The Arctic in History


The Arctic in History
The Arctic Today


For most of its history, Canada almost completely ignored its Northern regions, particularly the Arctic zone, except as regards three major issues:



1) The Klondike Gold Rush and the Alaska Boundary Dispute



One of the historic events that draw Canadian attention to the Arctic region was the Klondike Gold Rush.


In August 1896, gold was discovered by local miners in  the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory; in the 3 years that followed, some 100,000 prospectors travelled to the region in the hope of becoming rich. The rush ended in 1899 after gold was discovered in Alaska and the rush of prospectors were redirected there.


The presence of gold and a large new population greatly increased the importance of the region and the desirability of fixing an exact boundary between Alaska and the Yukon. In 1903, it was decided that the border would be fixed through arbitration by a mixed tribunal of six members: three Americans, two Canadians and one Briton. In the end the British representative sided with the Americans to adopt a boundary that favored the US, thus provoking the anger of Canadians who felt betrayed by the mother country. It was a first example of the potential friction between Canada and the US in the Arctic.


Image : Packers ascending summit of Chilkoot Pass, 1897-98, en route to the Klondike Gold Rush (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-5142).





2) The strategic dimension of the Arctic during WW2 and the Cold War


The Arctic potential for creating tensions between Canada and the US was made evident when both countries began to take a greater interest in the region during WW2 and above all, during the Cold War. Because of the close proximity of Siberia and Alaska, the Arctic then acquired a strategic interest it did not have before.


During WW2, Canada and the US began to cooperate in the Arctic to send assistance to the Soviet Union though the Canadian and American Arctic by air (Northern staging route: a series of airstrips, airport and radio ranging stations to transport material to the USSR through Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, Alaska and Siberia) but also through the Alaska Alaska Highway and the Canol Pipeline.


The Canadian-American cooperation continued during the Cold War to strengthen the air defense of North America against planes or missiles coming from the Soviet Union. The two main programs were JAWS (joint arctic weather stations) and DEW (Distant Early Warning Line, a series of radar stations).


However, the Canadian-American cooperation was uneasy. The cost of building the infrastructures was mainly supported by the US, as was the responsibility of manning the Arctic stations. The result was a massive presence of American forces in the Canadian Arctic between 1942 and 1945, and then again from the 1950s to the 1970s. While the Canadians were happy to be protected by American forces, and to be spared the financial drain of military spending, they worried that their sovereignty over the Canadian was being eroded by the American presence.


Image :

DEW Arctic station, 1956.


3) The Search for the Northwest Passage


The other historically issue which has drawn attention to the North is the search for the Northwest Passage.


The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Strait of Bering. From the 16th to the 20th centuries, explorers looked for the Northwest Passage, until the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully navigated the Passage in 1903–1906 with a small expedition of six men.


Exploration was very dangerous because of extreme weather conditions and because there are several possible routes (4 main ones and four secondary ones – only routes 1A and 1B are deep enough to allow the passage of large ships).


The Northwest Passage created a problem of sovereignty for Canada and was a potential cause of tension with the US.


Originally, most of the explorers were not Canadian. Many were Americans, and the successful explorer was Norwegian. So Canada could not claim a right of discovery on the Passage.


Nonetheless, Canada has always claimed that the Passage was part of Canadian territorial waters. Canada’s claim is based on two arguments:


1) the historic right


2) the drawing of straight base lines




Encyclopédie canadienne, carte des explorations arctiques



For a short video presentation of the North West Passage, see:

Laurence Cros. Vidéo Avis d'expert : Le passage du Nord-Ouest. Institut des Amériques (2017)