Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Political Science Economic Conditions

Breaking the Ice

Canada, Sovereignty, and the Arctic Extended Continental Shelf

by (author) Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon

foreword by John English

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2017
Economic Conditions, Natural Resources, Polar Regions
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Apr 2017
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2017
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


The Hill Times: Best Books of 2017

The Arctic seabed, with its vast quantities of undiscovered resources, is the twenty-first century’s frontier.

In Breaking the Ice: Canada, Sovereignty and the Arctic Extended Continental Shelf, Arctic policy expert Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon examines the political, legal, and scientific aspects of Canada’s efforts to delineate its Arctic extended continental shelf. The quality and quantity of the data collected and analyzed by the scientists and legal experts preparing Canada’s Arctic Submission for the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and the extensive collaboration with Canada’s Arctic neighbours is a good news story in Canadian foreign policy. As Arctic sovereignty continues to be a key concern for Canada and as the international legal regime is being observed by all five Arctic coastal states, it is crucial to continue to advance our understanding of the complex issues around this expanding area of national interest.

About the authors

Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon has spent three decades researching and writing about law of the sea policy. She is a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto, and Professor Emerita in the Department of Political Science at Western University.

Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon's profile page

John English Department of History, University of Waterloo, is the author of The Decline of Politics: The Conservatives and the Party System, Robert Borden: His Life and World, and co-author of Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, and Provincialism.

John English's profile page

Excerpt: Breaking the Ice: Canada, Sovereignty, and the Arctic Extended Continental Shelf (by (author) Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon; foreword by John English)

Chapter 1: Introduction

For Canada, establishing sovereignty over its continental shelf resources has been a law of the sea priority since the Second World War. Canada has the world’s second-largest continental shelf (2,545,259 kilometres), surpassed only by that of the Russian Federation (4,099,812 kilometres), and its seabed is known to contain large quantities of oil, gas, and minerals; hence, there is a strong economic imperative to establish coastal state jurisdiction. The importance accorded to the continental shelf by successive Canadian governments is reflected in speeches, statements, and press releases. For example, in 1946 Thomas Reid, Liberal member of Parliament and subsequently parliamentary assistant to the minister of fisheries, described the 1945 U.S. claim to the continental shelf off its coasts as “one of the most important proclamations made by President Truman.” When the First Conference on the Law of the Sea adopted the Convention on the Continental Shelf in 1958, Alvin Hamilton, then minister of northern affairs, declared it to have been “a most significant milestone” — even though questions pertaining to territorial and fishing zones remained unresolved — and the Convention to be of “far-reaching importance to Canada.” In 2010, then minister of foreign affairs Lawrence Cannon referred to Canada’s submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as “a priority for our government.” Canada assumed the chair of the Arctic Council in May 2013, with a commitment to making resource development a top priority.
Historically, instead of taking unilateral actions, as many coastal states have, Canada has preferred multilateral channels. At the U.N.’s First and again at the Second Conference on the Law of the Sea (1958 and 1960, respectively), the Seabed Committee, and the Third Conference on the Law of the Sea (1973–1982), which produced the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Canadian officials were strong advocates for the rights of coastal states and played major roles in defining the rules and regulations governing the continental shelf in a series of important negotiating forums beginning in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1980s. Canada continues to be an active participant in meetings of the states parties to UNCLOS. The rules and regulations governing the world’s oceans, which are enshrined in UNCLOS, are highly advantageous to coastal states like Canada. Thus, Canada has incorporated these rights into its own legislation, ratified the Convention, spent over a decade mapping the seabed of its continental shelves and analyzing the resulting data and, in December 2013, filed a submission with the Commission pertaining to its Atlantic extended continental shelf. Canada plans to make a second submission, this time pertaining to its Arctic extended continental shelf.
This book focuses on a new frontier: the delineation of Canada’s Arctic extended continental shelf. As historian Shelagh Grant points out, there are several definitions of the Canadian Arctic, including the lands and waters north of one of the following: the tree line, the Arctic Circle, or where the July mean temperature is 10°C. She makes a strong case for choosing the first; however, the area two hundred nautical miles beyond Canada’s shoreline meets the criteria for all three definitions. The term extended continental shelf (ECS) refers to the area beyond a coastal state’s exclusive economic zone, beginning two hundred nautical miles from the straight baselines from which the territorial sea is measured and extending a distance determined by criteria specified in Article 76 of UNCLOS. While the continental margin off Canada’s West Coast is narrow, the country has extensive margins off its East Coast and in the Arctic. Canadian scientists estimate that the country’s ECS in the Arctic will be three quarters of a million square kilometres.
The book traces the evolution of the ECS regime, discusses Canada’s participation in this process, and outlines the key provisions of the regime. It identifies the objectives of the survey missions to map Canada’s Arctic ECS, describes the range of formidable challenges encountered, explains the strategies used to overcome them, and highlights the lessons learned. It argues that the process of delineating the ECSs in the Arctic is being conducted in an orderly fashion; there is an international legal regime in place and its rules are being observed by all Arctic coastal states. Furthermore, the process has been characterized by high levels of cooperation and collaboration among federal public servants and, at least prior to December 2013, with our Arctic neighbours as well. The book examines the political, legal, and scientific aspects of Canada’s efforts to delineate its Arctic ECS, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing to the autumn of 2016 when the final survey to map Canada’s Arctic ECS was completed. It will take several years to analyze the data, interpret them in terms of the provisions outlined in UNCLOS, and draft Canada’s submission regarding its Arctic ECS, which the government expects to present to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (hereafter the Commission) in 2018. At least a decade will elapse before the Commission has reviewed the submission and made its recommendations. If Canada accepts the recommendations, it will then establish its ECS on the basis of the Commission’s findings. Any overlaps between its ECS and those of its neighbours will need to be resolved. So the complex process of establishing Canada’s Arctic ECS will be with us for decades to come.

