P. Whitney Lackenbauer is a fellow of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute and associate professor and chair of the department of history at St. Jerome's University; Adam Lajeunesse is a postdoctoral fellow at St. Jerome's University and a research associate of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary
In October, 2013, the Danish bulk carrier Nordic Orion completed the first ever commercial transit of the Northwest Passage. After decades of melt, the once impenetrable Northwest Passage seemed to be on the verge of becoming a viable sea-route. This prospect resurrected longstanding fears of what heightened shipping activity could mean for Canadian sovereignty. Would a navigable passage encourage other countries or shipping companies to challenge Canada's position on our Arctic internal waters?
Behind sensationalist headlines and some over-zealous punditry, the reality of Arctic shipping is far less dramatic. There were no commercial transits of the passage in 2014. Heavy ice effectively cancelled the shipping season.
Variability from year to year, and even from day to day, will continue to make scheduling a transit through the Canadian Arctic both difficult and dangerous. International shipping is a business built on tight schedules, and schedules are hard to keep when a ship's speed and route cannot be predicted with a high degree of certainty.
In spite of nearly seventy years of modern exploration and mapping, Canada's Arctic sea-routes are still dangerously uncharted. At present, only 12 per cent of the region is mapped to modern standards – a deficiency starkly demonstrated by the 2010 grounding of the cruise ship Clipper Adventure in Coronation Gulf, about 100 km east of Kugluktuk, Nunavut.
These factors, along with high insurance costs, limited navigational aids, and a complete lack of salvage and repair infrastructure, make regular shipping through the Canadian Arctic an uncertain proposition. Although there will be more Nordic Orions in the years to come, they are likely to be niche voyages and government-supported operations, not the uncontrollable flood of transarctic shipping that still dominates popular imagery.
The future of Arctic shipping is likely to remain destinational traffic, made up of resource carriers, resupply ships, and cruise liners moving in and out of – not through – Canada's Arctic waters. Rather than undermining Canadian sovereignty, these vessels confirm it.
Canada considers the Northwest Passage as historic internal waters, a position in law that requires the acquiescence of foreign entities interested in the region. While this recognition has been hard to win from foreign states, it will be easier to secure from private corporations operating in Canada's waters. Why, after all, would any company with business interests in Canada risk challenging sovereignty and precipitating popular and political backlash?
Rather than fixating on the political ramifications of Arctic shipping through a sovereignty lens, the government can better serve Canadians by focusing on the practical requirements of developing and maintaining safe sea routes. There remains much to be done in hydrographic surveying, building marine infrastructure, and enhancing search and rescue capabilities.
Investments in these areas will help to ensure that future shipping is safe and beneficial for Inuit, whose traditional hunting-grounds and highways will have to double as transit routes for resource carriers and cruise liners. These priorities lay at the heart of Canada's chairmanship of the Arctic Council and its Northern Strategy. They are also priorities for Inuit, as the Inuit Circumpolar Council has documented in recent studies like The Sea Ice is Our Highway (2009) and The Sea Ice Never Stops (2014).
It is important to note that Inuit, despite their concerns about the human and environmental impacts of shipping, generally look forward to the prospect of increased maritime activity. More shipping will reduce the costs of supplies and improve standards of living in a region where limited resupply options have led to $7 litres of milk and $40 packs of diapers. Alleviating Canada's highest levels of unemployment is equally important, and good paying jobs in the resource sector are predicated on cost-effective access to these resources and an ability to carry them to market. The risks inherent in Arctic shipping must therefore be considered alongside these new opportunities as well.
When it comes to the prospect of shipping activity in the Canadian Arctic, safety and security – not defence or sovereignty – should be primary areas of focus. The long-standing questions of sovereignty and jurisdiction are well managed and, as counterintuitive as it may seem, more activity is only likely to strengthen Canada's position.
While the Northwest Passage is unlikely to emerge as a new international sea route, Canada will have to prepare for increased destinational traffic. As such, new investments in marine infrastructure and monitoring will be necessary to mitigate many of the dangers inherent in Arctic operations. However, if managed properly, this shipping could be a powerful enabler for northern development and all the regional benefits that would flow from it.