Excerpt from 'Intent for a Nation' by Michael Byers
Published Monday, September 10, 2007 6:33AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, May 18, 2012 6:50PM EDT
Chapter 7: A True North Strong and Free
In 1969, Humble Oil (now Exxon) sent an ice-strengthened supertanker, SS Manhattan, on a test voyage through the Northwest Passage. The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched two icebreakers to accompany the vessel and made a point of not seeking permission from Canada.
The Canadian government granted unsolicited permission anyway, sent one of its own icebreakers to tag along, and then argued that Canada's sovereignty had not been undermined--because we had provided permission and our assistance had been accepted.
A more convincing defence of Canadian sovereignty came from an unexpected source, according to John Amagoalik, the chief negotiator of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement: As the Manhattan ploughed through the ice near Arctic Bay, on the north shore of Baffin Island, two Inuit hunters drove their dogsleds into its path. The vessel was halted until the hunters--having made their point--moved aside.
Most Canadians know nothing of Amagoalik's story, for we suffer from a most peculiar handicap. We can see east, west and, of course, south. Yet for some strange reason many of us do not see north. Indeed, for most Canadians, our home and native land might as well be the long, thin country of Chile, turned sideways.
Seventy-five per cent of us live within 160 kilometres of the U.S. border. A staggering 99.7 per cent live south of 60 degrees latitude, the line separating the western provinces from the Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. This leaves just 104,000 people occupying 40 per cent of the second-largest country on Earth, and well over a third of them are concentrated in the cities of Whitehorse (population 23,000) and Yellowknife (20,000).
For most of the rest of us, in terms of our lives, our travels, our personal geographic referents, our vast Arctic spaces simply do not exist. They constitute a collective, national blind spot. And as any driver knows, blind spots present danger. In some instances, they can also present opportunity.
Who controls the Northwest Passage?
Canada's High Arctic is a vast archipelago made up of about nineteen thousand islands and countless rocks and reefs. Baffin Island alone is nearly as large as Manitoba, and two of the other islands, Ellesmere and Victoria, are about twice the size of Newfoundland.
Until very recently, the straits and channels between the islands were choked with thick, hard, multi-year sea ice, fusing the archipelago into a triangular mass that was three thousand kilometres wide at its base and stretched to within nine hundred kilometres of the geographic North Pole.
Today, with the ice melting as a result of climate change, the straits and channels are opening to the point where an experienced sailor could take a tanker through during late summer or early autumn. Governments are gradually waking up to this new reality. In 2001, a report prepared for the U.S. Navy predicted that, "within 5-10 years, the Northwest Passage will be open to non-ice-strengthened vessels for at least one month each summer."
A briefing book given to Canadian defence minister Gordon O'Connor in February 2006 stated: "If the current rate of ice thinning continues, the Northwest Passage could be open to more regular navigation by 2015."
Shipping companies are watching closely. A navigable Northwest Passage offers a route between Asia and the Atlantic seaboard that is seven thousand kilometres shorter than the current route through the Panama Canal, saving time, fuel and transit fees.
In the short term, uncertainties concerning the weather, availability of search and rescue services plus the erratic movement of the remaining multiyear ice will--along with consequently higher insurance premiums--dissuade reputable companies. But less reputable outfits might take the risk. There are more than a few rusting-out tankers and tramp steamers sailing the world's oceans with Liberian flags and disgruntled creditors.
International shipping in the Arctic entails serious environmental risks for one of the greatest, relatively unspoiled ecosystems left on Earth. An oil spill would cause catastrophic damage. The emptying of ballast tanks, a likely practice on the part of large ships entering these shallow waters, could introduce destructive new species such as fish parasites or toxic algae.
These risks are of great concern to the Inuit. When I asked Maria Kripanik, the deputy mayor of Igloolik, about the possibility of increased shipping through the Northwest Passage, her first thought was for "our animals." The waters of the archipelago, she explained, are home to whales, seals and walrus, which the Inuit depend on as a local source of healthy food.
