Taissumani, Aug. 29

The Strategic Importance of Ellesmere Island


It must be near summer’s end because Stephen (not my brother) Harper is doing his annual tour of the Canadian Arctic, with the attendant sovereignty overtones that that entails. So let’s take a look at how some of that sovereignty came about.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Canada was busy establishing its sovereignty over the High Arctic through the establishment of police posts. Inevitably the question was asked: Why does Canada spend money policing an island like Ellesmere Island, which is uninhabited? Who else would want it?

Part of the answer was provided in 1931 by an American. And not just any American, but a man who had commanded U.S. forces during the First World War, and later became director of aviation in the US Army. This pioneer even then recognized the importance of the Arctic to future polar air routes.

He was Major-General William Mitchell. In that year he wrote an article, published in the popular Liberty magazine, with the futuristic title: “The Next War — What About Our National Defence?”

This might have seemed an odd title, for the world was enduring a restless peace and the economy had been plunged into depression. Official Nazism in Germany was then in its infancy. Then again, one might say that the US is always looking for the next war.

Major-General Mitchell wrote:

“A few years ago great nations searched the earth for suitable naval bases. Now this search is for air bases… The Azores, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland, might all be used as air bases against us in case of war with Europe.”

And then he wrote specifically about northern Ellesmere Island. Following in the tradition of Americans explorers, Peary, Cook and MacMillan, he called it Grant Land.

“The United States very foolishly renounced its claims to Grant Land in the Arctic when we purchased the Virgin Islands. [The United States gave up any claim to the High Arctic when it purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917.] Had an airman been consulted about this he would have shown that Grant Land may form one of the greatest air bases in the world…”

“From its position opposite the northern tip of Greenland it is, also, equidistant from New York, San Francisco, China, Russia and western Europe. Supplies for air forces on these islands could be carried through the air in either airplanes or dirigibles, or under water in submarines.”

A writer in 1934 suggested that:

“Were Canada completely to abandon her title to Ellesmere and its near neighbours, some other nation would be glad to take them over… The maintenance of Mounted Police posts in these regions is in accord with the modern far-reaching insistence upon effective occupation and magisterial or police authority everywhere as a condition of sovereignty.”

When the United States bought Alaska from the Russians for a paltry seven million dollars, there was tremendous opposition. The money was wasted, thought much of the public, and the purchase was referred to as Seward’s Folly. [William H. Seward was the American Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase.] Some folly!

Years later, Canada lost a boundary dispute with Alaska over a long strip of land along the British Columbia coast — the Alaska Panhandle. Canada lost in large part because of the United States assertion that, although Canada claimed the area, it did not occupy it.

Today Ellesmere Island is occupied by civilians at its southern end, and by Canadian military personnel at its northern extreme. Major-General Mitchell’s dream of an American air base in the High Arctic came to pass with the building of Thule Air Base in Greenland in the early 1950s. But the Canadian High Arctic is still of immense strategic importance. Mitchell’s 1931 article was an early recognition of that.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected]

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