As early as 1875, the British expressed interest in transferring the Arctic islands to Canada. The Canadian government, however, didn't seem to be keen on the idea. Losing patience, the British foreign secretary sent a letter to Lord Dufferin, the governor general of Canada, in 1877, pointing out that Canada was in danger of losing the High Arctic to the United States and other countries if it didn't accept the gift that was being offered.
That didn't happen until 1880, when an order-in-council set out terms of the transfer. Those terms, however, were so vague that it was unclear what territory Canada was actually getting.
In the years that followed, foreign interests continued to treat the Arctic as if it didn't belong to anyone. In 1902, Sverdrup claimed Axel Heiberg, Amund Ringnes, and Ellef Ringnes islands for Norway following his overland expeditions to the region. Amundsen followed shortly after by sailing through the Northwest Passage between 1903 and 1905 without seeking Canadian permission.
Some of the smaller Arctic nations believe that Canada could take a leadership role in creating a blueprint for this. But there is also growing concern that Canada is uninterested in working with other countries.
"Canada is a giant in the Arctic, and many of us look to it for leadership on many issues," says Morten Hoglund, who chairs Norway's Arctic parliamentary delegation.
"But we are getting the sense that Canada wants to go it alone. Increasingly, we're finding it easier to get agreements on the Arctic with the United States than with Canada. In the past, on most other issues, it was the reverse situation."
The wild card in all of this is the Inuit. For far too long they have been pawns in the sovereignty game both in Canada and abroad. Through the Arctic Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and other indigenous organizations, they have made it clear that they are not going to be left out of the decision-making process in the future.
"Sovereignty begins at home," says Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the voice of 55,000 Inuit living in 53 communities across the country.
"Canada cannot successfully assert its national agenda in the Arctic while ignoring the state of civil society in the Arctic.
"The key to sustainable Arctic policies and creative policy-making in Canada," she says, "must be anchored in establishing a constructive partnership with Inuit."
The Canadian government may have been able to ignore the Inuit and other countries' interests in the Arctic in the past. But there is growing international support for them and others becoming meaningful participants in the discussions. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made that clear in early April when she chastised Canada for not inviting the Inuit and other Arctic countries to participate in discussions on the future of the Arctic.
"We need all hands on deck because there is a huge amount to do and not much time to do it," she said. "The melting of sea ice, glaciers and permafrost will affect people and ecosystems around the world, and understanding how these changes fit together is a task that demands international co-operation."
It seems appropriate to note that 50 years after Bernier made that historic trip to Melville Island, then-prime minister Louis St. Laurent observed that the Arctic was being "governed in a fit of absence of mind."
Canada got away with that attitude for a long time afterward because no one was interested in capitalizing on it. The Arctic, however, is no longer a frozen wasteland of interest only to Mounties, missionaries and the Hudson's Bay Company. Now the world wants a part of it. Another "fit of absence of mind" could prove to be extremely costly to Canada's position in the Arctic.