The new race for the North
The going was rough and tedious as the United States Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea thrust through heavy ice in the Prince of Wales Strait last week in the western Canadian Arctic. Then, in the twilight of the Arctic summer midnight, crew members came on deck and watched a small twin-engine aircraft approach from the south, circle the Polar Sea twice, buzz the ship at an altitude of about 100 feet and drop two cylinders, each roughly two feet long. The first fell on the ice, the second between the ship’s two smokestacks. The cardboard cylinder, wrapped in a Canadian flag and weighted with stones, contained a message from the nationalist Council of Canadians that criticized the refusal of the United States to ask permission for the ship’s voyage as “insulting and demeaning to our citizens.” That statement vividly symbolized Canada’s Arctic dilemma. As the Polar Sea entered U.S. waters off the coast of Alaska at the end of its voyage, Canadian nationalists and security analysts declared that Canada must take control of the Arctic—or risk losing it.
Mysterious: The new debate over the Arctic arises from a historic uncertainty. Over the years the Arctic has been treated as North America’s drafty attic. Because relatively few Canadians live or travel there, the Arctic is considered to be a mysterious region, holding a vague promise of immense riches. But whenever someone troubles to climb its creaking stairs, a fight inevitably breaks out over who owns the territory.
The voyage of the Polar Sea rekindled a dispute which began in 1969 when the privately owned United States oil tanker Manhattan made a crossing of the Northwest Passage. At issue is whether' the historic arctic waterway is owned by Canada as Ottawa claims or is an international strait open to all nations, as the U.S. government contends. As both Washington and Moscow become increasingly interested in the strategic value of the region, a resolution of that dispute is assuming increasing urgency.
The Polar Sea’s voyage appeared certain to be one of the major issues facing Prime Minister Brian Mulroney when Parliament resumes on Sept. 9. Opposition Leader John Turner, in a statement issued as the voyage was almost completed, described it as “an affront to
Canada.” He added that Mulroney’s failure to intervene personally with Washington “blatantly encouraged” the United States to ignore Canada’s views.
Intensive: For his part, Mulroney offered little public comment on the chal-
lenge posed by the Polar Sea. At a Toronto press conference shortly after Turner issued his statement, the Prime Minister denied that a previously announced “intensive review” of Canada’s claimed Arctic sovereignty had been prompted by the Polar Sea’s voyage. Still, plans for the review were disclosed as the Polar Sea was setting out on its voyage by Barry Mawhinney, director general of the external affairs department’s legal bureau. But it will take a cabinet decision should Canada elect to take its Arctic claims to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The Polar Sea’s 10 days in waters claimed by Canada also led to protests from Canadian nationalists at a time when Mulroney is actively seeking more American investment and freer trade. Still, the government did not appear to oppose the nationalists’ demonstration
against the U.S. ship. Two Inuvialuit and two University of Alberta students representing the Council of Canadians, a nationalist group founded by Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig, chartered a Twin Otter aircraft to mount their aerial protest. And at Inuvik airport federal Environment Minister Suzanne BlaisGrenier, who was there to open a new aircaft hangar, spoke to one of the students, Louanne Studer, who was about to leave on the flight. Said the minister: “I wish you all sorts of luck and good weather so that your flags are visible.” But later a Canadian Coast Guard ob-
server aboard the Polar Sea filed a report in Ottawa, charging that the Twin Otter breached two flying regulations by making low passes over the ship and dropping objects that posed a potential hazard to the ship’s crew.
Buzzing: As well as buzzing the Polar Sea and dropping their message, the students—Studer, 20, who specializes in languages, and science major David Achtem, 21—planted Canadian flags on Princess Royal Island along the ship’s path. The Inuvialuit, Roger Gruben, 32, and Eddie Dillon, 31, erected a pup tent—“a symbol of Inuit fishing and
trapping culture,” said Achtem—and put up two territorial flags. But the main object of the $10,000 charter flight was to drop the message from the Council of Canadians, urging the Polar Sea to stop and return to international waters in the eastern Arctic. Emblazoned with a maple leaf and addressed to the ship captain, it said in part: “Your failure to request advance permission to sail the Northwest Passage is insulting and demeaning to our citizens and a threat to our sovereignty. It is not the action of a thoughtful, understanding neighbor.” The two students clapped and howled
when they hit their target on the second attempt. As two sailors stood and stared from the deck of the Polar Sea, Achtem declared, “I think we have just saved Canadian sovereignty.”
