Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

article imageOp-Ed: Canada and the Northwest Passage – Sovereignty versus Heritage

By G. Robert M. Miller     Jan 14, 2009 in Politics
In 1982 diplomat Arvid Pardo gave a groundbreaking speech requesting that the seas and oceans of Earth be classified “the common heritage of mankind.” Now, with Bush on board, should the Northwest Passage be considered the common heritage of industry?
With 119 countries signing on to support the landmark agreement on the first day of approval, the conference set a new precedent in international relations - as for the first time in world history - nations from both hemispheres and every continent agreed to support an individual proposal.
Included in the accord were several milestone concepts; for example, all nations agreed on the amount of sea-borne area a given nation had the right to develop for economic purposes, called the exclusive economic zone. If you would like to know exactly what the UN charter on the Law of the Sea states, please visit the United Nations “Constitution for the Oceans”, wherein the core tenets, as well as the finer nuances of the treaty, are detailed. (Documents of the entire conference, as well as subsequent work, can be accessed through the UN's Law of the Sea department online.)
What is of political importance, particularly from a Canadian perspective, is the Freedom of Navigation clause which states that “the world community’s interest in the freedom of navigation will be facilitated by the important compromises on the status of the exclusive economic zone, by the régime of innocent passage through the territorial sea, by the régime of transit passage through straits used for international navigation and by the régime archipelagic sea-lanes passage.”
Cutting through the jargon, this means that in straights or waterways of widespread, international use, the straight or waterway must remain open for widespread, international use (as with the Panama or Suez Canal).
Simple, right? Right.
So why is this excerpt of particular importance to Canada, and indeed to the industries of all marine-able nations? Well, this is so for two main reasons.
First, with more and more news circulating that the forever-impossible-until-now Northwest Passage trading route has opened up for commercial use due to decreased ice cover, there is increasing interest in opening up the waterway for international use. Of course, if the Northwest Passage is in fact declared an international straight, maintaining a safe and navigable voyage would become mandatory (as with the Panama or Suez Canal). This leads well into the second point of interest for Canadian and international citizens.
On Monday January 12th, 2009, outgoing US President George W. Bush issued a policy statement promising a greater US presence in Arctic waters. Quoting an article by Thomas Omestad of
"The United States is an Arctic nation, with varied and compelling interests in the region," the new policy states, including "broad and fundamental national security interests . . . and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests."
Though the idea of an ‘independent national security operation’ may be enough to have some Canadian nationalists queasy, if intended to justify a marine presence in or around Alaska, the assertion shouldn’t be turning heads; America has every right to defend its territory.
And if that were all Bush outlined, surely Canadian news outlets would not respond in fervent uproar; but they have. Why? Quoting George Bush, it is clear that the statement was intended as America’s declaration of intent with regard to the Northwest Passage:
"The Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation, and the Northern Sea route includes straits used for international navigation; the regime of transit passage applies to passage through those straits."
Looking at this statement from the position of an American, a Canadian, or a member of the international community, it is clear that President Bush believes the waterway should be recognized in the same regard as the Panama or Suez Canal; and therefore opened for widespread, international use.
It is at this instant that the points of view of Americans, Canadians, and members of the international community scatter in a million different directions. So let’s consider a few of the many stakeholders.
For industry leaders, the promise of a navigable route constantly monitored and maintained by an independent or combined presence is sure to receive hearty and constant lobbying. As seen in the embedded image, the Northwest Passage offers a unique route that could provide multinational corporations a serious reduction in transportation costs.
The Northwest Passage
The Northwest Passage
Wired Blog
For environmentalists, the threat of constant operation along the Northwest Passage is a sad step in environmental ethics and stewardship. Global warming has precipitated the habitat which currently enables ships to pass through the waterway, and global warming threatens to destroy this already endangered preserve. With increased (or rather, with the foundation of) industrial activity in the region, surely the already damaging impact of human industry would increase the plight of local species and vegetation.