There are also security concerns. Ships carrying illicit cargoes could be attracted by the relative absence of a police or military presence. Smugglers, illegal migrants, even terrorist groups could regard an ice-free Arctic as a back door to North America. Indeed, transnational criminal activity was the focus of an Arctic Capabilities Study conducted by the Canadian Directorate of Defence in 2000. Since then, concerns about global terrorism and illicit trafficking in weapons of mass destruction and missile components have only increased.
Most people would be surprised by how many attempts at illegal immigration already occur in our North. In October 2006, two Turkish sailors jumped ship at Churchill, Manitoba, and bought train tickets to Winnipeg. The previous month, a Romanian man sailed a six-metre fibreglass motorboat from Greenland to Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island.
In 1999, a Chinese research icebreaker showed up unannounced in Tuktoyaktuk, with nearly one hundred scientists and crew members wanting to come ashore. There is a regular charter flight from Frankfurt to Whitehorse that requires the occasional deportation back to Germany, from the Yukon.
Cruise ships are already frequent visitors to Canada's Arctic waters. The Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian-flagged converted icebreaker, offers luxury trips through the Northwest Passage for US$13,000. The Canadian Coast Guard's 2005 Arctic Traffic Summary lists another six cruise ships and eight pleasure craft as visitors to the Canadian Arctic that year.
The greatest incentive for future shipping, however, will be the increasing scarcity and value of oil and gas. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 25 per cent of the world's undiscovered fossil fuels are located under the Arctic Ocean.
Big oil is already planning against the day when exploitable deposits are discovered: Shell has recently commissioned an analysis of the legal status of the passage, which is the subject of a long-standing international dispute.
Ownership of the islands along the Northwest Passage is not at issue. They were assigned to Canada by Britain in 1880, and the resulting title has never been contested--with one exception. Hans Island, a tiny (1.3 square kilometres), barren, otherwise inconsequential islet between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, is claimed by both Canada and Denmark.
In recent years, the dispute over the islet has been seized upon by journalists keen to sell newspapers and by politicians looking to strengthen their nationalist credentials in a risk-free way. In July 2005, then defence minister Bill Graham even flew to Hans Island by helicopter, despite the fact that a group of Canadian soldiers had visited the island to assert our sovereignty just one week earlier.
As for the straits and channels between the islands, the nearly impenetrable ice meant that the issue of ownership and control was, for decades, never even discussed. Only the development of powerful icebreakers--and more recently climate change--has brought the issue to the fore.
Canada claims that the Northwest Passage constitutes Canadian internal waters. In 1985, the Canadian government drew "straight baselines" around the Arctic islands. Under international law, straight baselines may be used to link the outer headlands of an archipelago or fragmented coastline.
Provided the lines are of a reasonable length, the straits and channels within them are then subject to the full force of the coastal state's domestic laws. Canada argues that the baselines are consolidated by historic usage, including the occupation of the sea ice by the Inuit.
In Kugluktuk, at the western end of the passage, I met Alice Ayalik, who is a living manifestation of this aspect of Canada's claim. The 69-year-old artisan spent most of the first thirteen years of her life on the frozen surface of Coronation Gulf, where her family lived in igloos, fished through the ice and hunted seals. The Inuit, a largely maritime people, are Canadian citizens.
The United States insists that the Northwest Passage is an "international strait," a waterway that connects two expanses of high seas and is used for international navigation. The coastal state retains title to the waters, but foreign vessels have a right of "transit passage," much like walkers on a footpath through a British country estate.
Straight baselines cannot be used to close off an existing international strait. As a result, the crux of the dispute between Canada and the United States concerns the requirement that the strait be used for international navigation.
In the past century, only two vessels have passed through the Northwest Passage overtly without asking Canada's permission: the Manhattan in 1969 and the Polar Sea, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, in 1985. Some submarine voyages have almost certainly taken place, but their covert nature deprives them of any ability to contribute to a right under international law.
Ottawa argues that two transits do not create an international strait. Washington points to a judgement of the International Court of Justice, in a case concerning the Corfu Channel between the Greek island of Corfu and Albania, which suggests that the volume of traffic is irrelevant.
The U.S. position has received some support from the European Commission, which in 1985 joined the State Department in protesting against Canada's drawing of straight baselines around the Arctic islands.
