Who Controls Canada’s Arctic?

Spies, submarines, and foreign ships may signal that our claim to the North is melting

Satellite view of Baffin Island and the Parry Phannel / Image courtesy of NASA (Jacques Descloitres, Modis Land rapid response team, NASA/GSFC)

On this sun-dappled day the picturesque hamlet of Pangnirtung shimmers in the Arctic light—its raw beauty undisturbed except for the occasional whir of motorboats as Inuit fishermen check their weirs for pink-fleshed Arctic char or prowl the freezing aquamarine waters of Cumberland Sound for beluga whales. The village of 1,500 just south of the Arctic Circle appears as remote and impenetrable as it did centuries ago when intrepid explorers first tackled towering ice ridges and treacherous straits in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, and the wealth they believed lay beyond it.

Buffeted by blistering winds and bound in ice and mist for much of the year, outsiders are rarely seen in Pangnirtung. So word quickly spread when a hardy-looking kayaker suddenly appeared in the village wearing only a pair of shorts, despite the sub-zero weather. The military believes the mysterious stranger was actually a spy sent to do reconnaissance prior to the arrival of French President Jacques Chirac, who visited Pangnirtung as a guest of then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in September 1999.

The alleged agent was followed by a number of other strange sightings. rcmp officers reported seeing a large, V-shaped wake, while Inuit hunters described a conning tower matching a submarine class used by only two countries: France and the US. And an Inuit woman travelling on a fishing boat recounted how she suddenly came eye-to-eye with a frogman in scuba gear floating near the shore.

Long-range Aurora patrol aircraft were dispatched to hunt for the sub, but could not confirm there were any intruders. All this left many in the village uneasy about going out on the water. “We feel invaded,” says Peter Kilabuk, wearing the trademark red ball cap and sweatshirt of the Canadian Rangers, a primarily native militia, as he prepared to head out on patrol in August. “Either the government is not telling us what threats there are in our own waters, or no one has the means of protecting our waters.”

The suspicious events in Cumberland Sound added to the growing belief at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa that even in the post-Cold War era, the Arctic continues to be the scene of international intrigue. Now, instead of Soviet and US missile-equipped nuclear subs shadowing one another under the polar ice cap, the looming threat comes from foreign governments, including the US and European Union, who do not recognize Canada’s fragile claim to the Northwest Passage, snaking through the resource-rich Arctic Archipelago.

Some of the foreign intrusions into the archipelago have been conducted like military exercises. In the summer of 2002 and again in 2003, the Danish government sent a frigate, its hull reinforced to withstand heavy ice, to Hans Island, a lonely piece of rock in Kennedy Channel running between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. On both occasions, marines were put ashore where they erected Danish flags and left plaques declaring ownership of the outcrop—a desolate site, but one that is located in the centre of a rich fishing ground, under which may lie part of the region’s vast energy resources, estimated to contain more than 4.7-billion barrels of oil and forty trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The military has begun responding to the growing challenges on Canada’s northern frontier. In August, six hundred soldiers, sailors, and airmen travelled to Pangnirtung to take part in Exercise Narwhal, the first time all three branches came together for a joint initiative that anyone in the area can recall. To increase surveillance, unmanned drones and new satellite technology were tested. The army also plans to continue its Arctic initiative with a similar but larger exercise in 2006. With growing foreign interest in the resource-rich North, the Liberal government promised in October’s Throne Speech to develop a comprehensive strategy to protect Canadian sovereignty and boost development in the region. “If Canada is not in a position to offer protection, then somebody else will be doing it,” says Defence Minister Bill Graham. “It’s our country, it’s our responsibility, and we will fulfill our responsibility.”

But there’s one more threat to Canadian sovereignty in the region that no amount of defence action can avoid: global warming. Over the past three decades ice ridges have thinned by up to 40 percent, while the ice cap’s surface cover has been receding by 3 percent a decade. The once-impenetrable Northwest Passage could be ice-free and open to shipping in the summer months by the middle of the century. If, as expected, shipping does increase, some analysts believe Canada’s claim to the Arctic is so weak that it will have no choice but to allow passage. Each vessel moving through, will, in effect, carry away a piece of the nation’s claim to the Arctic. “My worry is, when global warming takes effect, the Northwest Passage is going to be freed up,” says Conservative defence critic Gordon O’Connor. “A number of countries are going to say it’s an international passage and we could start losing our sovereignty over pieces of the Arctic.”

