Vive Le Canada

The True North Strong and Free?
Date: Friday, November 03 2006

Former ambassador to Canada says U.S. jeopardizing security in fight to access Arctic riches

By David Booth
Published: Wednesday November 1st, 2006

The Canadian identity is intrinsically tied to the Arctic.

The security and sovereignty of the Arctic archipelago’s daunting vastness is even included in the Canadian national anthem, e.g., ‘the true north strong and free.’

Due to extensive melting as a result of climate change, the Northwest Passage in the Arctic archipelago is opening to ship travel. Canada has long claimed sovereignty over this area – an assertion to which the U.S. has been increasingly vocal in their opposition.

According to U.S. officials, the rest of the world is sure to take more notice of a shipping route between Asia and Europe that would be 5,000 kilometres shorter than the current route through the Panama Canal. IUnfortunately for international shipping prospects, Canada declared the passage internal waters in April of 2006, following two decades of back-and-forth on the issue with the U.S.A.

What appears to be at stake is Canada’s ability to oversee entry into these waters. This would give Canada the ability to refuse entry to vessels that don’t conform to certain environmental and construction standards – which is vital to the protection of the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem, where pollution or fuel spills could cause severe and long-lasting damage.

Because predictive climate models show the Arctic becoming entirely free of summer ice between 2050 and 2100, there currently exists a renewed urgency to establish unequivocal Canadian sovereignty in the region, and an equal urgency has been observed in the U.S. to dissolve any recognition of this sovereignty.

While the former U.S. ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, says that it would be a security risk to the U.S. if they did not support Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, the U.S. official line is that they intend to use the strait for international navigation, regardless of Canadian consent.

According to Cellucci, keeping the Northwest Passage open to international travel would jeopardize the continental security of the U.S. by allowing hostile countries, and countries with unsafe shipping practices, access to these waters. On this point the former ambassador diverges with his replacement, David Wilkins, who argues that “the Northwest Passage is a strait for international navigation and that’s been our position and continues to be our position.”

Legally territorial waters only extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometres) from land masses – such as the islands that make up the Arctic Archipelago. Canada has a legal case for its control over these islands, as the Arctic peoples, the Inuit, provide one of the primary qualifications for ownership of a land – habitation. The contention, however, is that the waters of the Arctic strait, which are more than 96.6 kilometres wide in some locations, do not fall under Canadian jurisdiction because they are not considered territorial waters.

Even if the U.S. recognized Canadian sovereignty of the Arctic, they would still be legally allowed nautical travel through the area – including territorial waters – as would other foreign ships (both military and civilian).

However, many Canadians believe that the U.S. does not want Canada to have sole access to the mineral and petroleum resources purported to exist under the thinning arctic ice. This is a vital point – one which underlines an often overlooked aspect of the Arctic disputes.

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