The Canadian government should be very concerned about the prospect of additional unauthorized transits, for they would seriously undermine its claim. Yet it is poorly equipped to prevent them from happening.
The bulk of Canada's military presence in the North is provided by the Canadian Rangers, fourteen hundred part-time volunteers, many of them Inuit, who live in fifty-nine hamlets stretching from Baffin Island to the Alaskan frontier. The rangers know the land and ice, but they are neither trained nor equipped to intercept ocean-going vessels.
The Canadian Coast Guard's small fleet of icebreakers is incapable of operating in the Northwest Passage in winter, and it is redeployed to the Gulf of St. Lawrence each autumn. The ships are also growing old: the largest, the Louis S. St-Laurent, was built in 1969; the Amundsen is just a decade younger. Yet if Canada is to control the Northwest Passage, it will need ships that can operate there for twelve months a year.
Before being elected prime minister in January 2006, Stephen Harper promised "three new armed naval heavy icebreakers." But after being elected, he hesitated. The icebreakers were not mentioned in his first budget, nor did they feature in a $17.1 billion defence procurement package announced in June 2006.
Perhaps Harper had realized that the new vessels weren't ideal for navy use and should instead be supplied to the coast guard, which uses its icebreakers to clear paths for other ships, provide search and rescue services, support research scientists and help in the enforcement of fisheries, environmental, customs and criminal laws. With the addition of light armament and a few police or military personnel, they could also fulfill an enhanced security role.
Harper's indecisiveness has been unfortunate--because American interests have recently changed, and they may well be more willing to accept Canadian sovereignty. During the Cold War, the United States was focussed on maintaining open access for its navy and especially its submarines.
Under the law of the sea, submarines may pass through an international strait without surfacing or otherwise alerting the adjacent coastal state or states, something not permitted in internal waters. From Washington's perspective, the Canadian claim threatened to create an inconvenient precedent for straits and channels elsewhere.
Today, Washington is more concerned about terrorists sneaking into North America or rogue states using the oceans to transport weapons of mass destruction. And these challenges would best be addressed through a domestic legal system's criminal, customs and immigration laws, rather than the much looser constraints of international law.
As it happens, the Canadian system is the only domestic legal system that could plausibly be applied in the Northwest Passage. It simply does not benefit the United States--or most other countries--to have foreign vessels shielded from reasonable regulations and scrutiny by maintaining that the passage is an international strait.
Access to the waterway is not really at issue, since Canada would never deny entry to one of its allies, or indeed to a reputable shipping company. As Pierre Trudeau declared in 1969, "to close off those waters and to deny passage to all foreign vessels in the name of Canadian sovereignty... would be as senseless as placing barriers across the entrances of Halifax and Vancouver harbours."
Washington's concern about an inconvenient precedent is also misplaced, since the sea ice--and the resulting near-absence of international navigation to date--has created a situation where the Northwest Passage is distinct from the other waterways it claims are international straits.
In March 2005, then U.S. ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci revealed that he had asked the U.S. State Department to take a "serious look at our long-standing policy" on the Northwest Passage. This has created an opportunity to resolve the dispute.
The Canadian government should seize the initiative, first by investing in the equipment necessary to police the passage on a year-round basis, then by offering to provide open access for all U.S. government vessels and reputable international shipping companies--in return for the United States recognizing Canada's claim. But we must move quickly. Having seen an almost totally ice-free passage in late October 2006--when I sailed through on the Amundsen--it is clear to me that we have no time to waste.
Securing the Runways
The failure to defend Canadian interests in the Arctic extends beyond the land, sea and ice. Northern skies have become busy of late, and we are woefully underprepared for any emergencies that might arise from that.
The development of global positioning technology and ultra-long-range aircraft such as the Airbus 340-500 and Boeing 777-LR have led to a dramatic increase in air traffic over the High Arctic. In 2006, nearly 150,000 commercial flights took "transpolar" or "high latitude" routes, flying from the east coast of North America to Southeast Asia or from the west coast to Europe and the Persian Gulf.