Definition of Terms

It is important to note that scientists and lawyers define the continental shelf quite differently. In scientific terms, the continental shelf makes up one part of the continental margin. The latter is a geological formation that includes the continental shelf, continental slope, and continental rise, as depicted in the diagram on the next page.
As Ted McDorman explains,

The continental margin is the physical extension of the landmass of the coastal State with the margin composed of the continental shelf (a platform at relatively shallow depths), the continental slope (the break of the platform towards the deep ocean floor) and the continental rise (the area beyond the slope which merges with the deep ocean floor).

Thus, in scientific terms, “the continental shelf is the relatively shallow seabed area (100–400 m depth) adjacent to the coast and landward of the continental slope.” In juridical (or legal) terms, the continental shelf is a submerged prolongation of a coastal state’s land territory that can be narrower or wider than the continental margin or encompass all of the latter. The outer limit of a coastal state’s ECS may not exceed the juridical continental shelf. The term continental shelf is used in this book in accordance with its juridical definition, while the term continental margin refers to the scientific shelf, slope, and rise. Beyond the continental margin lies the deep ocean floor.
The terms delineation and delimitation are used throughout the book. Delineation refers to the process of precisely defining the outer limits of a country’s ECS, in accordance with the provisions set out in UNCLOS. Delimitation refers to the process of establishing a political boundary between the ECSs of two or more states.
In government circles, the delineation of the ECSs off Canada’s Atlantic and Arctic coasts is referred to as Canada’s ECS Program. In keeping with the focus in this book, the term refers here to the process of preparing Canada’s Arctic submission for the Commission. For consistency, imperial measurements taken from articles, field reports, and interviews, except those cited in direct quotations, have been translated to metric equivalents.

Editorial Reviews

An excellent resource for those who study the Arctic.

Publishers Weekly

This book should appeal to historians and to the technically-minded alike.

Ron Macnab, Geological Survey of Canada (Retired)

In her preface, the author suggests that the book’s title has a double meaning … She succeeds admirably in both these efforts.

Maritime Engineering Journal

Other titles by Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon

Other titles by John English

Related lists