Canada must exert Arctic role

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
Originally written for Canadian Sailings

OTTAWA — Canada has to make its presence felt in the Arctic in concrete ways that will convince other countries that it takes its northern sovereignty claim seriously, says a report from the Senate Fisheries and Oceans committee.

"We have to exert better control," Committee Chairman Bill Rompkey told reporters after releasing the report. "Other countries don't think there is sufficient Canadian presence in the region. Other countries don't see the Canadian control."

The report contains 12 recommendations ranging from the need for a strong, year-round presence in the north to a greater role for Inuit in the Canadian Coast Guard and other Canadian institutions in the region. The Coast Guard needs a strategic vision to guide its role in the region and new ships to sail it.

But it all comes down to whether Canada has control over the Northwest Passage, he said. If it can't convince other countries the passage is internal waters that it can regulate traffic through, then the Arctic will be open to all kinds of civilian and military ships and aircraft that won't be bound by Canadian pollution prevention or safety rules. There could also be a free for all for the oil, gas and mineral reserves in the region.

"The Coast Guard is understaffed and suffering from a crew attrition and old ships," Senator Rompkey explained. Moist of its icebreakers were built for Arctic operations. "We need a fleet of Polar icebreakers."

The government has promised a new Arctic icebreaker by 2017 and new navy patrol ships by 2014. The latter aren't designed to work in Arctic ice, he said.

He also said the government should appoint a new Arctic ambassador charged with asserting Canada's claim to other countries. It should also establish a federal cabinet committee on Arctic matters that would include the Transport, Defense, Environment and Northern Affairs departments. That would get cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats engaged in working collaboratively on Arctic issues.

Any government strategy for the north has to provide a greater role for the Inuit, he said. That would include as crew on Coast Guard vessels.

Canada faces maritime boundary disputes with the United States, Denmark and France as well as having to stake it claim for the continental shelf beyond the 200 mile limit.

"The Arctic is expected to become much busier," the report says. "No one knows exactly when this will happen, but Canada has been preparing for the eventuality.

"As commercial shipping increases, so will the potential for marine pollution," it continues. "Canada needs to retain full control over its Arctic waters to adequately protect the exceptionally fragile marine environment and Canadian security interests." Parliament is in the process of approving an extension of Canada's marine pollution prevention laws to 200 miles and will make it mandatory next year for all ships entering the Arctic zone to report to Canadian officials.

"Many of the challenges faced by Canada in the North are related to the vital and considerable work performed by the Canadian Coast Guard," the report notes. It needs additional capabilities and equipment to cope with future demands. Equipped with a better fleet, the Coast Guard could assert "more control over the waters within the Arctic Archipelagoputting, Canada in a much stronger position to argue that they are internal waters."

15 May 2009 — Return to cover.