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In the Arctic, Canada is all bark and no bite

Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent on July 10, 2008.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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When America's hulking and powerful Polar Star crunches a path north this summer through fast-disappearing ice in a hotly disputed, resource-rich Arctic, it will serve as a stark reminder of the gaping hole between Ottawa's talk and Canada's actual capacity in the Arctic.

Although Polar Star is nearly 37 years old and pales in size and power to Russia's four massive, nuclear-powered Arktika-class icebreakers, it's still bigger, more powerful and nearly a decade younger than Canada's flagship icebreaker the Louis St. Laurent.

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Fresh from a $57-million refit after seven years of sitting idle, the Polar Star will join the modern U.S. coast guard icebreaker Healy, a couple of ice-capable smaller ships and a new, sophisticated ocean-going cutter in U.S. Arctic waters this summer.

The United States – belatedly perhaps – is suddenly very serious about playing a major visible role in the Arctic. "We are also an Arctic nation," says Admiral Robert Papp, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard as he unveiled its Arctic Strategy earlier this week. "And the Arctic region is the emerging maritime frontier, vital to our national interests, economy and security," he added.

That's the sort of bold, ringing, pronouncement Canadian political leaders have been making – but not delivering on – for decades.

Not so for either the Russians nor now the Americans, who are pouring resources into the Arctic.

There's far more at stake than some sort of 21st century boasting about icebreakers prowess.

When Polar Star's twin sister, the Polar Sea, plowed through the Northwest Passage in 1985 it sent Canadians into fits of patriotic fury. The U.S. government had pointedly refused to ask permission to sail through what Ottawa regarded – and still does – as territorial Canadian waters. The then-Progressive-Conservative government led by Brian Mulroney counter-punched and promised to build the world's biggest icebreaker – the Polar 8 – to show the Canada was serious about safeguarding the Arctic and defending its interests.

(Washington still regards the Northwest Passage as an international strait, no different from the Straits of Hormuz, and thus open to unrestricted transit by ships of any seafaring nation. )

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Back in the 1980s, Mr. Mulroney's foreign minister Joe Clark said building the costly Polar 8 would prove the Tories were "not about to conclude that Canada cannot afford the Arctic."

The ship was quietly cancelled a few years later. So too were Tory plans to buy a fleet of nuclear submarines capable of operating beneath the Arctic ice – long the Cold War playground of Russian and U.S. subs.

Decades have passed and successive Canadian governments have unveiled and scrapped various plans to assert Canada's claims in the Arctic. Although much smaller than the never-built Polar 8, a new heavy icebreaker – the John Diefenbaker – is supposed to be ready to sail north in four or five years. By then Russia will be keeping its Northern Sea Passage open most of the year and adding three new nuclear-powered icebreakers. Hundreds of tankers, container ships, freighters and large offshore factory-fishing vessels are expected in Arctic waters. A new era of near-year-round Arctic shipping dawns.

"The Arctic Ocean is rapidly changing from a solid expanse of inaccessible ice fields into a growing navigable sea," Adm. Papp said.

And the United States plans a "persistent, capable U.S. coast guard presence in the Arctic," he said.

Even in a time of swingeing U.S. defence cuts, Washington has approved a $1-billion icebreaker. China, Sweden, Germany, Korea, Finland and several oil companies will all deploy icebreakers, many of them more capable than Canada's.

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At best, Canada will have a single heavy operational icebreaker by 2020.

"Protecting U.S. sovereignty requires maritime governance," Adm. Papp said this week. "We cannot exercise governance without effective operations presence." The United States is fast putting that longstanding principle into Arctic practice. Long-dominant beneath the surface, the United States has made it clear it will rival Russia in terms of presence on the surface. Every other nation in the eight-country Arctic Council – now chaired by Canada – trails far behind.

Paul Koring reports from the Washington bureau.

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