Date: Sunday, January 08 2006
Ottawa must act quickly to assert sovereignty in Arctic
Sat Jan 7 2006
THE stakes have been raised in the sovereignty dispute over the Northwest Passage, with potentially serious consequences for Canadians. As a result of climate change, the Arctic sea-ice is, on average, 35 per cent thinner than just three decades ago. Unless we act to affirm our sovereignty, oil tankers, tramp freighters and cruise ships could soon be sailing through Canadian territory -- while remaining beyond the reach of most Canadian laws.
Our sovereignty over the Arctic islands themselves is uncontested, apart from an inconsequential dispute over Hans Island, a small lump of rock along the west coast of Greenland. It's sovereignty over the straits and channels within the Canadian archipelago -- and the right to regulate access to them -- that's the big issue.
The need for regulation is considerable. The Northwest Passage offers a shipping route between Asia and the East Coast of North America that is 7,000 kilometres shorter than the route through the Panama Canal. International shipping companies are eyeing the fuel, time and canal-passage fees that could be saved; some are already building ice-strengthened vessels.
Yet an oil spill would cause catastrophic damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems; a cruise ship in distress would require an expensive and possibly dangerous rescue mission. An international shipping route along Canada's third coast could also facilitate the entry of drugs, guns, illegal immigrants and perhaps even terrorists, as well as providing an alternative route for illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction or missile components.
Ideally, these challenges would be addressed by applying the full range of Canada's own environmental, immigration, customs and criminal laws. Sovereignty over the Northwest Passage is about much more than nationalism; it's about protecting people and the environment from serious potential harm.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on January 9, 2006]