The Polar Sea focused new attention on the weakened state of Canada’s northern defences. With no military ships or submarines capable of operating in ice-infested waters, there was certain to be renewed political debate over Canada’s inability to monitor submarine activity by the Soviet Union’s burgeoning northern fleet. At the same time, the Arctic Ocean is becoming increasingly important as a strategic theatre, and concern is growing among members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization about the Kremlin’s plans for its northern fleet, with its estimated 46 nuclear-powered submarines (page 22).
In the meantime, Canadian reports emerged that the Polar Sea was involved in military experiments during its passage through Canadian waters. U.S. officials consistently denied those claims. Then, as the ship headed toward Alaska’s Point Barrow, American Coast Guard officials confirmed that U.S. Navy personnel would go aboard this week for a series of military experiments in the U.S. sector of the Beaufort Sea which appeared to be linked to antisubmarine warfare operations.
Regrets: Mulroney and most of his cabinet ministers remained almost silent on the whole issue last week. Senior officials in the external affairs department, the Canadian Coast Guard and national defence handled the flood of media inquiries. The official Canadian position was that Canada owns and controls the Northwest Passage and all the waters of the arctic archipelago and that it “deeply regrets”—as it told Washington two weeks ago—that the United States does not recognize its sovereignty. Added Blais-Grenier in Inuvik: “The position of the Canadian government is one of a moderate expression of concern. We don’t want to damage our future position because we intend to clarify this matter of sovereignty of these lands and waters.”
It was Washington’s pointed refusal to ask permission in advance for the Polar Sea’s journey that offended Canadian sensitivities. But external affairs legal adviser Leonard Legault contended that the U.S. Coast Guard did cooperate with Canada by providing details of the icebreaker’s voyage and by allowing three official Canadian observers to travel aboard the ship. And in an exchange of diplomatic notes with Canada, Washington pledged that the voyage would not prejudice the legal position of either country. Faced with the inevitability of the Polar Sea’s departure from Thule, Greenland, on Aug. 1, the Canadian government issued a face-
saving statement the evening before,
' “authorizing” the voyage.
Some critics described that action as a meaningless and embarrassing gesture. But Legault insisted that since both countries had previously agreed the voyage would not prejudice their legal status, the action was “a very real exercise of our sovereignty, perhaps more real than a protest would have been.” In fact, Ottawa never considered trying to prevent the voyage, even if it had the diplomatic or military muscle to do so. “All right, we disagree on the issue of sovereignty,” said Legault, “but does that mean that we block them from ever going through there until they get on their knees and say ‘uncle’ to us?” Canada acknowledges that foreign vessels have the right of innocent passage through Canadian waters, and “if a Soviet icebreaker had legitimate business” in the Arctic, added Legault, it too would be allowed to sail through them if it met Canadian environmental requirements and raised “no security concerns.”
Transfer: For its part, the U.S. Coast Guard was pleased that the Polar Sea managed to complete a textbook-perfect journey through the Northwest Passage. Coast guard spokesmen said throughout the trip that the voyage was not a challenge to Canada’s sovereignty claim but merely a shorter route to the U.S. West Coast than the usual route through the Panama Canal.
In any event, the shortcut paid off. The eastern entrance to the Canadian portion of the passage, from Lancaster Sound into Barrow Strait, turned out to be virtually ice-free. But west of Resolute on Cornwallis Island, where the Polar Sea stopped to allow a northern affairs department official and a Canadian ice scientist to transfer aboard by helicopter, the ship slammed into a continuous sheet of ice as much as six feet thick. Then, in the narrow Prince of Wales Strait between Victoria and Banks islands the 400-foot-long, 13,200ton vessel met its first real challenge—a I thick plug of granite-hard ice that slowed the 60,000-horsepower vessel to i two knots during part of the last leg of ! its voyage. The ship continued to encounter heavy ice as it headed to Tuktoyaktuk. But instead of the additional 20 to 30 days required to reach the Beaufort Sea via Panama, the Polar Sea was scheduled to reach its destination of Point Barrow in 10 to 12 days.