Speaking of the Northwest Passage’s local species, Canadians have a great stake in this issue. Perhaps the timing of Bush’s proposal is to blame for the widespread criticism of the address by Canadian outlets. For many years now, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made great strides to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.
Mr Harper has made many visits to the Canadian territories, and invested both in increased primary resource exploration in the arctic, as well as an increased military presence in the arctic. Even as a strong critic of Stephen Harper’s government, I have consistently supported his position on the arctic. Canada has a great human, economic, and environmental heritage in arctic lands.
The many first-nations peoples of the Arctic have a claim to the lands which have been protected and guaranteed by the Canadian government. In addition, the many natural resources in the Arctic, from diamonds to gold to oil to semi-precious materials, have been at the core of exploration in Canada’s thriving primary industry sector. And lastly, as increasing pressure is placed on the Canadian government to protect large parcels of arctic lands from the very economic expansion that is likely to ensue in coming years, the Canadian government has consistently claimed to best understand the arctic, and therefore to be the best at ensuring it’s stability.
In any case, to say the very least, Stephen Harper has certainly done an outstanding job in recent years of informing the Canadian public to the historical importance of the Canadian arctic, as well as its future relevance to Canadian affairs. However, as a result of this, Canadians are not likely to cede the lands or the Northwest Passage to international bodies without several checks and balances.
For one, the vague nature of the press release in whole – which is available through – leaves many Canadians concerned that American interests may also include the development of industries in arctic land long claimed by Canada. By explicitly mentioning the ‘fragile but resource rich’ lands which need ‘economic development in environmentally sustainable ways’, the US is implicitly suggesting that Canadian efforts to do just that must be accompanied by the US.
Though the issue surely doesn’t threaten to devastate US-Canadian relations, I can’t help but wonder if the Bush administration fails to realize the significance of the Canadian arctic to the average Canadian, and the extent to which the average Canadian realizes this.
And so, with only mentioning three stakeholders – industry leaders, environmentalists, and Canadians – we clearly see an issue forming to which resolution will be as tricky as navigating the Northwest Passage in centuries past.
Despite the many competing points of view, none of us should lose sight of the words spoken by the then teary-eyed Arvid Pardo, who pleaded his case in front of the international community; the oceans and the seas are indeed the common heritage of mankind.
With that said, for the purposes of trade or political expediency (for all nations), the Northwest Passage navigation route should be considered an international straight. However, this unique waterway should be protected by unique rights. For one, it must not be maintained in the same way that similar straights, or canals, are managed.
Immortalized by one of Canada’s greatest songwriters, Stan Rogers, navigating the Northwest Passage is not supposed to be a possibility; in a land so wild and savage, the Northwest Passage should, by nature, not offer a route from sea to sea.
If humans, in whole, were committed to protecting, preserving, and respecting the environment, the opening of the Northwest Passage would be considered completely preposterous. The environmental impact of such an operation would be too great.
This argument will surely not go unnoticed by both Canadians and supporters of the UN Law of the Sea (which George W. Bush is). Citing the charter on the Law of the Sea:
“the world community’s interest in the conservation and optimum utilization of the living resources of the sea will be enhanced by the conscientious implementation of the provisions in the convention relating to the exclusive economic zones.”
In a recent interview with CBC news anchor Don Nelson, Steven Groves of the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. said that he hopes Bush’s statement will result in a willing accord between the US and Canada, and not in a contentious inquiry.
Though an accord is not out of the question, there is no question that Canadian officials – from think tank employees to opposition parties to concerned citizens to Stephen Harper himself – will be inquiring into ways to protect Canadian interests while respecting both the international community and the environment.
This issue is far from settled, and as the Canadian federal government faces parliamentary turmoil, as the US inaugurates a new administration, as the world faces both economic recession and international conflicts, sorting out the matter will take a great deal of time. If one conclusion can be made at this point, it is that we are better served by taking a great deal of time to sort the matter out correctly now, than to act rashly and not pay dueful attention to the many concerned stakeholders.
Thanks for reading.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Canada, Northwest passage, United States
More news from
Latest News
Top News