The Arctic has long been embedded in Canada’s national mythology, its brutal beauty tightly bound to the country’s identity as the “true north, strong and free.” It began in 1670 when King Charles II granted a Royal Order to the Hudson’s Bay Company, giving it title to Rupert’s Land, essentially Hudson’s Bay and its watershed. In 1821, title was expanded to include what is now the Northwest Territories and Nunavut south of the Arctic Islands. The Hudson’s Bay Company signed over sovereignty of its lands to Canada in 1869. Then, in 1880, after numerous entreaties from Britain, Canada, a thirteen-year-old nation of four million people, finally agreed to take stewardship over the still unexplored Arctic Archipelago.

Until then, the quest to unlock the secrets of the far north had largely been a British imperative. The names of bold explorers such as Henry Hudson, Martin Frobisher, and William Baffin—men determined to find a northern sea route linking Europe and Asia—grace the rough-hewn islands and frozen channels.

But with no way of upholding its claim to the Arctic, Canada was soon challenged by Scandinavian explorers, including Norway’s legendary Roald Amundsen. In 1906, he completed the first successful transit of the Northwest Passage, having entered Lancaster Sound in the Eastern Arctic in a refitted, steam-powered herring boat, the Gjoa, and emerging one thousand days, and more than three thousand kilometres later, battered but alive, in Alaska. He was followed in 1909 by American Robert E. Peary, believed to be the first person to reach the North Pole.

As Amundsen moved through the passage and Peary raced to the Pole, Canada was desperately trying to claim sovereignty, sending Captain Joseph-Elzéar Bernier on numerous trips to the North between 1906 and 1911 in his ship The Arctic. Accompanied by scientists and prospectors, Bernier collected licence fees and duties from whalers. His lasting legacy: a bronze plaque that he hammered into the frozen tundra on Melville Island on July 1, 1909, officially claiming the Archipelago for Canada.

The rcmp also carried the flag into the north, policing and visiting remote communities. In 1942, Henry Larsen, a Norwegian-born rcmp officer, became only the second person to conquer the passage. It took him almost two years, but he finally made it through on the St. Roch, a schooner with a hull made of thick Douglas fir.

Canada’s claim was challenged again after the Second World War when the American military moved into the Arctic to build bases and the Distance Early Warning Line, a string of radar stations designed to detect incoming Soviet bombers and ballistic missiles. The American presence expanded so rapidly that, according to cabinet notes from 1953, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent was worried about a “de facto exercise of US Sovereignty” in the region.

In that same year, several Inuit families were moved by ship from northern Quebec to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay, about 1,500 kilometres south of the North Pole. The government claimed they were being moved because they faced starvation, but many of those making the journey believed they were used as human flagpoles. “I’m convinced the main reason was sovereignty,” says John Amagoalik, a tall, wiry Inuk who was five when his family was left on a gravel beach in Resolute Bay. “Many of us felt the government couldn’t assert sovereignty, and it had to depend on a small group of Inuit. We’ve made a contribution to this country.”

If the Inuit were indeed being used strategically during the Cold War, then Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, is perhaps the most enduring legacy of that American presence. The windswept town of six thousand is the site of a former US military base, which operated on-and-off between 1942 and 1963. Remnants of the base, including old hangars, are still used, and the former barracks now serves as a residence for Nunavut Arctic College.

Throughout this period, Ottawa largely neglected the region’s sparse aboriginal population, which suffered from rampant tuberculosis, lack of housing, and even starvation. The dire situation facing the Inuit forced St. Laurent to admit at the time that Ottawa had “administered these vast territories of the north in an almost continuing state of absence of mind.”

For many, John Diefenbaker was the first, and last, prime minister to offer a strategic plan for the Arctic. In a speech he gave in Winnipeg in 1958, Diefenbaker outlined his northern vision, which included highways, the development of natural resources, and scientific research. “I see a new Canada—a Canada of the North,” he declared. He succeeded to a degree, beginning construction of the seven hundred kilometre Dempster Highway, running from Dawson City to Inuvik, and launching what became known as a golden age in Arctic science and research during the 1960s and 1970s.

Since the early 1980s, however, Canada’s underfunded programs in Arctic research have lagged behind most other northern nations, says David Hik, a University of Alberta biologist and leading expert on northern ecology. In fact, just as international interest in the Arctic is growing as a result of climate change, Canada’s aging scientific infrastructure is crumbling, and a number of research stations have been mothballed.

