignty can change and develop in ways other than through exploration.
In the third section “The Twentieth Century” the reader learns about changing technology and research that begin to fuel the need for countries to claim sovereignty in the Arctic. New significance became associated with the Arctic due to World War two and cold war security threats as well as the possibility of financial benefits of Arctic oil, and how these advances impacted sovereignty. However, I agree with arguments made by Berry that Grant did not adequately highlight the role that aviation technology played in providing access to the Arctic during the war as well as for pre and post war activities.
The final section of the book “The Twenty-First Century” connects the history of Arctic sovereignty to current issues. This section emphasises that throughout history changes in climate have changed the economy and therefore the sovereignty of the Arctic. Through the discussion of modern sovereignty and resource management issues, the reader is left to think critically about what may happen in the future.
Throughout the text Grant brings the history to life though visual evidence. By providing maps of migratory and hunting patterns, as well as the evolution of the movement of Artic sovereignty. In addition, photos such as the whale bone, Thule structure on page 37, demonstrates the ingenuity of these first people as well how the resources of the landscape are directly linked to survival. In conjunction, contemporary images such as the image of the Kulluk oil rig, on page 464, help the reader to understand the evolution of resource extraction from the Arctic.
At times Grant does not present a full circumpolar understanding, focusing on only on Greenland and the Canadian and American Arctic. Contrary to Cavell, I argue that the narrower focus of nations gives Grant the space to look much deeper in history, giving greater understanding over time of why different technologies, climates and resource management issues have impacted the Arctic and the sovereignty of the nations who stake a claim in the region.
Shelagh Grant’s Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America provides an effective literary contribution exploring Arctic sovereignty that is captivating and accessible. Through her Canadian, North American and historical perspective of geo-politics of the Arctic Grant presents a full and accessible understanding of the North American Arctic.
Cavell, J. (2012). Review of Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America. Polar Record. 48:4.
Berry, D. (2011). Review of POLAR IMPERATIVE: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America. International Journal. 66:4, 1061-1063.