The Shipping News: Canada's Arctic Sovereignty Not on Thinning Ice

By Griffiths, Franklyn | International Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Shipping News: Canada's Arctic Sovereignty Not on Thinning Ice


Griffiths, Franklyn, International Journal


SINCE 11 SEPTEMBER 2001, Canadians have produced an extraordinary amount of comment on security, sovereignty, and policy towards the United States. In the midst of it all, a particular concern has arisen over what could happen to the Northwest Passage and to Canada's sovereignty if global warming opens the waters of the Arctic archipelago to increased foreign navigation, US commercial vessels included. As one who has seen Canadian interest in the Arctic and in Arctic sovereignty wax and wane since the 'northern vision' of the 1958 federal election, my inclination is not to ask what Canadians should be doing to affirm Canada's claim against an impending challenge, be it from the United States or another maritime power. Instead, my question is why southern Canadians so exaggerate the threat to sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. My answer is that we slip all too easily into the realm of motivated error when it comes to the Passage and challenges to our jurisdiction there. Arctic ice is decidedly not what it used to be. But neither is the threat of commercial shipping to Canada's Arctic sovereignty.

To show that the sovereignty-on-thinning-ice thesis is misguided, I will outline the argument and make clear what is wrong with it. Then I will attempt to account for systematic error and show some of what it costs us. Finally, the elements of an alternative and more productive southern Canadian approach to what goes on in and around the Northwest Passage are outlined.

ERROR

Canadians who should know better have begun to propagate a wisdom that could soon become conventional. Consider the following paraphrases (when I did not take down the exact wording) and quotations from a few of the Arctic-related meetings I attended in 2002. Referring to a heavily attended conference on climate change and Arctic sovereignty that it co-sponsored in January, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee reported views to the effect that the Northwest Passage might become 'navigable for much of the year within the next three decades,' and that possibly 'other nations will ignore Canada's claims to sovereignty over waters between the Arctic islands.'(1) At the University of British Columbia's Liu Centre in May, a member of the Canadian Polar Commission declared that the possibility of a sovereignty challenge had never been greater; an ambassador commented that it was now likely that the Northwest Passage would be opened to shipping; and a former foreign minister was of the opinion that Canada's northern waters would become increasingly navigable, bringing security and sovereignty questions down like a sledgehammer on a Canada that needed to be prepared.

Later in the year, Louis Fortier of Laval University stated that: 'A climate-induced extension of the ice-free season could open the Northwest Passage to intercontinental navigation as early as 2015-2025.' This remark was made in the context of a proposal to convert the icebreaker Sir John Franklin into a state-of-the-art research vessel that would, among many other things, serve to 'build predictive ice dynamics and distribution models to develop management strategies for decreasing the risk of marine disasters while maximizing the potential shipping season.'(2) Further comment along these lines might be considered, but let me simply refer to Mel Hurtig who in December drew the attention of a sovereignty conference in Toronto to his latest book in which it's stated that 'the Northwest Passage... in a few years will be navigable for commercial or military vessels for most or all of the year.'(3)

Although not everyone is saying the same thing, opinion-makers are convincing themselves and could go on to convince a good many others that Canada is faced with a shipping-cum-sovereignty challenge that stems from the effects of unprecedented global warming in the Arctic archipelago and its eastern and western approaches. How can all these varied talents be, in greater or lesser degree, misguided?

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