Air Canada flies transpolar from Toronto to Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. Some of its other flights traverse the Arctic without going "over the top." I am a frequent passenger on the Vancouver-to-London flight, which passes over the middle of Baffin Island some 2,500 kilometres north of Montreal. Indeed, on any given day, as many people fly over Canada's three northern territories as live there on the ground.
Arctic routes reduce distance and are less likely to encounter strong headwinds, thus reducing flight time and fuel consumption. They are relatively safe, thanks to the new, technologically advanced equipment deployed. But even the newest and best-maintained aircraft can have mechanical problems, and passengers occasionally become dangerously ill. Canadian and U.S. regulators require airlines flying Arctic routes to specify a series of alternative airports, which must have a runway with sufficient length and strength to allow for a safe landing by the plane in question.
In most circumstances, 2,100 metres of asphalt are required for an Airbus 340 or Boeing 777. As a point of comparison, the shortest runway at Toronto's Pearson International Airport is 2,700 metres long, and even this proved insufficient for an Air France Airbus 340 landing during a thunderstorm in August 2005.
The longest runway in Canada's North is at Whitehorse, with 2,877 metres. On September 11, 2001, two Korean Air 747s destined for the United States were safely diverted there. Iqaluit, with 2,606 metres, hosted the new, 555-passenger Airbus 380 for cold-weather testing in February 2006. Iqaluit sees about one unplanned landing each month, usually because of medical emergencies.
Yellowknife has 2,286 meters of runway, barely over the minimum. Moreover, its instrument-landing system, required during poor visibility, works in one direction only--a direction that leads, just beyond the runway, to a drop-off into a lake. In March 2004, a United Airlines Boeing 777 with mechanical problems diverted to Yellowknife. The plane landed safely, but the airport was deemed too small to fly in a replacement engine. The engine was flown to Edmonton and then trucked the last 1,500 kilometres.
There are no other Canadian airports above 60 degrees north latitude where a long-range passenger jet could land safely. Inuvik and Rankin Inlet both have 1,829 metres of asphalt. The Government of Nunavut has recently spent $3 million to improve the instrument-landing system and apron at Rankin Inlet and an additional $18 million to pave the 1,515-metres-long gravel strip at Cambridge Bay. Resolute Bay, centrally located 1,500 kilometres northward of Yellowknife and Iqaluit, has 1,981 metres of gravel.
One thousand kilometres farther northward, the runway at Alert is also gravel, and it is only 1,666 metres long. Faced with this inadequate infrastructure, regulators are allowing airlines flying Arctic routes to designate alternative airports that fall short of the usual requirements.
Arctic airports are expensive to maintain. Freeze-thaw cycles cause runways to crack and heave, a problem that is being exacerbated as climate change causes the underlying permafrost to melt. And although northern ground crews are adept at removing snow and ice from runways, they are hampered by limits in equipment and personnel.
Most northern airports lack instrument-landing systems, and rescue and firefighting services are generally provided by volunteer fire departments--if they're available at all. Nor do most northern airports offer twenty-four-hour service, which poses a problem for an overnight flight from Beijing to New York that urgently needs to land.
The federal government collects "overflight" fees for the use of Canadian airspace. That money used to go to Transport Canada, a federal department, which spent some of it on airports, runways and rescue and firefighting services.
Today, the revenue generated by overflight fees goes to Nav Canada, the private corporation that has been responsible for air traffic control in Canadian airspace since 1996. Northern airports, meanwhile, have been "devolved" to the governments of the three territories, which have been forced to shoulder most of the financial burden without the previous revenue stream.
To make matters worse, these changes occurred at the same time that the federal government was concluding an air liberalization agreement with Russia to enable more transpolar routes, thus increasing the need for improved infrastructure on the ground. A similar agreement has recently been concluded with China.
In these circumstances, it behooves the federal government to provide the three northern territories with sufficient funds to lengthen and pave their runways, install or improve instrument landing, upgrade snow-clearing, firefighting and rescue services and to staff airports at night. In addition, the Department of National Defence should lengthen and pave the runway at Alert right away. Some of the expenditure could then be recouped, over time, through a small increase in overflight fees.