Even such unlikely countries as China and South Korea have Arctic research programs. Canada, in contrast, is the only major polar country without a dedicated Arctic research institute. “We are one of the most significant northern nations, yet we don’t have a plan, or any obvious interest, and we haven’t made strategic investments,” says Hik. “This is our security, and this is our future over the next century. A country can’t live one hundred miles from the border. If we think that’s the extent of our land base, then I don’t think that’s much of a future.”

But most Canadians do live within one hundred miles (160 kilometres) of the border, and are more obsessed with US trade and culture than a dwindling scientific and military presence in the North. For most, the Arctic remains an imagined place far from their daily realities. “We are not an Arctic nation, except in a mystical sense, as part of our greatness by extension, our grandeur as a people. We still don’t go there,” says Franklyn Griffiths, professor emeritus of political science and the George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto. “We are anaesthetized to it, except when it comes to reading coffee-table books and seeing beautiful pictures.”

As global warming continues, and the ice bridging the islands of the Arctic Archipelago begins to melt, a viable Northwest Passage may become a distinct possibility. At the same time, international interest in the region’s oil and gas reserves is growing.

Ottawa’s problem is that under international law, a strait is defined by two criteria: one geographic and one functional. The former criterion states that a strait must link two separate international bodies of water. The Northwest Passage, running between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, would almost certainly meet this criterion once the ice recedes. The latter criterion states that international ships have to be using the channel. If Canada wants to claim the passage as an internal waterway, it will have to demonstrate that it has control over international shipping in the area, a task that will become increasingly difficult as the ice in the region continues to melt and more ships arrive.

The day of reckoning may be closer than many Canadians believe. According to the Canadian Ice Service, ice coverage in the eastern half of the Archipelago decreased by 15 percent between 1969 and 2004, and in some parts of the Western Arctic it shrank by a startling 36 percent. A study published in August by the Swedish Geophysical Society reported that the warming trend had accelerated since the 1990s, with 2002 marking the lowest ice cover on record.

That same year, the St. Roch II, an aluminum-hulled rcmp patrol boat, glided through the strait on a commemorative journey honouring the original St. Roch. The ease with which the St. Roch II was able to navigate the once-deadly passage is seen as further proof that a coming wave of international shipping through the archipelago is inevitable. The opening of the Northwest Passage could be the most significant change to ocean transportation since the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. It would shave five thousand nautical miles off current routes between Europe and Asia, points out Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. The passage’s deep waterways would provide two ideal routes for massive super tankers too big to cross the Panama Canal, and are currently forced to round the southern tip of South America to reach Asia.

To date, the majority of new shipping activity in the Arctic involves cruise ships. But the relentless push by international shipping companies to find cheaper routes, combined with US insistence on its right to freedom of navigation around the globe, could mean an increasing number of foreign ships will ply the passage uncontested, leaving Canada to grapple with search-and-rescue and environmental fallout. “The problem is very significant,” says Huebert. “The heart of the dispute over the passage is the transit of international shipping and who gets to set the rules.”

The rules for Arctic shipping were unofficially established by the US in 1969 when the 114,000-ton super tanker, the Manhattan, pushed through the strait to test the feasibility of transporting oil through the Arctic. In 1985, the Polar Sea, a US Coast Guard icebreaker, made the crossing without asking Canada’s permission, prompting Joe Clark, then minister of external affairs, to restate Canada’s sovereignty over the archipelago in a parliamentary decree. His government also pledged to build new icebreakers as well as spend up to $12 billion on a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Both plans were eventually scrapped.

The Polar Sea crossing also triggered a major diplomatic push. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and US President Ronald Reagan signed the Arctic Co-operation Agreement, just three years after they sang together on stage at the Shamrock Summit in Quebec City. The agreement allows the US Coast Guard to use the passage after notifying Ottawa, but Canada in turn cannot deny the Americans access. The president also refused to include the US Navy in any agreement regulating Arctic waters.

Now, the Pentagon is looking north again with an eye to constructing a missile-defence shield across the Arctic. At the same time, successive budget cuts have debilitated the Canadian military. Its once internationally recognized prowess in cold-weather warfare is now almost non-existent. Stretched to the brink with competing international commitments, most Canadian soldiers are now more familiar with places like Afghanistan than the Arctic.

