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U.S. claims Northwest Passage does not belong to Canada

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In a major speech on May 6, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, declared that Canada’s longstanding territorial claim to the waters of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic is “illegitimate” and that these waters are an “international strait,” i.e. Canada does not have jurisdiction.  This comes at a time when, as a result of climate change, Arctic ice is melting and new shipping routes between Europe, Asia and North America, as well as resource extraction operations, are expected to significantly open up in coming years.

Peter Ewart
Peter Ewart

Pompeo’s statements represent a direct threat to Canadian sovereignty and could represent an overturning of the arrangement made by previous U.S. and Canadian governments in 1985 “to agree to disagree” over the Northwest Passage.  This arrangement was that “the U.S. would always ask permission before sending icebreakers through the Northwest Passage.  And the Canadians would always give it.” (1)

The arrangement was put in place by the U.S. and Canadian governments after the Polar Sea incident in 1985 in which, defying Canada, the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Polar Sea sailed through the Northwest Passage waters without asking permission.  This arrogant act enraged many people across Canada and prompted protests whereby Inuit activists and Canadian students dropped a Canadian flag from an aircraft onto the deck of the vessel and demanded that it leave Canadian territory.

In response that year, then Progressive Conservative Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark articulated Canada’s stand on the Northwest Passage.  He stated: “Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic is indivisible.  It embraces land, sea and ice.  It extends without interruption to the seaward-facing coasts of the Arctic islands.  These islands are joined, and not divided, by the waters between them.  They are bridged for most of the year by ice.  From time immemorial Canada’s Inuit people have used and occupied the ice as they have used and occupied the land.  The policy of the Government is to maintain the natural unity of the Canadian Arctic archipelago and to preserve Canada’s sovereignty over land, sea and ice undiminished and undivided” (2).

Fast forward to today.  In recent months, the Trump administration, consistent with its scorn for international law and agreements, has been sending out signals that it plans to directly challenge Canada over the Northwest Passage, as well as Russia over its claim over the Northeast Passage (which stretches along Russia’s northern borders).  For example, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer recently stated that “the United States will have to be more engaged in the [Arctic] region” by carrying out freedom-of-navigation operations “in the northwest – in the northern passage” (3).

One of the means to weaken the Canadian position on Northwest Passage sovereignty (and strengthen the case of the U.S. and various European countries who covet access) will be to allow NATO to conduct operations in the Canadian Arctic.  Canada has traditionally opposed such operations for precisely that reason.  For example, in confidential U.S. cables released in 2011 by Wikileaks, NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen stated that then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper opposed “a NATO role in the Arctic” and that Canada had “a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic, and a NATO presence could backfire by exacerbating tensions” (4)

Yet the current Trudeau government, as well as the Canadian Parliament as a whole, appear to be throwing that “NATO in the Arctic” prohibition overboard.  For example, the House of Commons Committee on National Defence, chaired by Liberal MP Stephen Fuhr, has recommended that Canada conduct “joint training and military exercises for NATO members in the Canadian Arctic” (5).  If this happens, the federal government risks losing sovereignty over the Northwest Passage waters to the U.S. and other European countries, as well as further ramping up tensions with Russia.

What will happen to the Canadian Arctic if an Andrew Scheer Conservative government comes to power in the next election?  The signs don’t look any better.  On May 7, Scheer made a war-mongering, Cold War-style speech on foreign policy in which  he repeatedly attacked Russia and China over their involvement in the Arctic.  Yet, even though U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his arrogant statement about Canada’s so-called “illegitimate” claim to the Northwest Passage just the day before, Scheer, in lapdog style, said only that his government would defend Canada’s sovereignty over the Passage but failed to mention the U.S. by name or the Secretary of State’s veiled threat. 

Indeed, in regards to his ranting against Russia, China, and Iran, much of Scheer’s speech appears to have been an echo of Pompeo’s.  Sheer even promised to bring Canada further under the thumb of the U.S. militarily by signing onto the controversial U.S.-controlled Ballistic Missile Defence System which promises to further aggravate tensions in the Arctic region and elsewhere.

The irony in all this is that the biggest threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic is the U.S. itself.  Besides the issue of the Northwest Passage, the U.S. is also claiming a large section of Canadian territory (21,000 square km) in the Beaufort Sea which is rich in oil, gas and fishery resources. 

Canada needs a nation-building project for the Arctic and the entire country.  But one thing is clear – it won’t come from lapdog governments or parliaments whatever their political stripe.

Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia.  He can be reached at:

  1. Beeler, Carolyn. “Who controls the Northwest Passage? It’s up for debate.” PRI’s The World. September 4, 2017.
  2. Killas, Mark. “The legality of Canada’s claims to the waters of tis Arctic archipelago.” Ontario Law Review, Vol. 19:1.
  3. Lajeunesse, Adam. “Is the next big fight over the Northwest Passage coming?” Policy Options, February 14, 2019.
  4. “Canada PM and NATO S-G discuss Afghanistan, the Strategic Concept, and the Arctic.” Wikileaks, January 20, 2010
  5. “Canada and NATO: An alliance forged in strength and reliability.” Report of the Standing Committee on National Defence. House of Commons. Canada. June 2018.

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