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Stephen Harper should lose sleep this week, as the Danish-owned Nordic Orion becomes the first cargo vessel to use the Northwest Passage as an international shipping route – at no little risk to Canada's environment and sovereignty.

Last week, the crash of a Coast Guard helicopter in the Northwest Passage underlined how very dangerous Arctic waters can be. The three men on board were wearing survival suits. They escaped the aircraft before it sank but froze to death in the hour it took for the icebreaker Amundsen to reach them.

Although the Nordic Orion is ice-strengthened, Arctic storms, shallow waters and icebergs still pose risks. Small chunks of icebergs called "growlers" are extremely hard, float low in the water, and are difficult to spot. In 2007, the ice-strengthened MS Explorer sank during an Antarctic voyage after striking a growler. Then there is "icing", which occurs when ocean spray freezes onto the superstructure of a ship, causing it to become top-heavy and capsize.

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Canada's Arctic search-and-rescue capabilities are desperately poor. Our long-range helicopters are based in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Labrador: each aircraft would take more than a day to fly the 2,500 kilometers to the Northwest Passage, stopping to refuel along the way.

C-130 Hercules planes can be sent from southern Canada, but unlike helicopters, cannot hoist people on board. Worse yet, the Hercules used for search and rescue are nearly half a century old and often un-deployable for maintenance reasons. An attempt to procure replacements began in 2002, but eleven years later, no construction contract has been signed.

As a point of comparison, Russia has several search-and-rescue stations in the Arctic and is building ten more – each with its own ships and aircraft.

Canada lacks a single port along the Northwest Passage in which a vessel could seek refuge in the event of mechanical problems or a serious storm. Russia has sixteen deep-water ports along its Arctic coastline.

It is time to implement the long-standing plan to transform a disused wharf on Baffin Island into an all-year naval base. And to build other ports, perhaps at the communities of Tuktoyaktuk and Iqaluit, where they could serve double duty.

A major investment in charting is required. In 2010, John Falkingham told the Nunatsiaq News that inadequate charts are the "single biggest issue in the Arctic." Mr. Falkingham, who spent three decades in the Canadian Ice Service, explained that only one-tenth of Canada's Arctic waters are charted to modern standards.

In 1996, an ice-strengthened cruise ship went aground on a sand bar near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. In 2010, another cruise ship ran onto an underwater ledge near Kugluktuk, Nunavut.

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Then there are the environmental risks. The coal being carried by the Nordic Orion would not cause much damage in the event of an accident. But the fuel oil on board the vessel certainly would. In 2004, a Malaysian cargo ship lost power during a storm off the south coast of Alaska. The vessel was blown aground and broke apart, spilling 1.2 million litres of fuel oil. Almost none of the oil was recovered due to the remote location, bad weather, and the near-complete absence of oil spill clean-up equipment and personnel.

Russia is prepared for these situations, with dozens of powerful icebreakers that it uses to escort foreign cargo ships. Canada's Coast Guard icebreakers are growing old, and most are too small and underpowered for convoy duty. There are plans for only one new vessel, but again, no construction contract has been signed. The Navy has no ice-capable ships whatsoever, and the planned Arctic/Offshore Patrol Vessels have fallen years behind schedule.

The Nordic Orion will not undermine Canada's legal position that the Northwest Passage constitutes internal waters, since the ship has registered its voyage with the Canadian Coast Guard – thereby seeking and receiving permission from Canada. But other ships will follow, and their compliance with Canada's domestic laws – and therefore our ability to ensure safety and environmental protection – cannot be assumed.

The best way to promote Canada's legal position is to provide infrastructure and essential services. International shipping companies will register their voyages if doing so will ensure their access to icebreaking, world-class search and rescue, weather and ice forecasting, and ports of refuge.

It is also time to seize the diplomatic initiative – and discuss the Northwest Passage with the United States, which has to be worried about the possibility that smugglers, illegal immigrants and even terrorists might use the Northwest Passage to access North America. Some Americans have already realized that these challenges are best addressed through a coastal state's domestic laws, rather than the much weaker powers available under international law in a so-called "international strait".

Is Canada a serious Arctic country? Are we a responsible coastal state? Are we a reliable ally of the United States? These are the questions the Prime Minister should ask himself, as he lies awake this week.

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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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