Canada’s token presence in the North consists of Canadian Forces Northern Area Headquarters in Yellowknife, with a staff of 150, and two smaller detachments in Whitehorse and Iqaluit respectively to cover a four-million-square-kilometre territory. The navy has no ships with ice-breaking capability, and air patrols occur only a few times a year. Surveillance of the region is left to five Coast Guard icebreakers, scattered rcmp detachments, and 1,400 Inuit Aboriginal Rangers, still equipped with vintage Second World War rifles.

The Coast Guard is so stretched in the North that when a cruise ship ran aground in 1996 east of Cambridge Bay, its passengers were rescued by another cruise ship which happened to be in the area. More recently, during Exercise Narwhal, the navy frigate hmcs Montreal reportedly discovered a sizable, untraceable oil slick at the entrance to Frobisher Bay. “There is a feeling among the majority of people up here that there will be a major disaster before something is done,” said Colonel Pierre Leblanc, former commander of Canadian Forces Northern Area. “Small smouldering fires usually erupt into flames.”

The lack of military capability in the Arctic will not help Canada’s historical claim to the passage if challenged in the International Court of Justice, a United Nations body headquartered in The Hague. According to Donat Pharand, a leading international lawyer in Ottawa, historical claims hold little weight unless backed by the ability to exert exclusive control over the strait in question, and are further supported by other countries with an interest in the area. In his book Canada’s Arctic Waters in International Law, Pharand wrote: “It’s highly doubtful that Canada could succeed in proving that the waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago are historical internal waters over which it has complete sovereignty.”

The US, the European Union, and much of the rest of the world would probably oppose Canada’s claim because they firmly believe the passage is actually an international strait.

Canada undermined its own position in 1969, adds Huebert, when it allowed the Manhattan to transit the passage. Ottawa, he says, “pretended the US asked permission” and sent a Canadian icebreaker to accompany the tanker. But when two barges belonging to an oil exploration company filled with aviation fuel sank in the strait directly in front of the Manhattan, the government didn’t demand that the tanker turn around. Instead, scuba divers cleared a path for the tanker by anchoring the barges to the sea floor.

By comparison, the Soviet Union extracted a much higher price from the US when America sent icebreakers into the Soviet-controlled Northeast Passage in 1967 in an attempt to establish the route as an international strait. Instead of co-operating, the Russians sent warships to greet the US icebreakers, which refused to acknowledge Russian sovereignty but retreated from the area. “The Russians have taken steps to assert sovereignty and control,” says Huebert. “We haven’t. We’ve never spent the necessary resources to display to the international community our unquestionable control.”

Griffiths believes the Americans could win a legal challenge but are unlikely to initiate one because they would not want to provoke the ire of Canada, which has been a close ally in America’s Arctic and North American defence strategy (with Ottawa now expected to support the new US missile defence system). To support his argument for continued co-operation between Ottawa and Washington, Griffiths points to the Arctic Co-operation Agreement, which he says strengthened Canada’s claim to the Arctic because the US agreed to advise Canadian authorities prior to transit through the passage.

Nevertheless, by making Arctic reporting requirements voluntary, Canada has been careful not to trigger a formal US challenge in International Court. For example, the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act was drawn up in direct response to the Manhattan’s voyage. But the act is enforced only with ships that voluntarily report in—a fact, say analysts, which dramatically reveals the weakness in Canada’s claim.

Ottawa’s tenuous grip on the Arctic was bluntly summed up by Coast Guard officials in Iqaluit, who remain tight-lipped about an apparent intrusion into Canadian Arctic waters by a foreign vessel this past summer. “Anybody can come in and do whatever they want,” said one of the officials. “You have to wonder.”

Ultimately, adds Huebert, the Northwest Passage may fall under the auspices of an international regime, similar to the Kyoto Protocol. Such a pact would not necessarily be a bad thing for Canada, argues Huebert, as long as the country is in a position to take a leading role in enforcing environmental regulations, ship safety, and security issues, and promoting the economic well-being of the Inuit. “We can do this through an international agreement,” he says. “But the key is being ahead of the curve. We need to be in a strong negotiating position to ensure our interests are protected.”

As academics and politicians debate sovereignty and the future of the passage, the Inuit take their claim to the Arctic as immutable. Bound to the tundra and ice, they have eked out an existence from the harsh and unforgiving land for thousands of years. After more than twenty years of negotiations, their claim was finally recognized in 1999 with the creation of Nunavut, which translates from Inuktituk to mean “our land.”

