The ice in Canada’s Arctic has been steadily melting since 1979. If this trend continues, large swaths of Arctic waters are expected to be free of ice altogether during the summer months.
These changes are leading to a significant increase in cruise ship, tanker and supply vessel traffic in the Northwest Passage, which is concentrated mainly in the easternmost waters of Nunavut. In September, for instance, China sent a “science vessel” into Arctic waters. And in mid-October, U.S. regulators began taking comments on a proposed Arctic oil-drilling site off the coast of Alaska, in the Beaufort Sea where the Northwest Passage begins.
Problematically, Canada is not currently doing enough to patrol and secure its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.
With territory surrounding the entirety of the passage, Canada naturally defines the enclosed waters as internal — therefore under Canadian sovereignty and law. Canada also has historic title to support its claim of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, as Inuit trails have crossed the frozen passage for centuries.
Despite this, most countries choose to ignore Canada’s claim to the passage.
The United States claims the Northwest Passage is an international strait that the vessels of any country have the right to traverse. Other countries argue that the area should be deemed Canadian territorial waters, allowing foreign states the unimpeded right to “innocent passage.”
As a result of Canada’s lack of enforcement over these waters, many pleasure craft and smaller vessels fail to report their activity in the Northwest Passage, and some end up requiring very expensive search-and-rescue services, for which Canadian taxpayers are left footing the bill.
If Canada does not consistently and firmly reassert its ownership claim over the Northwest Passage, it could eventually become an internationalized strait. As has been the case throughout history, sovereignty often relies on the realpolitik principle of “use or lose it.”
To avoid this outcome, the Canadian government should start enforcing existing regulatory measures. It should require vessels to file sail plans with Transport Canada, to maintain communication with the Coast Guard, and it should require vessels to secure Canadian bonds and insurance policies that would alleviate the financial burden on Canadian taxpayers should they run into trouble.
It is also crucial that Canada increases its capacity to better respond to spills, assist in search-and-rescue operations, and investigate potential security threats. An expanded maritime role for the Rangers (northerners who know the landscape and seaways better than anyone) would also support and complement the work of the Coast Guard Auxiliary in the Arctic.
This past summer, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan released the findings of the defence policy review, calling for more soldiers, more ships, and a better space program — and mentions at the end a promise to increase military presence in the North. Later in August, Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced $175 million in new marine-safety measures, including $29.9 million for a new aerial surveillance facility in Iqaluit. He also said that Transport Canada plans to identify Arctic shipping routes that will be practical and safe, and which will have a limited impact on the marine environment.
While these are important steps, they don’t go far enough in addressing the challenges to our sovereignty in the Arctic. These measures must be done in tandem with actions taken to enforce Canada’s control over the passage.
A new Senate special committee on the Arctic will aim to address these shortcomings and more. But unless the federal government corrects the situation soon, Canada is at serious risk of losing control and sovereignty over its Arctic, thus destabilizing the region irreparably.
Dennis Patterson is a senator representing Nunavut. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, as well as the Senate Committee Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.