Internationally, frustration with the present situation has led to suggestions that airlines pay service charges directly to their designated alternative airports. Given the importance of strengthening Canada's governmental presence in the North for sovereignty assertion purposes, such an approach is far from ideal. Territorial governments can do the job, provided that some of the money generated by the traffic through the Arctic is directed their way from a federal source.
There is also the issue of crash landings away from airports. Although such events are very rare, frigid temperatures during the long Arctic winter demand that rescuers reach the site within hours. At the moment, they are hard pressed to do so. In 1991, after a Canadian Forces Hercules crashed twenty kilometres from Alert, the pilot froze to death during the two days it took help to arrive.
A small number of Arctic-trained paratroopers could make a difference, although to be effective in a crash scenario some of them would need to be based in the North. Stephen Harper promised new paratroopers for the Arctic in 2005, but he made no mention of them after becoming prime minister.
At the same time, Joint Task Force North, the Canadian Forces' northern headquarters in Yellowknife, was promised new fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft specifically designed for parachuting, but no search and rescue personnel ("SAR techs") to do the actual jumps.
Federal bureaucrats claim that the small number of incidents that might require search and rescue in the Arctic does not justify the expense of basing specialized personnel there. But unlikely events do occur and can have serious consequences. Imagine the outcry if an international airliner crash-landed on Canadian territory and the three hundred or more passengers and crew froze to death while waiting the two or three days it took for help to arrive.
Last but not least, there is an issue concerning the adequacy of communications facilities. In February 2006, I received an e-mail from a former Canadian Forces pilot who now flies for Cathay Pacific, including making transpolar flights between Hong Kong and New York. As he explained:
As I'm sure you can imagine there's not much to do on a 15:45-hour over-the-pole flight. Notably, VHF, and eventually HF, comms end in Canada in the vicinity of Resolute Bay. It was the same 16 years ago when I flew the Herc, so one can see where NavCanada is not spending its money.
So it's complete comms silence until one gets into Russian Airspace. Arctic Radio (CZUL/CZEG/CZWG) doesn't even have CPDLC data link comms. Meanwhile Russian ATC has all the latest toys with immediate data link comms (whilst still well within Canadian airspace) and shortly thereafter VHF with Magadan.
I know the Canadian Gov't is concerned about its arctic sovereignty and its lack of presence but it's troubling to note the complete lack of "infrastructure" up there. Canada had better assert itself before someone else does.
Far more people fly over Canada's Arctic than have ever set foot there. We need to ensure that they can do so safely.
Arctic Research: Exploring Canada's Next Frontier
Globally, Arctic research has become a very big deal, with Britain, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States all being major players. Canada has been in the game for decades too: one of my first childhood memories is of my father, a federal government scientist, returning from a research expedition to Bathurst Island with a new, very bushy beard. More recently, funding for Arctic research in Canada dipped to developing-country levels until Allan Rock, as minister of industry, committed $41 million of new funding in 2003.
The result was ArcticNet, a consortium of over one hundred researchers from twenty-seven Canadian universities and five federal departments that is designed to support cutting-edge science on the effects of climate change in Canada's North.
Its central asset is the Amundsen. Previously named the Sir John Franklin, the twenty-eight-year-old Class 3 icebreaker has been refitted as a research vessel. In addition to laboratories and computer rooms, the Amundsen has a "moon-pool" that provides researchers with ice-free access to the ocean through the bottom of the ship--while providing reciprocal access to the ship for the occasional seal!
The Amundsen has also been fitted with retractable "dynamic positioning" thrusters on the sides of its hull, enabling it to remain stationary in moving water or ice while samples are collected from the ocean floor or seabed. The modifications make it a near-perfect platform for Arctic scientists, particularly those specializing in sea ice, marine ecosystems and underwater geology.
Like Canada's other icebreakers, the Amundsen is not powerful enough to move throughout the Arctic in winter. It usually returns to its home port of Quebec City and is used to break ice for commercial traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. However, in 2003-4 the Amundsen was deliberately frozen into the ice of the Beaufort Sea. There it sat through the long, dark Arctic winter, providing a warm, safe, high-tech research station for forty-six scientists at a time, flown in on ski planes for six-week rotations.