With just 27,000 people spread out over nearly two million square kilometres, the Inuit represent perhaps Canada’s most compelling legal claim to the Arctic. As Joe Clark pointed out in his 1985 sovereignty decree, they have inhabited the region since time immemorial. “There is no such thing as [sovereignty on] thin ice, we are as deep as the land we stand on, and as concrete as the rocks,” says Kilabuk, the Pangnirtung Ranger who is also the local representative to the Nunavut legislature. “We are on solid ground. This is our land.”

Yet, he argues, the Inuit are not being treated as full partners when it comes to issues such as sovereignty and security. The Nunavut land-claims agreement precludes the Inuit from any significant involvement in the management of Arctic waters, while resource development remains largely under federal jurisdiction. “We need to be participants in discussions that may require our input, like security, or monitoring activity,” asserts Kilabuk.

To right what Griffiths calls Ottawa’s “two-faced approach to sovereignty,” he advocates the establishment of a consultative committee for the archipelago similar in design to the Arctic Council, a Canadian-inspired international body, which brings together the world’s eight circumpolar countries and aboriginal groups. The committee would serve as a forum for government departments to consult with the Inuit on such issues as shipping and seabed mapping. “We should be taking the lead from the Inuit,” says Griffiths. “They are asking for enforcement rather than an abstract idea of sovereignty—that the ice is not disturbed, that the marine mammals not be scared away. Hardly anyone is talking about that.”

Economic issues as well as environmental issues trouble the people of Nunavut. Most of the region’s remote communities are located on the water, yet there is not a single deep-water harbour. Cargo ships must anchor far from shore and barges are sent to unload shipments during high tide, an expensive exercise that sends the prohibitive cost of living even higher.

Tragically, Nunavut also suffers from the highest suicide rate in the country, with one every ten days. Owing to an acute housing shortage, residents say up to fifteen family members have been known to live in one house. “The government has forgotten about the Arctic,” says John Amagoalik, who has spearheaded a decades-long fight for government recognition of the mishandled resettlement of the Quebec Inuit. “When we’ve tried to approach them for things like housing or economic development the attitude is ‘you’ve got Nunavut, so leave us alone.’ ”

In contrast, Russia maintains year-round navigation through its northern sea route and, unlike Canada, has been actively promoting its use. Decaying in infrastructure is being overhauled while oil exploration efforts have ramped up along the northern coast. Even more striking is the difference between Nunavut and Greenland, which is dramatically more developed with deep-water harbours in all major towns.

Griffiths says the issues facing the North raise a number of troubling question that will not be easily answered. “Instead of sovereignty on thinning ice,” he says, “the question we need to ask is—what is our ambition? Why and where do we want to apply our imagination and energy? In truth, if there’s no real ambition, no amount of sovereignty talk will make up for that.”

Meanwhile, in Pangnirtung, the mystery of the foreign submarines remains unsolved. According to confidential defence reports, obtained through the Access to Information Act, foreign subs operating near Pangnirtung in 1999 “caused great uneasiness within the community and most inhabitants have refused to go out on the water.” Local residents can always tell when the submarines are around, says Simeonie Keenainak, a member of the Pangnirtung Rangers, because seals and whales suddenly crowd into the harbours. “They get scared,” says Keenainak. “They can’t stand the submarine depth sounder.”

Still, a new sense of urgency seems to be coming from Ottawa. As part of a defence policy review, it is expected that the defence of the Arctic will be factored into future military purchases. The military also plans to conduct further Narwhal-type exercises. “There is a recognition that this is an important part of Canada, and is an important resource,” says Graham. “We have to, in the Canadian Forces, be aware of what we need to do, how to deploy patrols in the North and how to adapt to changing conditions. We have to be ready for contingencies.”

Graham’s statements suggest the military will have a higher profile in the Arctic in the years ahead, but some in the army wonder if Canadians will shoulder the exorbitant cost of expanding the army’s role in the region. “Senior officers in the military are cognizant of the need to be up here, but if we don’t get the political support, there is nothing we can do,” said one army officer participating in Exercise Narwhal.

Griffiths, though, isn’t surprised by such doubts. Like a moth to a bright flame, Canadians are transfixed and ultimately paralyzed by the Arctic, trapped in what he describes as a Victorian- era concept—a vision that is both appealing and appalling. “We are in the grip of the Arctic sublime. To be close is uplifting, and somehow greatens us, yet on some level it can be terribly destructive,” he says. “But we have a responsibility as stewards to look after this place and the people who live there.”

Andrea Mandel-Campbell
Andrea Mandel-Campbell is the author of Why Mexicans Don't Drink Molson.