Book review: Breaking Through: Understanding Sovereignty and Security in the Circumpolar Arctic

edited by Wilfrid Greaves and P. Whitney Lackenbauer. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2021., 278p. ISBN 9781487523527

Breaking Through examines the state of sovereignty and security in the Arctic. Over the past four decades, scholars have identified sovereignty as challenge in the region, particularly in Canada, in the works of researchers such as Michael Byers, Franklyn Griffiths and Rob Huebert. Sovereignty, in global politics, refers to having authority or the ability to control what happens in a particular area, either in a legally recognized sense (de jure sovereignty) or a practical sense (de facto sovereignty). Wilfrid Greaves and Whitney Lackenbauer, in their edited volume, seek to understand sovereignty and security broadly, such as “environmental, economic, social and cultural issues” (13). The book argues, “Security in the rapidly changing Arctic region can no longer be exclusively about military threats and dangers and that sovereignty cannot fixate on the rights of states to the exclusion of those of Indigenous communities or regional and global governance” (14).

The editors are two of Canada’s foremost experts on Arctic policy. Wilfrid Greaves is an assistant professor at the University of Victoria in political science. P. Whitney Lackenbauer is the Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North at Trent University. They have assembled an impressive roster of academic researchers and international experts, with scholars from across Canada, as well as Denmark, Norway and Russia.

”[The book] presents rigorous and thought provoking chapters, making significant contributions about framing of sovereignty and notions of security in countries other than Canada.”

A common thread between the chapters is that the Arctic is a region of profound change, from colonialism, to neglect, to Second World War co-operation, to Cold War surveillance, to climate change, to co-operation. Peter Kikkert and Adam Lajeunesse separately point out that which states have the right to control the Canadian and broader North American Arctic has been a persistent national anxiety. This feeling that Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is in question has never really gone away. Mathieu Landriault finds that newspaper op-eds during the 2000s often focused on crisis and challenges to sovereignty by outside actors, such as disputes over Hans Island, the USS Charlotte incident and Russian flag planting. P. Whitney Lackenbauer characterizes the tenure of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as “suggesting a need to break from established understandings and ‘rules’ to respond to a perceived threat” (143).

”sovereignty today is less understood as control in a legal sense but rather as control in a practical sense.”

A second common thread between the chapters is that sovereignty today is less understood as control in a legal sense but rather as control in a practical sense. As Peter Kikkert writes of the attitudes of Commonwealth officials during the interwar years, “They insisted that in the harsh polar environment, control could consist of the occasional visit by state officials, administrative acts, the issuing of licences to foreigners operating in the claimed area, legislation and, in the Canadian context, a small number of occupied police posts” (32-33). Chapters in the book highlight issues that have become an important part of the regional agenda and that we have often discussed in the context of security, such as Petra Dolata’s chapter on energy security, Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv’s chapter on human security or Natalia Loukacheva’s chapter on food security.

Does a state have control if it cannot deliver food security to 70 per cent of pre-school aged children in one of its territories, which is the case in Nunavut, as pointed out by Frank Sejersen? What is the future of economic development if so many hopes of Arctic gold rush lay in oil, when the afterword of this book says that “private corporate actors are turning away from Arctic fossil fuels” (254)? Is Russia building up its military in the Arctic, or are its actions more about maintenance? As Alexander Sergunin writes, “The significant degeneration of the Soviet-era military machine in the Arctic in the 1990s and early 2000s left Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces badly in need of modernization in order to meet new challenges and threats” (123).

A question that emerges is whether the focus on sovereignty is optimal. As the book notes, sovereignty is not really in question in the Arctic region. The introduction says, “Sovereignty issues between Arctic states are generally managed in an orderly and non-confrontational way” (6). Several contemporary issues in the Arctic region that the book discusses could be understood through the lens of security alone. Human security issues can relate to de facto sovereignty, but the book does not distinguish aspects of sovereignty in this way. There are human security issues in every region of Canada, but we do not discuss an issue such as homelessness in Toronto as a sovereignty issue for Canada.

 Sovereignty, however, can be useful as an analytical concept. In Canadian Arctic politics, in particular, it has become something of a brand to unify disparate themes such as the legal status of waterways, the delineation of outer continental shelves, economic development, Indigenous land rights or climate change. It would be foolhardy to look at each of these issues in isolation. Climate change impacts the legal stays of waterways, which impacts economic prospects, which impacts Indigenous land use, and so on. Sovereignty allows us to talk about disparate issues in a coherent way, which is a major accomplishment of this book.

One omission the volume is the lack of a chapter on Indigenous sovereignty. Multiple chapters focus on human security, which certainly is relevant to Indigenous peoples and northern residents in general. Perhaps the most significant change in the Arctic region and question of sovereignty is colonialism against Indigenous peoples. In the 20th century, outsiders forced Indigenous peoples from their lands and stripped them of rights they did not know they had because those rights were rooted in Western cultural understandings. Children were forced to attend schools that set out to destroy their identity. Today, Indigenous peoples have regained their land rights across much of the Arctic, though self-government remains elusive in places such as Inuvialuit.

The book presents rigorous and thought provoking chapters, making significant contributions about framing of sovereignty and notions of security in countries other than Canada. The book will be of interest to Arctic scholars, particularly in Canada, in addition to less specialized readers interested in Canadian foreign policy or broad regional politics. It also would serve as a very good textbook for an upper-year university seminar about Arctic studies. It provides accessible yet rigorous overviews of the major political issues of the Arctic region.

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