The federal government is poised to sign an international treaty that will make Canada legally responsible for search and rescue in its part of the Arctic.
Northern experts say the deal, expected to be signed in May, could force Canada to upgrade its capabilities in the region. And, they add, it shows new resolve by the eight nations in the Arctic Council to show the rest of the world that they intend to set the rules for the upper-most reaches of the planet.
"By ratcheting up the capabilities of the Arctic Council, countries like the United States, Russia and Canada are essentially saying, 'No, we have matters under control. We are making laws for this area. You can relax,' " said Michael Byers, an international law professor at the University of British Columbia who has written extensively on the Arctic.
The deal - quietly reached last December in Reykjavik, Iceland - divides the North into search-and-rescue regions and co-ordinates emergency response efforts between council members, which include Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
"The agreement targets the changed reality in the Arctic where, due to climate change, increasing transportation opportunities have emerged in recent years and are only to increase," says a document from the Icelandic government.
"Until now, [we]have lacked a co-ordinated emergency response scheme for the Arctic Ocean and airspace."
Canadian officials confirmed the existence of the agreement on Tuesday, but nobody was immediately available to comment on it.
Mr. Byers said the new international obligations could force Canada to come through on old promises to upgrade its Arctic search-and-rescue capabilities.
"Eight countries have committed to doing this," he said. "If one or two countries don't now follow through, they will be subject to peer pressure. That is particularly important for the Canadian government, which has allowed search-and-rescue capacity to languish over the last couple of decades and now hopefully will be pulled forward."
Mr. Byers points out that no search-and-rescue airplanes are stationed in the North except four aging Twin Otters in Yellowknife. Any operations would have to be staged at bases in Trenton, Ont., or Comox, B.C.
Discussions on new aircraft for the North have been stalled for years.
Meanwhile, Arctic overflights by passenger jets have been increasing and now number in the tens of thousands every year. Shipping traffic, including large cruise ships, is also growing.
Rob Huebert at the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies said the Air Command's new C-17 Globemasters make it a lot easier and faster to get a helicopter into the Arctic - but there are only four of them and there's no guarantee one would be available when needed.
"We've been very lucky so far. I would characterize [the agreement]as a very substantial improvement."
Both Mr. Huebert and Mr. Byers emphasized that the December deal is the first time the Arctic Council - until now a body that could only make recommendations - has been used to negotiate a binding treaty.
Mr. Huebert said the agreement, because it involves military equipment and personnel, has moved the council nearer to considering security matters - even though such issues are supposed to be off-limits.
"It's very significant," Mr. Huebert said. "The first significance is that there is a binding agreement to do something. Secondly, it's going to be relying on the military forces to do something."
Mr. Byers said the agreement may be a sign the council is growing teeth.
"I see this as a step towards the Arctic Council becoming a regional organization with some effective governing capability," he said. "The Arctic Council will never be a [European Union] but it's more than just a talking shop. It's crafting new laws between its member states."
Mr. Byers said the United States, which led the search-and-rescue negotiations, has come to see the council as a useful counterweight to non-Arctic nations looking for an increased role in the region.
"The U.S. has come round to the idea that the Arctic Council should actually have real capacity, because of its understanding there are non-Arctic countries like China and some members of the European Union that would like to help fill the vacuum in terms of Arctic governance."
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