Another research initiative is the International Polar Year, which is actually taking place over two years--from March 2007 to March 2009--and concerns both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Previous international polar years were observed in 1882-83, 1932-33 and 1957-58.
Involving up to fifty thousand scientists from sixty countries, this internationally coordinated campaign is co-sponsored by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization. In September 2005, the federal government announced it would budget $150 million over six years to support Canadian research relating to the International Polar Year, with the money being targeted at research into climate change and health issues particular to northern communities.
There is no disputing that $150 million is a significant amount of money. Yet it represents only about 5 per cent of what is being spent on the International Polar Year worldwide. Given that Canada is the world's eighth-largest economy and that one quarter of the Arctic falls within its borders, this is somewhat miserly. The money was also announced too late for many Canadian projects to secure matching international funds. That said, it still represents a significant improvement over previous decades, and Canadian Arctic researchers, some of whom are already world leaders, are putting it to good use.
Canada's Moon Mission
Canada is a big country, but it could soon become even larger. Along our northern coast, Canadian scientists are working to increase the size of Canada by hundreds of thousands of square kilometres. And if that does not sound audacious enough, they have been doing so in co-operation with the Danes--the very same people who have been challenging Canadian sovereignty over Hans Island.
In early 2005, a joint Canadian-Danish expedition mapped the floor of the Arctic Ocean several hundred kilometres north of that contested islet. Hundreds of seismic sensors and depth charges were lowered through the ice at intervals along the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea mountain range that runs northward from Ellesmere Island and Greenland, towards the North Pole. When the explosives were detonated, shock waves bounced off the ocean floor and off layers of sediments and bedrock up to forty kilometres below the ocean floor, providing detailed geographical and geological information.
The data are being collected not just for science's sake. Coastal states have sovereign rights over their adjoining continental shelves. These rights extend to the resources of the seabed and underlying strata, including all minerals, oil, gas and gas hydrates.
Until recently, such rights did not extend more than two hundred nautical miles from shore. But under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries may--depending on the depth and shape of the seabed and the thickness of underlying sedimentary layers--claim a shelf that reaches much farther. Any such claim must be submitted, with supporting scientific data, to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a body of scientists elected by parties to the UN convention. The commission's recommendations are not legally binding.
Its role is to alert countries to exaggerated claims, as well as to help legitimize reasonable claims. It is left to those countries whose claims overlap to negotiate mutually satisfactory agreements among themselves or to take their disputes to an international court or tribunal.
Once a country ratifies the convention, it has ten years in which to make its submission. Russia ratified the UN convention in 1997 and submitted its claim to an extended continental shelf just four years later. The claim encroached on areas that Canada, Denmark and the United States hope to claim for themselves, and all three countries filed protests.
The commission responded by recommending that Russia submit a revised claim, as well as more supporting data. Russia has since engaged in a major seismic mapping exercise: in the summer of 2005, it sent one of its research vessels all the way to the North Pole.
Canada ratified the UN convention in 2003; therefore, its submission must be complete by 2013. Conceivably, Canada could assert sovereign rights over an underwater expanse larger than Alberta--with comparable natural resources. As mentioned before, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 25 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic Ocean.
As prices rise, new technologies are developed and climate change makes northern regions increasingly accessible, that ocean could become humanity's last major source of fossil fuels. Alternatively, from an environmental perspective, Canadian sovereignty could be used to help keep the fossil fuels locked in place, where they could not contribute to further climate change.
For Canada, the expedition to the Lomonosov Ridge is just a beginning. Of the $70 million for seabed mapping allocated by the 2004 federal budget, more than half was designated for the northwest flank of the Arctic archipelago, that vast, frozen expanse of ocean stretching from west of Ellesmere Island to the Beaufort Sea.
Logistically, mapping that area is as challenging as mounting an expedition to the moon. Two heavy icebreakers working together could take four or more summers to complete the job. Canada has only one such vessel, the aging Louis S. St-Laurent, which means that another would have to be chartered or bought. Alternatively, the Amundsen, whose dynamic-positioning thrusters could be an asset in such work, might be diverted from its other research activities.
