Straight talk about the Arctic

Navy convinced Ottawa that Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships
more capable to guarantee claim than armed ice breakers

By Alex Binkley
Originally in Canadian Sailings

OTTAWA – Canada’s sovereignty over its Arctic islands and waters can be a hot political issue.

Look at the flap created in Parliament and the media about Danish claims to tiny Hans Island in the eastern Arctic. Or posturing by the United States over a disputed maritime boundary between Alaska and the Yukon that dates back 30 years to when Canada and the United States first staked out their 200-mile zone boundaries. No one cared much about it until the oil and natural gas potential of the Arctic became evident. Other than that nothing has changed on this file.

It was against this backdrop that the Eastern Canadian Section of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, the Canadian Institute of Marine Engineering and Naval Officer Association of Canada organized an information session on the policy, technical and operational issues facing Canada in the North.

For three hours, federal and military officials and energy industry experts talked about Canada’s claim to the Arctic and the challenges of navigating and living in the region. The main issue Canada faces is asserting its claim that Northwest Passage is internal Canadian waters where shipping has to operate under Canadian rules. The U.S. and others say the Passage is Canadian territorial waters and the right of innocent passage takes precedent.

As well, the Canadian Navy convinced the government to switch its plan for armed icebreakers in favour of specialized patrol ships because what’s really important is controlling the eastern and western approaches to the Passage when they might be navigable. No one is sailing through it in the middle of the winter. 

The session was held in the Museum of Civilization across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill. It’s too bad some of the politicians didn’t hear what was said.

Wendell Sanford, director of ocean and environmental law at Foreign Affairs, said, “There’s no threat to our ownership of the lands, islands and waters of the Arctic. They’re Canadian and they will remain so. “Even President Bush acknowledges this.”

The main reason the United States insists the Northwest Passage is Canadian territorial waters is because it doesn’t want to create a precedent that Asian countries could use to control the Strait of Malacca, he said.

Canada has 36,000 islands in the Arctic, he said. Hans is only of interest because it might be right on the line of the boundary between Canadian and Danish waters off Greenland. This will eventually be settled by diplomatic means. Expect lots of huffing and puffing in the meantime.

The Alaska-Yukon boundary is a genuine dispute over where to draw the seaward extension of the boundary. “There’s 6,250 square miles under dispute and for that reason no oil and gas drilling licenses are granted for that region,” Mr. Sanford said. “We will resolve this at some point when the oil companies want to go into the area.”

Meanwhile Canada and the United States continue to map the area to bolster their claims which will likely be settled by international arbitration. Canada is currently mapping the outer shelf of the Arctic Ocean and has until 2013 to complete the work. There is a possibility that Russian and Canadian claims might overlap.

Ice has been disappearing from the Arctic since 1968 but it likely won’t retreat sufficiently for regular commercial navigation until the end of the Century. “The Northwest Passage was open for all of six weeks during the last two summers,” he said.

The Russian Northeast Passage is already navigable and the waters of the North Pole will offer a much quicker route between Asia and Europe long before the Northwest Passage because the islands in the Canadian Arctic will trap so much ice that ships will encounter constant navigational hazards, Mr. Sanford said.

However enough ice has retreated that regular voyages between Murmansk and the Port of Churchill will be possible creating a direct route between Europe and the U.S. Midwest. Mr. Sanford noted that every time a Russian vessel enters Hudson Bay, “they acknowledge our sovereignty.”

Capt. Serge Bertrand of the Navy said Canada “doesn’t need to operate in the Passage to control access to.” The Navy convinced the government that instead of armed icebreakers, a new generation of coastal patrol vessels that could work in the Arctic during the navigational season and on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts as well was more appropriate.

“We needed something more capable than an icebreaker,” he said. The Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) “will provide a military function in Canadian waters.” The design of the vessel is progressing.