American Interests in the North

[ Four miners engaged in sluicing operation ]

Four miners engaged in sluicing operation, E.A. Hegg, 1898, Univ of Washington, Hegg 3189

Canadian nationalists have often viewed the United States with suspicion, and the activities of the U.S. in the Canadian north are no exception. During the Klondike gold rush, the Alaska Boundary dispute was often cited as an example of American aggressiveness in our north, especially when the dispute was resolved in 1903 in favour of the United States’ claim. But this view of the situation is unfounded, both in the case of the Boundary Dispute, and generally.

The Alaska Boundary dispute concerned not only the boundary that splits Alaska and the Yukon. That is the 141st meridian, set by a treaty signed between Great Britain and Russia in 1825, and that line has never been in question; it was just a matter of sending surveyors north and finding where it crossed the Yukon River, something that was done in the 1880s. The dispute was over the boundary of the Alaska “panhandle,” between Alaska and British Columbia. The United States wanted an unbroken strip of coastline, while Canada wanted control of the heads of the inlets, especially the Lynn Canal, which led to Skagway and the Klondike gold fields. It is true that the Americans, and especially President Theodore Roosevelt, adopted a rather aggressive attitude towards the dispute, and it is also true that when the matter went to arbitration from a panel made up of three Americans, two Canadian members, and a British member, that the British member voted with the Americans partly because Britain valued American friendship more than Canadian loyalty. But it is also true that Canada had a bad case, and knew it, and really had no legitimate grounds for complaint.

The basic fact is that Canada did very little to establish sovereignty over the northern part of the country before 1900. Canada was hesitant even to accept title to the Arctic Islands from Great Britain in 1880, and before the first Mounted Police officer arrived to reconnoiter the Yukon in 1895, there was not a single permanent Canadian official resident north of the 60th parallel. Even after the gold rush, the Canadian presence in the Northwest Territories consisted for years of a few policemen scattered in a handful of posts across that huge mass of land. When the Americans built the Alaska Highway in 1942 they sent thousand of troops and civilian workers into the Canadian northwest, and there was not a single Canadian officer to watch what they were doing, or what effect they were having on the First Nations people, until Ottawa was shamed into appointing a liaison officer to the region.

The bottom line on the issue is that Americans have not threatened Canadian sovereignty in the North, but have simply pursued their own interests — gold, whaling, exploring, military necessity such as the Alaska Highway and the DEW line in the 1950s — when they found it necessary to do so. The threat to sovereignty has come from Canadian inaction, and the situation today is not all that much better than it was in 1900.

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