Fraser Forum | 4.1.09
By Alan W. Dowd and Alexander Moens

Though much of Canada’s territory extends beyond the Arctic Circle, the vast majority of the country’s population lives along the southern border, and most Canadians know surprisingly little about the Arctic despite its increasing global importance. For instance, polls show a strong emotional attachment to “our north,” but no clear sentiment as to how much money or attention the government should devote to Arctic sovereignty, resource exploration, and security (Ipsos News Centre, 2008). The government’s policy toward the Arctic region tends to reflect this public sentiment—not much strategic investment in security alongside strong emotional appeals for Canadian sovereignty.

The lack of consistent policy did not matter as much in the past as it will in the future. Thick ice prevented most human activity up north. Cold War-era security in the Arctic came in the form of early warning radar and air defence systems. Ice and harsh climate made shipping and most resource exploration impossible or too expensive to undertake. During these years, Canada and the United States would occasionally squabble about the status of the Northwest Passage, with Canada claiming any sea routes through its archipelago as internal waters, and the United States holding fast to the notion that the passage is an international strait connecting two oceans.

Of course, Canada never had the military capacity to actually establish and enforce its sovereignty in the Arctic. Canadian governments have promised to invest heavily in Arctic military and security capabilities at least twice in recent history: during the early years of the Mulroney government and under the current Harper government. However, in both cases, budgetary restraints have eroded the plans, leaving Canadians with few assets to deploy in the Arctic (Coates et al., 2008) [references for this paragraph]

However, circumstances may yet force Canada to make the necessary investments—and pay the requisite attention—to protect its Arctic territories and claims.


There are at least three interrelated reasons why it is time for Ottawa to do more than talk about Arctic security and sovereignty.

First, the prospect of rising oil prices in the long term and the emergence of highly sophisticated drilling technology provide new incentives and opportunities for exploring this resource-rich frontier. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, equalling 30% of the undiscovered gas and 13% of the undiscovered oil in the world (USGS, 2008).

A second factor fuelling Arctic activity—and demanding hands-on Canadian involvement—is the opening of new transit routes. The Northwest Passage, once frozen throughout most of the year and navigable only by heavy-duty icebreakers, is thawing. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Northwest Passage was ice-free in 2007 (Chazan, 2008, July 29). The US Congressional Research Service notes that an ice-free Northwest Passage could “cut shipping routes between Europe and Asia by 3,000 to 4,000 miles” (Ek et al., 2008). Most major powers in the world, including China, Russia, and the European Union, agree with the American interpretation that an international strait, defined as “a body of water linking one area of the high seas to another” (Coates et al., 2008: 92), runs through the Arctic, whether it be a “Northeast Passage” near Russia, a Northwest Passage near Canada, or an even shorter passage close to the North Pole.

Finally, a newly assertive Russia is reminding Canada, the United States, and other Arctic nations that inaction is no longer an option.

In 2001, Russia claimed almost half the Arctic Circle and all of the North Pole (Idov, 2008, Dec. 9). During a 2007 expedition, Russia planted its flag under the ice—far beyond the internationally recognized 200-mile territorial limit known as the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ). The lead explorer provocatively declared, “The Arctic is ours” (Clover, 2008, May 27).

Russia’s outsized Arctic claims rest on a dubious interpretation of an “underwater ridge” linking to the Russian landmass (Idov, 2008). Russia argues that this ridge is an extension of its own continental shelf (Chazan, 2008). Denmark disagrees. It’s up to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to settle the dispute (Maddox, 2009).

Never much for subtlety or nuance, Moscow has begun training “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions” and increased the “operational radius” of its northern submarine fleet, according to one Russian general (Boswell, 2008, June 25). Plus, Russian long-range bombers have started flying sorties again in the region after nearly two decades of post-Cold War peace. 

“We’re concerned about not just Russia’s claims to the international process but Russia’s testing of Canadian airspace,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said late last year (Reuters, 2008, Sep. 19).

In short, conditions in and above the Arctic warrant a more consistent policy approach based on Canada’s national interests. They also call for a review of how Canada and its closest Arctic ally, the United States, may work together on Arctic issues. 

Common ground

Canada and the United States face common challenges both in terms of ascertaining the rights to resources and in determining how to regulate secure and environmentally safe shipping in the area. This is not to diminish their dispute over mining rights to some 60 square miles of the Beaufort Sea or their divergent definitions of the Northwest Passage. The two nations disagree over the precise angle at which the land boundary between Alaska and the Yukon extends into the Beaufort Sea. They also disagree on the status of a possible sea lane through the Western Arctic archipelago, with Canada claiming that the legal status of such a lane would be internal Canadian waters and the United States arguing that an international passage linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans exists which in effect limits Canada’s sovereign rights over such a water way. However, their common interests in a secure Arctic far outweigh these disagreements, as officials in Ottawa and Washington are starting to realize.

The key issues for Canada and its closest neighbour are how to extend Canada’s best practices in environmental control of the area and how to develop a security regime for the region that will augment and complement the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

UNCLOS will play an important role in defining borders and boundaries in the Arctic, but like most UN regimes UNCLOS is inherently weak. Thus, allowing it to be the final arbiter could serve Russia’s interests. Indeed, it appears that Russia plans to use the loopholes of UNCLOS to claim much of the Arctic as its own. Developing a transparent security component seems prudent in a region where maritime traffic—and resource exploration—will dramatically increase. 

