Friday, November 16, 2007

"Our" Northwest Passage?

To many Canadians, our ownership of the Northwest Passage seems a slam-dunk. Who could deny that the passage is ours?

There is certainly an impression that the United States, and that country alone, is a threat to our sovereignty in the arctic. In fact, there is no evidence that the US, or any other country for that matter, is even remotely interested in taking over the basket-case that is Canada’s north. But there is certainly a dispute over our claim to exclusive use of the waterways between the islands of the arctic archipelago.

There is one country, and one country alone, who claims that the Northwest Passage is Canadian water. That country is … Canada! The United States, and all the member countries of the European Union, including Great Britain, considers the waterway to be international. The United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has made the same pronouncement.

Should this issue eventually end up before the World Court, Canada’s claim would probably not stand up to close scrutiny. Did we explore the arctic? No, the British did that. Did we ever put a lot of federal dollars into the north? The Dew Line project, fifty-years ago, financed entirely by the US Department of Defense, remains the biggest development project the north has ever seen. Can we provide adequate surveillance of our arctic? To their credit, the Harper government has increased aerial reconnaissance and summer Coast Guard activity, but we still have antiquated and inadequate ice-breakers, no suitably ice-strengthened naval vessels, no submarines capable of operating under the ice-cap, limited sovereignty patrols by the air force and a tiny, poorly trained and ill-equipped, rag-tag ground force of Canadian Rangers. Essentially, our efforts to show the flag are curtailed each year by the threat of having to endure (heaven forbid!) "arctic conditions". The navy and Coast Guard make sure they are out of Dodge around the same time as the geese fly south for the winter.

We have only one dirt road that barely pokes beyond the arctic circle, no roads inter-connecting the isolated settlements of Nunavut and no economic rationale for any of our communities.The Inuit have been here for a few thousand years, but have only become self-aware of their Canadian citizenship for less than a hundred of those years. To claim that the simple act of having a resident native population supports Canada’s claim to sovereignty is just a little far-fetched.

The federal government largely ignored our arctic until the Second World War rolled around, and has given us only the bare minimum of infrastructure since then.

A couple of decades ago, the US icebreaker Polar Sea traversed the Northwest Passage. Naturally, since the US considers the passage to be an international waterway, they did not ask for Canada's blessing. This ommission sparked a mild diplomatic incident, our immediate response being to drop little Canadian flags on their heads. In the end, the two countries came to a rather infantile agreement: The US agreed to "inform" Canada when one of their ships entered the passage, and Canada agreed that "permission" would not be withheld.

When the Russians dropped their flag on the sea bottom at the North Pole a few months ago, many Canadians were taken aback. The dropping of the Russian flag at the North Pole in 2007 means no more than the planting of the US flag on the moon in 1969. The Americans have not claimed that the moon is theirs and, as far as I’m aware, the Russians don’t claim the Pole as their own. They had the technology to do what they did, and they did it. We would have done the same – if we’d had the technical ability to do so, which we don’t. Anyway, since when does Canada have any claim to the North Pole? It’s 400-miles from the nearest piece of Canadian real-estate for God’s sake!

As Canadians, we have to get off our high-horse and realize that the world does indeed have a legitimate claim to the Northwest Passage. Sabre-rattling and making proclamations of ownership does not make it a reality. Assuming our claim has any chance at all of succeeding, our government had better start building a credible case for ownership rather than considering it a fait accompli.


Photo: A dewline "radician", watching for "the Rooskies", c. 1972

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