Sea Changes

SSHRC-funded panel examines the role of our oceans in Canada’s evolution

Photo: Historic map of Eastern Canada / / CC BY-NC-ND

Embedded in Canada’s national coat of arms is the Latin phrase: a mari usque ad mare. It means “from sea to sea” and it acknowledges Canada’s geography and vast expanse of oceanic territory. A source of commerce, recreation, security and transportation, our oceans have played an important role in our evolution as a nation.

This motto was also the foundation for a public symposium, Canada’s Responsibility to Our Shining Seas, held in Halifax in May. It was one of 52 recipients of a Canada 150 Connection Grant, a special one-time funding opportunity awarded by SSHRC in 2016 to encourage community-driven events throughout 2017 to help celebrate our 150th birthday, and to illustrate the importance of social sciences and humanities research to society.

One component of the workshop was a panel discussion, Sea Changes—1867 to 2017, in which scholars examined the complexities of human-ocean interactions.

“Our focus was largely historical: our ties to the oceans are shaped historically, and in turn shape our plans for the future,” explains Julia Wright, a professor in Dalhousie University’s Department of English who, along with Danine Farquharson, a professor with the Faculty of English at Memorial University, organized the event.

For example, Eric Mills, a professor of Oceanography at Dalhousie, discussed how oceanography in Canada after World War II changed from primarily studying sea life to studying the physics of underwater acoustics as an arm of new defence considerations.

“It became necessary to know something about the physics of the ocean—particularly, how sound is transmitted, whether acoustic mines and submarines could be detected, and how water properties [such as temperature] affected that,” Mills explained.

Territorial rights throughout Canada’s history was another issue explored in the panel discussion.

“As technology and resource demands have changed, international treaties over the last century-and-a-half have moved territorial waters to greater and greater depths, as well as closer and closer to other nations’ boundaries,” says Farquharson. “This also impacts traditional Indigenous practices in resource management that have contributed to environmental protection over the years.”

Aldo Chircop, a professor of Law at Dalhousie and Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Maritime Law and Policy, raised a current international question as to whether the right of passage in the Arctic includes the right to break ice.

“Breaking sea ice potentially disrupts the use of it by Indigenous and other inhabitants in the Arctic, and impacts vast and diverse ecosystems. International interactions, within and at the edge of Canada’s shifting oceanic borders, need to attend to a range of concerns,” says Farquharson.

“The oceans operate at the intersection of often competing concerns (jobs vs. tradition, ecology vs. economy), complicated by fast-paced changes in technology, global interconnectedness, and environmental awareness through cultural representations as well as scientific advances,” adds Wright.

“Developing scholarly frameworks, across a variety of disciplines, for analyzing these issues is crucial if we are to democratically and inclusively make sound decisions about our oceans as we approach our bicentennial.”