AMC’s miniseries “The Terror” provides us an exaggerated and supernatural tale of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill fated expedition exploring Canada’s Northwest Passage. Both in the fictionalized tale and the real life occurrence, the expedition goes awry due to the ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus becoming stuck in the ice off the shore of King William Island.
The Northwest Passage historically has been considered a very dangerous and often times downright impassable corridor of sea travel, due to the length of its route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and its extreme northern latitude. Recently however, the Northwest Passage’s viability as a shipping route has changed, and Canada’s policies surrounding it need to change in tandem.
Since the first successful expedition made by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906, the potential of the Northwest Passage as a shipping lane as always been acknowledged, but untapped due to arctic pack ice. Now in the 21st century, climate change has caused major changes to the ice pack, and thus since 2007 has allowed for consistent ice pack thinning and facilitated a drastic increase in shipping through the passage.
Not only is the increased shipping proof of thinning ice in the Northwest Passage on an annual basis, but we are seeing the migration of pacific species to waters in and around, and there are even passenger cruise lines that now travel regular routes in the summer.
With the melting ice comes increased traffic, and with increased traffic comes a greater need for monitoring, policing and maintaining the sovereign integrity of the region. The US (and many other nations) has historically disputed Canada’s claim of the waters of the Northwest Passage being internal to Canada.
Since 1988, the U.S. and Canada have maintained a political agreement that has helped settle the dispute, basically stating that the US will ask permission before undertaking expeditions through the passage.
In May 2019 however, America’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that the American position on the matter was that the Canadian claims of the waters remained “illegitimate”. This has prompted some to hypothesize that a renegotiation of said agreement could be nearing, especially as the passage continues to become an increasingly viable avenue of shipping.
Canada should especially be asserting itself in this regard. Notwithstanding the practical benefits of Canada maintaining jurisdictional control over the waters, the precedent it will set for Canada in terms of its ability to negotiate with international figures in the future is critical.
The international legal recognition battle aside, Canada needs to act quickly and promptly as the ice continues to thaw to greater and larger degrees in the passage.
The key will be to establish policy in a direction that facilitates cooperation with – not against – the US and other key powers. The Northwest Passage is emerging as a route with great potential for building political capital and influence in an ever expanding field of international relations.
An ideal policy will encompass the ability to protect Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic not through force (which Canada is unlikely to efficiently accomplish anyways) but through promoting all self-interests. By finding ways to encourage foreign entities to see it in their best interest to abide by Canadian rules through the passage, Canadian sovereignty can be upheld.
Traffic through the passage simply needs to be on Canadian terms, and while it remains so for now, there are cracks appearing in the Canadian foundation with remarks from important figures such as Pompeo, and it would be prudent to stay ahead of the curve on this issue.
The status quo of “agreeing to disagree” simply will not last as the passage receives more and more traffic. As well, in the interest of protecting Canadian sovereignty, maintaining Canadian standards of cooperation are vital to such an interest.
If Canada, then, is to maintain such passage on its terms, it requires the means to do so. Namely, the monitoring, surveillance, and enforcement of the passage.
As this is a tall order given the region’s vast expanse and difficulty relative to Canada’s current and projected capabilities, an often touted solution is to expand NORAD’s presence to the Canadian arctic in a greater capacity.
This proposed solution allows for direct US involvement and aid in the surveillance of a sparsely inhabited area, but also maintains Canada’s legal claim of sovereignty in the region since the US involvement is wrapped under the neat legal umbrella of the NORAD agreement.
Furthermore, the US must consider that if it is to maintain its claim of the Northwest Passage as international straits, then such actors as Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China have the same privileges to the passage as the Americans would.
Indeed, in 2010, then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton admitted that the US was seriously considering recognizing Canada’s claims of internal waters.
By acknowledging the legitimate interests of both long standing allies, Canadian and American policy makers can use this emerging opportunity to foster cooperation further. If they do not, then they risk needlessly extending a debate that two historic allies should be capable of finding a solution to.
The last thing Canada needs is for these discussions to sit too long and become stuck in the ice, so to speak.
Zach Melanson is an MA student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.