Exacerbating the situation, icebreakers consume vast quantities of fuel, the price of which has risen sharply since 2004. As a result, the money allocated by Paul Martin's government will probably not suffice.
The United States could be of considerable assistance. During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy mapped much of the sea-floor topography of the Arctic Ocean, using nuclear submarines operating under the ice. Recently, it declassified the data obtained from areas more than two hundred nautical miles offshore.
Yet it will not, officially at least, even admit to having data from within two hundred nautical miles of other countries, since collecting that data would have been illegal without the coastal state's consent. More recently, Ottawa invited Washington to send its mapping submarines into Canadian waters, but the specialized vessels were decommissioned before that could be done. In these circumstances, consideration should be given to providing retroactive consent to any clandestine mapping that occurred.
Our ambassador in Washington could engage in some supportive diplomacy. The United States has not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, though the Bush administration has initiated the process by asking the Senate for its "advice and consent."
At the same time, it would not be in the United States' interest to have Canada's claim endorsed by the commission before the U.S. makes its own position--and the scientific basis for that position--clear. Ideally, the two countries would concurrently file mutually supportive claims.
But before they could do so, Ottawa and Washington would have to resolve a lingering maritime boundary dispute in the Beaufort Sea, offshore from the border between the Yukon and Alaska, since the line within two hundred nautical miles provides the starting point for the line farther out. That dispute, over just sixty-five square kilometres of seabed, pales in significance when compared with the sovereign rights available to both countries farther offshore.
Even if Washington co-operates, much remains to be done. Submarines are not particularly useful for mapping the geology of the seabed, and data on sediments is an essential component of any claim to an extended continental shelf.
The seismic mapping along the northwest flank of the archipelago must begin soon, and with the full support of the Canadian government. Any hesitation could result in Canada missing the 2013 deadline, thus losing out on the essential legitimacy that would flow from an endorsement of its claims by the UN commission.
The stakes are high. A complete, scientifically sound, punctual submission could result in Canada having widely recognized sovereign rights over a large and potentially very important expanse of seabed. Once again, the Arctic is Canada's new frontier.
Look up, Way Up: Arctic Policy as Foreign Policy
For many people, looking at the Canadian Arctic from a foreign-policy perspective seems counterintuitive. Surely the main issues up north concern the treatment of indigenous Canadians, federal-territorial relations or the exploitation of resources on Canadian soil? But let's think about these and other issues for a moment.
Canada's longest international boundary is located in the Arctic, mostly in the form of the continental coastline and the straight baselines connecting the outer headlands of the archipelago. Although much of our northern boundary is between Canadian territory and the internationalized zone known as the "high seas," Canada does have territorial disputes in the Arctic with three other countries: the United States over the boundary in the Beaufort Sea; Denmark over Hans Island and the boundary in the Lincoln Sea north of Ellesmere Island and Greenland, and (in all likelihood) Russia over overlapping continental shelf claims in the Arctic Ocean. And, of course, it has a dispute with the United States over the legal status of the Northwest Passage.
Acute environmental degradation is occurring in the Arctic as the result of pollution produced many thousands of kilometres away. Some steps to address these challenges have been taken through multilateral treaties, including the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and, less successfully, the Kyoto Protocol. Canada's relationship with its indigenous peoples is directly implicated in most of these international issues.
The support of the Inuit is an important element of Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage. The advocacy efforts of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference played a key role in securing a meaningful treaty on persistent organic pollutants.
The Inuit have also mounted a significant international effort to address climate change, the leading global issue of the twenty-first century, by filing a complaint against the U.S. government with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Seen from this foreign-policy perspective, it becomes all the more inexplicable that successive Canadian governments have neglected the indigenous people of the Arctic, including, most recently, by failing to implement key provisions of the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.
In March 2005, I attended a workshop on the Northwest Passage in Iqaluit. John Amagoalik was there. So was Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Some of the other participants were among the first graduates of the Akitsiraq Law School, a satellite program of the University of Victoria. I have never encountered as much brain power around a single table as I did that day, not even in an Oxford dining hall.
