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The Canadian icebreaker Henry Larsen in Allen Bay, near Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in August, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The Canadian icebreaker Henry Larsen in Allen Bay, near Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in August, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Earlier discussion

Arctic security: Fighting for the True North Add to ...

Comment From Northerner: I don't know who would oppose Arctic sovereignty for Canada. Maybe we need some comments from other countries. I live in the North, though, and the economies of the towns and cities up here seem to exist only because of government support. there's not a lot of reason for development up here from an economic standpoint. I bet most resource companies could be run out of the south.

Michael Byers: Canada's sovereignty is not disputed with respect to 99 percent of our Arctic land and water. We have only one land dispute over Hans Island, a 1.3 kilometer square rock halfway between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. And we have two maritime boundary disputes: a tiny one with Denmark (Greenland) in the Lincoln Sea; and a medium-sized one with the United States in the Beaufort Sea. As it happens, we're negotiating with our neighbours on both those disputes now. As for northern development, it's true that northern communities are currently dependent on fiscal transfers from the South. But this will soon change, with mining projects like the Baffinland iron ore mine at Mary River, Nunavut; the expansion of eco-tourism; and the development of the Northwest Passage into a major international shipping route - with both potential risks and benefits to communities along that waterway.

Jill Mahoney: Of the various disputes involving Canada, which has the most potential to be the most difficult?

Michael Byers: For more than two decades, Canada and the US have agreed-to-disagree over the status of the Northwest Passage. Canada argues that it constitutes internal waters subject to the full force of Canadian law; the US argues that it is an international strait open to foreign vessels without constraint. But thanks to a 1988 treaty negotiated by Brian Mulroney, the US is committed to notifying Canada whenever it wants to send an icebreaker through. The US also agrees that such voyages will not strengthen the US position on the status of the Passage. The 1988 treaty was all that was needed during the ice conditions that existed then. With thick, hard multiyear ice blocking the Passage, only powerful icebreakers could sail through. Now, climate change is changing all that, with dozens of vessels sailing through each summer. And the question therefore is: will Canada and the US be able to sit down again, re-evaluate their interests, and come to a new agreement? Unfortunately, no such meetings have taken place, because the Canadian government is terrified that even discussing the matter would somehow be seen as "selling out" on sovereignty.

Comment From Guest: the north west passage is the most difficult if we should ever go to UNCLOS we may well lose

Comment From Peter: Ok, so other than territorial issues. What about operation of foreign flag vessels on more or less continues voyages in our waters.

Comment From Peter: My view is that Canada's security posture is validated by a Canadian flag requirement of operations and services.

Michael Byers: I can't imagine that Canada and the US will send the Northwest Passage dispute to an international court, because that cedes control over the issue to foreign judges. Better, instead, to negotiate a compromise that benefits both countries. My preference is for Canada to invest heavily in improving the charts, navigation aids, ports of refuge, search-and-rescue and oil spill-cleanup capacity along the Northwest Passage to world class standards. Then, we invite foreign ships to use this infrastructure and thus recognize our sovereignty. This will also assure the US of our willingness to police the waterway and thus protect their interests there. In response to Peter, it's the continuous voyages by foreign flag vessels that pose the sovereignty risk - if they do not seek Canada's permission by registering their presence with the Coast Guard. Fortunately, all commercial vessels currently seek our permission. And again, the best way of ensuring that they continue to do so is to offer infrastructure and services that foreign shippers need.

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