Support among Canadians is collapsing for Ottawa's long-standing but dubious claim that the Northwest Passage belongs to Canada, according to a new survey of attitudes toward the Arctic in eight circumpolar nations.
Less than half of Canadians – 45 per cent – still believe the Northwest Passage is "within Canadian waters," a dramatic drop from the 74 per cent who held that view only five years ago.
The change may reflect a dawning realization that no other country – and in particular the United States, which regards the Northwest Passage as an international strait no different from, for instance, the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf – accepts Canada's claim.
"It doesn't help the case that whatever the legal complexities, the vast array of [international] public opinion is offside" with Canada's claim, said Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates Inc., the Ottawa-based firm that conducted the wide-ranging survey in the eight member nations of the Arctic Council: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
The report Rethinking the Top of the World, released on Wednesday also revealed strikingly different levels of awareness about the Arctic Council. Canadians ranked last when asked if they "have ever heard" of the Arctic Council, even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has chaired it for the past two years. Canadian awareness has actually dropped to 8 per cent, down significantly from the 15 per cent who knew about the circumpolar council in 2010.
Secretary of State John Kerry will take over the chair on behalf of the United States on Friday in Nunavut's capital, Iqaluit. Canada's representative, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, plans to use the session to bash Moscow. "Canada will use the Arctic Council ministerial meeting as an opportunity once again to deliver our tough message to Russia for their aggression against Ukraine," she said.
On bellicosity at least, the Harper government is in tune with Canadians' view about the Arctic. Asked whether their country should take a tough stand defending its Arctic territory "regardless of the cost," Canadians with 35 per cent and Russians with 43 per cent were more than twice as confrontational as any of the other six populations polled.
Russians and Canadians were "the most bellicose and the Canadians were the most bellicose the last time," Mr. Graves said in an interview. "Canadians were by far the outliers on being the least co-operative and the least conciliatory" in 2010. They have softened somewhat because I think they realized "just how offside we are with the rest of the international community that's got a stake" in the Arctic, he added.
For comparison, only 16 per cent of Americans, 11 per cent of Danes and 3 per cent of Swedes favoured the tough "firm line" stand taken by more than one-third of Canadians.
That Russians and Canadians were, by far, the most in favour of confrontation when asked about asserting territorial claims in the Arctic stands in stark contrast to the lopsided capabilities. Russia deploys half-a-dozen nuclear-powered icebreakers. Canadians were first promised a Polar class, nuclear-powered, icebreaker by a Conservative government in 1985. It was cancelled and the latest successor, the much-less-powerful John D. Diefenbaker, is so far behind schedule it is not expected to break any ice until the summer of 2022.
Meanwhile, Russian nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines, like those from Britain, France and the United States, routinely operate in the Arctic Ocean year-round. Canada has no submarines capable of under-ice operation.
The survey was conducted by Ekos Research Associates Inc. for the Gordon Foundation, the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program and Alaska's Institute of the North.
More than 10,000 respondents were polled in eight countries.