Meeting Amagoalik was a particular pleasure. Relocated from northern Quebec to Resolute Bay in 1953, Amagoalik and his family were the victims of a heavy-handed Canadian government move to assert sovereignty over the High Arctic. He was then taken from his family and sent to residential schools in Churchill and Iqaluit.
A subsequent political career earned him the title of "father of Nunavut," the Inuit homeland and, since 1999, Canada's third territory. As president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, chair of the Nunavut Constitutional Forum, political adviser to the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut and then chief commissioner of the Nunavut Implementation Commission, Amagoalik negotiated on behalf of his people with a series of Canadian prime ministers.
And he did so directly, on the basis of equality of status as a national leader. This was underlined for me when, during a conference dinner in Ottawa in June 2006, I asked Amagoalik if he remembered Ivan Head, Pierre Trudeau's chief adviser on foreign policy and Arctic issues. "No," he replied, without the slightest hint of hubris, "I only dealt with the principals."
Yet many of the people Amagoalik represented are suffering from grossly inadequate housing and astonishingly high rates of unemployment, illiteracy, preventable disease and suicide. One month after our dinner, Amagoalik sent an e-mail to inform me that, two days after returning to Iqaluit, he had been "medevaced" back to Ottawa with an advanced case of tuberculosis.
How many Canadians know that TB, historically one of the world's most deadly diseases, is endemic in our North today, in this, one of the richest and most medically advanced countries on Earth? Four months later, when visiting Kugluktuk in the western Arctic, I noticed that many of the Inuit--who are normally very friendly--were greeting me without smiles. Meeting the town's Anglican priest in the local museum-cum-Internet caf�, I asked what was wrong. "We buried a young man yesterday," he said, "the third suicide in four months."
To his credit, Lloyd Axworthy took some positive steps on Arctic issues when he was minister of foreign affairs. In 1996, Axworthy led the creation of the Arctic Council, a mechanism that draws together the eight countries and the indigenous people of the circumpolar North, to address common environmental, social and economic concerns. Among other accomplishments, the Arctic Council set in motion the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, one of the world's most significant efforts to understand and raise awareness about climate change.
There are other examples of how looking at the North from a foreign-policy perspective can create opportunities. Georgiy Mamedov, the Russian ambassador to Canada, is strongly promoting the idea of an "Arctic bridge," an international shipping route linking Murmansk in Russia to Churchill in Manitoba and then, by rail, to the heartland of the United States.
His efforts have been well received, not least by the U.S. railway company OmniTRAX which, in 1997, bought the Port of Churchill for the fire-sale price of ten dollars, as well as the rail line from Churchill to Winnipeg. As climate change extends the shipping season, OmniTRAX--and some residents of northern Manitoba--should profit handsomely in the decades ahead.
The full co-operation of all three territorial governments is required. Just as Ottawa needs to help those governments expand and improve northern airports, a strong case can also be made for building a deepwater port at Iqaluit, as has been requested by the Government of Nunavut. A second deepwater port could usefully be constructed at Tuktoyaktuk, at the mouth of the Mackenzie River.
And one way to improve the capacity of the territorial governments to address the challenges of a changing Arctic would be to change their fiscal relationship with Ottawa. At the moment, there is a certain incongruity between Prince Edward Island (5,660 square kilometres) being a province with control over its natural resources and the Northwest Territories (1,346,106 square kilometres) being a territory that does not have the right to receive any of the royalties received by Ottawa on its oil, gas and diamonds.
Canada, by fate and geography, is destined to be an Arctic country. Climate change and the global demand for natural resources are only accelerating the process, while introducing international elements--such as an ice-free Northwest Passage and a continental shelf dispute with Russia--that previous generations could not have imagined.
Whether we like it or not, Arctic policy has become foreign policy. At the same time, the success of much of that foreign policy will depend on our ability to co-operate with the people who have long called the Arctic their home. In the North, the Inuit and other indigenous peoples are our sentinels, soldiers and diplomats. It is time for southern Canadians to look up, way up, and provide serious support for their efforts to build a true North strong and free.
Adapted from the book, Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For?, by Michael Byers. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Douglas & McIntyre.