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michael byers

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

"What happened to those icebreakers that Canada was going to build?" The question from an American colleague was accompanied by a sly wink.

In December, 2005, then opposition leader Stephen Harper promised three new heavy icebreakers to defend Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic. One month later, he reaffirmed the promise during his first press conference as prime minister.

Eight years later, nothing has come of the plan – and foreign experts are shaking their heads at Mr. Harper's all-talk, no-action approach to Arctic policy.

The Prime Minister's retreat began in August, 2007, when he announced the construction of between and six and eight Arctic/offshore patrol ships. Commentators immediately labelled the ships as "slush breakers", given their inability to operate in "multi-year" ice, or to break ice for other vessels.

Six months later it was quietly revealed that only one true icebreaker would be built, with a price tag of $720-million and a projected delivery date of 2017.

It took another four years – until February 2012 – before a $9.5-million design contract was signed with STX Canada Marine Inc.

The design phase was expected to take 18-24 months, but might since have been suspended – because the start date for building the icebreaker has recently been pushed back by four years.

The delay is the result of a scheduling conflict – rooted in a decision made in 2008, to restart the procurement process for the Navy's Joint Support Ships. With both the icebreaker and the Joint Support Ships consequently due to be built at the same time, in the same shipyard, the Harper Government was forced to choose which to construct first.

In November, 2013, Mr. Harper selected the Joint Support Ships, delaying the completion of the icebreaker until at least 2021.

At the same time, the budget for the icebreaker increased from $720-million to $1.3-billion, due to inflation and other cost increases over the 14 years between the initial budget and the now-expected delivery date.

The delay will force the Coast Guard to rely on the Louis S. St. Laurent, the largest icebreaker in its fleet, for four years longer than expected.

Launched in 1969, the Louis S. St. Laurent was originally scheduled for decommissioning in 2000. It has already undergone two major refits. Now, the plan is to spend at least $55-million on a third refit, in a dubious effort to keep the vessel in service into its sixth decade.

Moreover, as the pre-construction phase of the procurement drags on, the possibility emerges that the new icebreaker will never actually be built.

We have been here before: In 1985, the Mulroney government announced that it would build a heavy icebreaker named the Polar 8. At the time, minister of foreign affairs Joe Clark said the government was "not about to conclude that Canada cannot afford the Arctic." Five years later, the same government cited financial reasons when it cancelled the project.

For decades now, Canada has maintained a credible presence in the maritime Arctic thanks only to the skill and perseverance of Coast Guard crews who cope with old and underpowered icebreakers. But the fleet is aging – at the same time that climate change and melting sea ice are drawing more activity north, increasing the demands on the Coast Guard.

An example arose last month, when Mr. Harper insisted that government scientists collect more data concerning the seabed in the central Arctic Ocean, with a view to including the North Pole within Canada's submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Collecting the additional data will require a powerful and reliable icebreaker that can operate on its own in thick ice, thousands of kilometres from the nearest port.

Until this year, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, the Healy, accompanied the Louis S. St. Laurent to work in tandem to map areas along an eventual Canada-U.S. boundary in the Beaufort Sea. In 2011, when the Canadian icebreaker broke a propeller, the U.S. ship led the crippled vessel to ice-free waters farther south.

However, the United States, which has no potential seabed claim in the vicinity of the North Pole, lacks any incentive to provide icebreaker assistance to Canadian mapping efforts there. This means that the Canadian Prime Minister lacks the equipment necessary to substantiate his North Pole claim – despite eight long years of promises about new icebreakers.

Is it any wonder that Arctic experts in other countries are amused?

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic, recently published by Cambridge University Press.

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