Article 234 of UNCLOS gives Canada the right to regulate environmental and some security standards. US vessels strictly abide by Canada’s Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, which was passed in 1970 and recently updated to extend to the 200-mile EEZ of Canadian waters.

The Arctic was staked out by the Canadian government in 2006 as one of the key areas for attention in its “Canada First” defence strategy. “To protect the North, we must control the North,” Harper declared in 2008 (Boswell, 2008, Aug. 26). Toward that end, the government has pledged $3 billion to build eight military patrol vessels with the capacity to break through up to three feet of ice; vowed to add aerial surveillance assets and increase the size of Canada’s Army Ranger units to 5,000; and outlined plans for a new army training centre and a deep-water port in the northern reaches of Canada (Coates et al., 2008: 174; MacAskill, 2007, Aug. 11).

However, the sharp economic downturn in 2008 and the very high costs of Canada’s robust commitment to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan have already eroded Canada’s ability to fulfill some of these military promises aimed at securing the north. But given Russia’s actions and words, Ottawa should not sacrifice long-term security investments for short-term savings. Protecting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic is important enough to allocate defence dollars to the effort. As before, Canada will need to partner with the United States to help defend its northern regions.

Washington seems awake to the challenge. Calling for “a more active” US presence, the recently issued US Arctic Region Policy seems to echo Ottawa’s no-nonsense view on Arctic security. “The United States has broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests,” the policy states (White House, 2009).

Although the United States maintains 20,000 active-duty forces in Alaska, and has the capacity to project its military into any region, it faces its own challenges. It has only three polar icebreakers, and two of these $800-million ships have exceeded their projected 30-year lifespan. Russia, by contrast, can deploy 20 icebreakers (O’Rourke, 2008).

Moreover, the United States faces enormous budget deficits as a result of the economic crisis and ongoing military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, the United States would be well advised to work more closely with its friends and allies in the north.

Canada and the United States are not the only nations bracing for a cold front in the Arctic. Norway, Sweden, and Finland are developing a Nordic security partnership as a hedge against Russian expansionism in the energy-rich “high north” (Lucas, 2008, Nov. 19). Moreover, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently raised the prospect of NATO involvement in the Arctic. “I would be the last one to expect military conflict,” he said, “but there will be a military presence” (Associated Press, 2009, Jan. 29).


Indeed, conflict with Russia—in the Arctic or elsewhere—is not inevitable. Of course, neither is cooperation, as we are learning on issues as disparate as Georgia’s sovereignty, Iran’s nuclear program, Europe’s gas supplies, and NATO’s logistics arteries.

Russia’s claims are different than that of other Arctic nations both in the way the claims are being made and in the nature of the claims: Other nations are not laying claim to half of the region or the entire North Pole. Other nations are not flouting the letter and spirit of UNCLOS. Other nations are not making territorial claims in a blatant military context.

Every reasonable effort should be made to include Russia as an Arctic partner. US military commanders, for instance, are pursuing routine contacts with their Russian counterparts to prevent mishaps and misunderstandings in the skies above the Arctic (Schanz, 2008, Aug. 21).

Ottawa and Washington may also want to consider upgrading the Arctic Council, a forum founded in 1996 for dialogue among Arctic countries. Similarly, the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark could explore a treaty with Russia to divide resource claims equitably. UNCLOS, as referenced above, is rather weak and does not preclude such a treaty.

UNCLOS itself has bipartisan backing in the US Senate and prospects for its passage look good. In its parting days, the George W. Bush administration called on the Senate to pass the treaty “promptly” (White House, 2009).

Despite the shortcomings of UNCLOS, it is important for the United States to adopt the treaty. First, it’s hypocritical for Washington to expect Moscow to abide by the letter and spirit of the treaty if the United States hasn’t ratified it. Second, being a party to the treaty is the best way for the US to ensure its voice is heard and its Arctic interests addressed. Third, it may be useful in the future to underscore allied solidarity.

Speaking of allied solidarity, if Russia continues down its current path, Canada, the United States, and their Arctic allies will be left with few other options than standing firm and standing together. Sharing the Arctic’s bounty—in a transparent manner governed by the rule of law and sound trade practices—makes more strategic sense than allowing Moscow to divide and conquer.

To prevent that unhappy outcome, the allies may need to agree among themselves on borders, transit routes, and exploration rights, and then pool their economic and military resources to protect their shared interests, as they do in other parts of the world.

The United States and Canada should lead the way by resolving their dispute over boundaries in the Beaufort Sea—splitting the difference down the middle seems reasonable—and by recognizing that cooperation on the Northwest Passage provides more benefits than costs. It seems counterintuitive, but it may be in America’s strategic interests to support Canada’s claim on the Northwest Passage as an inland waterway. Although some in the United States are concerned that such an arrangement could constrain America’s freedom of movement and set a problematic precedent, the alternative would seem to invite a greater risk to US and Canadian security. If the Northwest Passage is deemed to be international waters, any country could send its naval vessels through it or use it as a flight corridor.

With the Northwest Passage dispute put to rest, it seems likely that Canada would welcome American military capability in keeping threats to Canadian territory and US interests at bay.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) could serve as a model. In fact, “maritime surveillance” was added to NORAD’s list of responsibilities in 2006 (Gilmore, 2008). Just as NORAD defends Canadian and US airspace, a joint or allied naval arrangement could provide security in the Northwest Passage and other parts of the Arctic.

Whatever path Russia chooses in the Arctic, Canada and the United States would be best served by working together. 


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