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Michael Byers
January 7, 2006
Ottawa must act quickly to assert sovereignty in Arctic

THE stakes have been raised in the sovereignty dispute over the Northwest Passage, with potentially serious consequences for Canadians. As a result of climate change, the Arctic sea-ice is, on average, 35 per cent thinner than just three decades ago. Unless we act to affirm our sovereignty, oil tankers, tramp freighters and cruise ships could soon be sailing through Canadian territory -- while remaining beyond the reach of most Canadian laws. Our sovereignty over the Arctic islands themselves is uncontested, apart from an inconsequential dispute over Hans Island, a small lump of rock along the west coast of Greenland. It's sovereignty over the straits and channels within the Canadian archipelago -- and the right to regulate access to them -- that's the big issue. The need for regulation is considerable. The Northwest Passage offers a shipping route between Asia and the East Coast of North America that is 7,000 kilometres shorter than the route through the Panama Canal. International shipping companies are eyeing the fuel, time and canal-passage fees that could be saved; some are already building ice-strengthened vessels. Yet an oil spill would cause catastrophic damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems; a cruise ship in distress would require an expensive and possibly dangerous rescue mission. An international shipping route along Canada's third coast could also facilitate the entry of drugs, guns, illegal immigrants and perhaps even terrorists, as well as providing an alternative route for illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction or missile components. Ideally, these challenges would be addressed by applying the full range of Canada's own environmental, immigration, customs and criminal laws. Sovereignty over the Northwest Passage is about much more than nationalism; it's about protecting people and the environment from serious potential harm. The Canadian government asserted our sovereignty in 1986 by drawing "straight baselines" between the outer headlands of the archipelago. The straits and channels within the lines were designated "internal waters." This move was supported by historic usage, including thousands of years of Inuit use and occupation of the sea ice. In contrast, the United States claims that the Northwest Passage is an international strait which is open without restriction to ships from any country. Washington backed up its position in 1969 and 1985 by sending vessels through the Passage without asking for Ottawa's permission. Non-consensual transits challenge sovereignty by demonstrating that Canada will not defend its claim if pushed. With the risk of further non-consensual transits mounting as the ice melts, Canada's legal argument could soon collapse under the weight of precedent, leaving us with little basis on which to regulate foreign vessels. Ottawa's lack of commitment is also manifested in a near-absence of enforcement capability. Despite having the world's longest coastline, much of it ice-covered most of the time, Canada does not have an all-season polar icebreaker. In 1985, the Mulroney government set out to remedy that omission, only to cancel the contract four years later. The situation is all the more worrisome because even non-Arctic countries such as China, Britain, South Africa and South Korea now own or are building vessels of this kind. The Canadian Airborne Regiment was able to deploy 500 paratroopers rapidly anywhere in the Arctic until the Chrétien government disbanded the regiment in 1995. Today, our Arctic presence is made up largely of the Canadian Rangers, 1,600 part-time volunteers living in 58 hamlets stretching from Baffin Island to the Alaskan frontier. The Rangers know the land and ice and provide a useful, if slow moving, search and rescue capability. But their capabilities are dwarfed by the expanse in which they operate, and they're certainly not equipped or trained to forcibly board ocean-going vessels. In November 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin declared that sovereignty "is an issue which is becoming even more important, given climate change and the opening of the Northwest Passage to transportation, and the environmental problems that may flow from that." Some steps are now being taken. Unmanned aerial vehicles will soon provide some long-range surveillance capability at relatively low cost. Radarsat-2, a federally funded remote sensing satellite, will provide up-to-date, high resolution imaging on demand, giving the Canadian Forces and Coast Guard the ability to track surface vessels from space. Yet more needs to be done, and both the Tories and NDP are now pushing for action. Enforcing sovereignty over the small number of navigable straits or channels in the Canadian Arctic would not require an armada. Stephen Harper has promised three polar icebreakers, a deepwater port near Iqualuit, underwater sensors and a new Arctic-trained airborne battalion. If Harper were to win the election and fulfil his promises -- two big "ifs" -- Canadian sovereignty over our northern frontier would be much more secure. Other, less dramatic measures could also be taken. Canada currently offers a registration service to all ships entering its northern waters, but it is voluntary, unlike the corresponding services on the East and West coasts. Most ships register in order to facilitate rescues, but anyone intent on challenging or evading Canadian laws will likely not do so. Making registration in the Arctic mandatory would bolster Canada's sovereignty, especially if a couple of Canadian Forces helicopters were based at Resolute Bay in summer to ensure compliance. Lastly, it's about time that we persuaded the United States to change its position on the Northwest Passage. Washington's policy dates from the Cold War when unrestricted access to the Arctic Ocean was a strategic priority. Today, the U.S. government is more concerned about terrorists and rogue states than Russian submarines. In terms of U.S. interests, it should actually make sense to have a strengthened Canadian Navy or Coast Guard presence applying Canadian law in the Northwest Passage, rather than leaving those waters largely unregulated. Indeed, in November 2004 then-U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci admitted that U.S. national security might actually be enhanced if Washington were to recognize Canada's claim. "We are looking at everything through the terrorism prism," he said. "Our top priority is to stop the terrorists. So perhaps when this is brought to the table again, we may have to take another look." The time for that look is fast approaching. Let's put some assets on the table first. Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. His work on Arctic sovereignty is supported by ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 23 Canadian universities.

 
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