Canada to Fortify Arctic Sovereignty With New Icebreakers

ESQUIMALT, British Columbia, Canada, July 10, 2007 (ENS) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper Monday announced the construction of up to eight Polar Class 5 Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships and the establishment of a deep water port in the far North. Harper is acting to strengthen Canada's sovereignty claims in the Arctic as global warming reduces sea ice cover, leading to improved ship access through the Northwest Passage.

"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it. Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our national identity as a northern nation. It is part of our history. And it represents the tremendous potential of our future," said Prime Minister Harper during a visit to Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt on Vancouver Island.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
During the 2006 election race, Harper campaigned on plans to increase Canada's military presence in the Arctic, deploy military icebreakers there and install a remote sensing network.

He was not deterred by comments from U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins, who restated the Americans' long-held position that many of Canada's Arctic waterways are international, particularly the Northwest Passage.

"In defending our nation’s sovereignty, nothing is as fundamental as protecting Canada’s territorial integrity; our borders, our airspace and our waters," said the prime minister on Monday.

"More and more, as global commerce routes chart a path to Canada’s North and as the oil, gas and minerals of this frontier become more valuable, northern resource development will grow ever more critical to our country," Harper said.

Harper is moving to sharpen Canada's claim to jurisdiction over the waters of the Northwest Passage - a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans - which the United States and some other countries see as an international strait that any ship should be free to transit.

The most assertive challenge to Canada's sovereignty in Arctic waters came in 1985, when the United States sent its icebreaker Polar Sea through the Northwest Passage without informing Canada or asking permission.

The dispute that followed led to the 1988 Arctic Co-operation Agreement between the two countries. The agreement basically says the United States will not send any more icebreakers through the passage without Canada's consent, and Canada will always give that consent.

The red line traces the Northwest Passage. (Image courtesy NASA)
The broader question of whether Canada's Arctic waters are internal or international was left unresolved.

The issue of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic is not new, but climate change and the warming of the Canadian Arctic has pushed it forward.

There are predictions that the Northwest Passage may be open for large parts of the summer in as few as 15 years.

Arctic temperatures have risen three to four degrees Celsius over the past 50 years and recent summers have seen record minimum amounts of sea ice. Many scientists are now predicting progressively longer seasons of reduced sea ice cover, leading to improved ship access through the Northwest Passage.

But despite these predictions, the Northwest Passage will likely be the last route in the Arctic to become useful for regular east-west transit shipping, say experts at Environment Canada's Canadian Ice Service.

Environment Canada scientists believe that the complexity of ocean currents, the presence of large areas of ice attached to the land and the extreme year-to-year variability of ice conditions in the Canadian Archipelago will almost certainly cause the passage to lag behind other parts of the melting Arctic ocean.

Reduced sea ice in the Archipelago is likely to allow for the increased extraction of oil and gas and make the region more accessible for tourism, says Environment Canada.

The reinforced bulk carrier MV Arctic plies the ice-covered waters of the Canadian Arctic. (Photo courtesy Environment Canada)
Even if the world were to agree that Canada's Arctic waters are internal, a country may still lose the right to exercise absolute sovereignty over those waters if they include a "strait used for international navigation."

Donald McRae, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, writes that Canada must prove two things to win a sovereignty claim over its Arctic waters. "It must be demonstrated that the waters are the internal waters of Canada and that the waters of the Northwest Passage do not constitute an international strait," he wrote in a 1995 paper published by the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.

Prime Minister Harper said Monday that the new Polar Class 5 Arctic offshore patrol ships will be able to patrol the length of the Northwest Passage during the summer navigable season and its approaches year-round, and will also be capable of full operations on the East and West Coasts throughout the year.

They will be custom-designed and built in Canada, and will be among the heaviest, most versatile armed naval vessels capable of sustained operations in ice.

With steel-reinforced hulls, they will be capable of operating in ice up to one meter (39 inches) thick, and each vessel will be equipped with a helicopter landing pad.

To conduct sea-borne surveillance operations in the Arctic, a deep water port will be constructed to allow the patrol ships to re-supply and re-fuel.

The estimated cost of acquiring the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships is C$3.1 billion, with approximately $4.3 billion provided for operations and maintenance over their 25 year lifespan.

The procurement strategy will conform to the Canadian Shipbuilding Policy Framework, which requires the federal government to procure, repair and refit vessels in Canada.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.