Canada just enlisted Santa Claus in its effort to control the Arctic

December 26, 2013

An icebreaker steams toward the Arctic. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

If it were up to the Canadian government, children all over the world would have imagined Santa Claus soaring over their rooftops Wednesday while carrying the dark-blue passport of a Canadian citizen.

Last week, in a publicity stunt meant to show off the country's new electronic passports, the Canadian immigration minister announced that "Santa Claus" and "Mrs. Claus" would be granted Canadian passports in an official ceremony.

It's a mostly lighthearted story that actually touches on something very serious: Canada's increasingly expansive claims of sovereignty over the Arctic, potentially to include the North Pole itself. The Santa passport stunt hinted at this: The official release explained that the passports had been issued because "Santa and Mrs. Claus live in North Pole, Canada, with their many helpers."

It's no joke. As the polar ice caps melt, the Arctic Sea is opening up, creating new and unclaimed territory for the first time in modern history. The Arctic is set to become an important shipping route, as well as a major source of oil and natural gas. The big, unanswered question is, when that territory opens up, who will control which parts of it? Five countries are claiming parts of the Arctic: Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Russia. And one of the most assertive countries in making its Arctic claim is -- are you sitting down? -- Canada.

The government of conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been expanding Canada's claim to the Arctic, which it wants to include the North Pole. Canada can't just call "dibs" -- it has to make its claim with scientific data proving that its continental shelf extends into the areas it wants to call its own. But that process has to go through the United Nations, which opens up the possibility of diplomatic maneuvering, and the five states have to resolve any overlapping claims between one another. So there's real room for Canada to expand its claim.

It would be easy to laugh at the idea of Canada as aggressor -- go ahead, I won't stop you -- but this is serious business. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also seeking control of the North Pole. The Arctic is becoming increasingly militarized even before it opens up. When the permanent ice cap does recede, perhaps as early as 2020, no one is entirely sure how these five competing countries will handle overlapping claims.

To be clear, that doesn't mean we're ramping up for the great Canadian-Russian War of 2025. And the process of parceling out Arctic control is highly regulated by all sorts of international law and agreements designed to make it go smoothly. But if the stakes are high enough here that it's bringing out the territorial expansionist in even Canada, that should tell us something about the gravity of the great Arctic land-grab.

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Max Fisher · December 24, 2013