< Back to News Release
With its vast and largely untapped natural resources, the region is rapidly growing in strategic and economic importance. Because of climate change and receding sea ice, the circumpolar region is becoming more accessible to commercial shipping, tourism and resource exploration. As a result, Canada faces a number of actual and potential challenges to its sovereignty and sovereign rights in the Arctic.
Canada and Denmark both claim ownership of Hans Island in the eastern Arctic. Canada also has longstanding maritime border delimitation problems with its circumpolar neighbours. As for the continental shelf beyond the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, the extent to which other Arctic coastal countries will lay national claims to the seabed will be a matter to be determined in accordance with specific rules laid down in the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention. However, disputes concerning overlapping claims could arise.
With respect to the Northwest Passage – the water routes that connect the Davis Strait in the east to the Beaufort Sea in the west – a potentially serious challenge to Canadian sovereignty concerns the right to control shipping. Canada’s position is that the Northwest Passage is internal waters over which it enjoys full sovereignty. That sovereignty includes the right to unilaterally pass laws and regulations to protect Canadian interests, including those of our northern residents and particularly the Inuit, who have inhabited the lands and lived and worked on the ice in Canada’s North for thousands of years. Not all countries agree with Canada’s position, however, including the United States, which considers the Passage to be an international strait.
The evidence the Committee heard suggests that other countries will want to use the Northwest Passage to save time and reduce fuel costs. Both the United States and the European Union have outlined their respective priorities and objectives in the Arctic in recent policy documents.
The Arctic is expected to become much busier. No one knows exactly when this will happen, but Canada has been preparing for the eventuality. Recent federal government initiatives include increasing the presence of the Canadian Forces in the North, the construction of ice-strengthened offshore patrol ships and a deep-water Arctic docking facility for the Canadian Navy, and a new polar icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard, to name only a few.
As commercial shipping increases, so will the potential for marine pollution. Canada needs to retain full control over its Arctic waters to adequately protect the exceptionally fragile marine environment and Canadian security interests. In this regard, the Government of Canada intends to extend Canada’s enforcement zone to 200 nautical miles from the present 100 nautical miles, and to change the status of NORDREG, Canada’s vessel traffic system in the Arctic, by making it compulsory rather than voluntary (which the Committee recommended in its June 2008 interim report The Coast Guard in Canada’s Arctic).
Many of the challenges faced by Canada in the North are related to the vital and considerable work performed by the Canadian Coast Guard. Canada will need to strengthen its Coast Guard, a Special Operating Agency of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), by adding capabilities and equipment to cope with future demands. More thought must be given to its future role in projecting Canada’s sovereignty in the region. New vessels – heavy icebreakers capable of operating year-round in the Arctic Archipelago and on the extended continental shelf – are needed to safeguard the values and environmental, security and economic interests of Canadians. By asserting more control over the waters within the Arctic Archipelago, Canada will be in a much stronger position to argue that they are internal waters.
While an essential aspect of the Canadian national identity, the Arctic is first and foremost the homeland of Inuit who have been using the region and its resources for countless generations. Their presence and continued use and stewardship of its resources anchor Canada’s sovereignty claims.
Because Arctic issues cut across a number of federal government departments, an all-of-government approach is essential in developing a strategy for the Canadian North, with the full involvement of the territorial governments and Inuit. Although the Committee found a great deal of optimism in Nunavut about our common future as Canadians, time and time again, Nunavummiut said they wished to be more involved in priority-setting, policy-making and decision-making. Nunavummiut asked to be treated as full partners in developing Canada’s integrated strategy for the North.
This report is very much a snapshot in time. Climate change, the environment, sovereignty and security, and economic and social development are matters that will continue to demand the attention of government in the coming years. Both levels of government know the issues and the remedies. The Committee urges that proper action be taken.The Committee appreciates the great hospitality we experienced in Nunavut. We went to Nunavut to listen. The Committee was impressed by the deep passion shown by participants in our study whose voices need to be heard. We hope our report will aid in that effort.