Statements by France’s ambassador for the polar regions, Michel Rocard, that Canada appears to have given up on competing with Russia for Arctic commercial shipping traffic, should serve as a wake up call for Canadians. It may be that the country prefers the Northwest Passage as it is, a slightly-used backwater that best protects the fragile Arctic ecosystem and the traditional Inuit way of life. But if Canadians favour sustainable development in the north, and jobs for northerners, then they are in danger of missing the boat.
A study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, released in May, revealed the cover of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean is shrinking faster than projected by the U.N.’s expert panel on climate change. It predicts that the Arctic Ocean itself will be virtually free of ice in summer within 30-40 years. The Northwest Passage is forecast to be free of ice earlier than that, in perhaps 20 years. The changing ice conditions make the Northwest Passage an alternative commercial shipping route. The newly-released Danish government Arctic strategy states that use of the passage reduces the distance from Seattle to Europe by almost 25 per cent compared to ships using the Panama Canal. It argues the Northeast Passage, or Northern Sea Route north of Russia, will also result in dramatic savings in distance (and hence costs and time). “The economic benefits of these new routes are potentially significant,” the Danish strategy says.
Yet Canada, despite having a federal government committed to its own Arctic strategy and sustainable development in that largely untapped region, is unprepared for commercial shipping in the Northwest Passage. The infrastructure needed to support such activity does not exist, and there is little sign that will change. Mr. Rochard, a former French prime minister, said he has the “impression that Canada has given up on the competition to attract a large part of the (shipping) traffic in 25 or 30 years.” Russia, by contrast, is actively pursuing the opportunity.
It may be that Canadians are content with this situation, as the costs would be substantial and such development would alter the fundamental nature of Canada’s North. But isn’t it at least a discussion we should be having?