Would Canada turn to Russia for heavy icebreaking?


by David Bercuson

Frontline Defence
October 5, 2017

This past summer, the federal government reached an agreement with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association that set aside a large area north of Baffin Island, including most of Lancaster Sound, as a nature conservancy.  It is the largest marine nature conservancy in Canada.  The agreement was reached at about the time that the Chinese ice breaker Snow Dragon was beginning its voyage through Canada’s Northwest Passage. The voyage was ostensibly conducting a research trip, but in fact was surveying the passage for possible use as a route between China and Europe for when, as expected, the Arctic ice gets thinner than it is now and in places disappears altogether.

What ties these two events together? Lancaster Sound is the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage; Canada claims it as internal waters, while the United States claims it is an international strait between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific.

Whatever the real motives of the federal government and its Inuit partners, Canada is, in effect, strengthening its claim of sovereignty over those contentious waters. The question is, will it work? The United States will probably never recognize Canadian sovereignty over those waters because that would put in question its assertion that any strait that connects two waterways is an international strait and thus subject to Freedom of Navigation (FON) patrols by American warships

But does that really matter?  The voyage of the Snow Dragon should not come as a surprise to anyone who follows events in the high arctic. The very fact that China, a nation far from either Pole, has an ice breaker and has established scientific stations in Arctic regions, shows its deep interest in the future of those potential waterways. The Chinese had previously made a similar voyage across the top of Russia, and the Chinese and Russian governments have already discussed the Northeast Passage as a possible regular sea route.

At the moment, Chinese marine activity in Canada’s far North poses no challenges to Canadian sovereignty. Indeed, one recent study of the potential for regular shipping in the far North showed conclusively that it will be a long time yet before the potential of the Northwest Passage as a sea route is realized. The problems facing shippers and insurance companies are simply too complex to allow anything other than point-to-point shipping to take place. Thus, a ship could certainly take passage to some far northern port, and the odd cruise ship can transit the passage in the summer (as they already have), but regular shipping routes need dependable ice conditions, and insurance companies have to conclude that those shipping routes are safe before being willing to insure both cargoes and ships.

Right now, the biggest obstacle to passage of Canadian Arctic waters is the lack of both navigation facilities and rescue services to ensure that passages would be possible and that potential disasters could be averted.

Canada has no heavy ice breakers, and the search and rescue operations of the Canadian Armed Forces would have great difficulty dealing with the smallest upset. If a cruise ship, let alone a container ship, runs into heavy ice or runs aground or must deal with an onboard fire, there is virtually no way that Canada could offer any real help.

Canada would have to rely on the Russians for heavy icebreaking, but inviting Russia to our sovereign waters would do as much to weaken our claim to sovereignty over those waters as the new nature conservancy strengthens it. That’s because when it comes to the Arctic, sovereignty built on civil institutions and the ability to deal with emergency issues under our own steam (as it were), makes for a far stronger claim to sovereignty than engaging in some kind of crazy northern arms race with Russia.

David Bercuson. Research Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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