Thomas Pullen was the ice navigator and also the official Canadian government representative aboard the American supertanker Manhattan when it sailed through the passage in 1969. Pullen, 67, a retired Canadian naval captain, said that in protesting the latest U.S. incursion of the Arctic Canadians are “indulging in a luxury.” In matters of sovereignty and continental defence,
he added, Canadians are “not really pulling [their] weight.” And he dismissed as unrealistic the demand by some politicians that a Canadian icebreaker escort the powerful Polar Sea. Noted Pullen: “The Polar Sea generates 10,000 more horsepower than the combined output of the four Canadian icebreakers that will be deployed in the Arctic this summer.” With insufficient power to cut through heavy Arctic ice, the Canadian ships are effectively frozen out of the region for all but three months of the year.
Costly: Ottawa is studying a costly
proposal that could change that situation. By year’s end, Canadian Coast Guard officials will have assessed bids from Canadian shipyards to build a 100,000-horsepower Polar 8 icebreaker. The much-delayed project—on the drawing board in various forms almost since the time of the Manhattan voy-
ages—would be the most powerful icebreaker in the world, fully capable of operating in the Northwest Passage all year. But faced with an estimated $450million price tag, there is no guarantee Ottawa will approve construction.
Ineffective: Of even greater concern to many critics is Canada’s largely ineffective military presence in the Arctic. To patrol the Northwest and Yukon territories as well as the vast arctic archipelago, the Canadian Armed Forces maintains a northern headquarters staff of 65 personnel in Yellowknife and Whitehorse. About 500 other members
of the forces are posted at scattered Distant Early Warning (DEW Line) stations and at the top-security communications station at Alert, on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. Supporting those forces are about 600 cadets and 620 volunteer Rangers from 38 isolated communities. Equipped with red baseball
caps and matching armbands, ,303-calibre Lee Enfield rifles of First World War vintage and a ration of 200 rounds of ammunition a year, the Rangers are asked to report “suspicious or unusual activities” in the Arctic. Bill Goose, a 42year-old sergeant, has been with the group since 1982. Said Goose, who is currently assistant executive director for the Inuvialuit Communication Society: “We should have Americans help protect the Arctic because we are neighbors and are living in North America together.”
The main exercise of Canada’s northern sovereignty patrols is carried out in at least 16 annual northern missions flown by the sophisticated Aurora longrange patrol aircraft (page 20). According to documents obtained by the Toronto Globe and Mail under the federal Access to Information Act, the principal purpose of the overflights is to help in
detecting military encroachment on Canadian territory by “surface or subsurj face foreign military vessels.” But even I the capability for carrying out that mission is in, doubt because none of the ' country’s naval vessels —including its three aging submarines—can operate in ice-infested waters.
Influence: Still, some analysts say that Canada may have more to fear from the United States in the area of sovereignty than from potential military adversaries. Indeed, a 1980 study of security in the North commissioned by the defence department’s operational research establishment declared that “the greatest threat to Canadian authority in the Arctic may well come from the
United States.” The document is one four studies, done between 1978 and 1983, obtained by Maclean's that analyse the powerful influence that U.S. military needs have had on Canada’s northern defence policy. The findings are not necessarily endorsed by the defence department, but the studies point to a need for the Canadian forces to establish a larger independent presence in the Arctic.
One of the studies concluded that virtually all major defence initiatives in the Canadian North since the Second World War were launched by the United States. They included the construction of the DEW Line in the 1950s and the formation in 1958 of the integrated North American Air Defence Command (NORAD). The study said that Canadian military priorities were frequently overshadowed by “the real fear that if Canada did not go along, her sovereign-
ty might be endangered by unilateral American actions on Canadian soil.” Clearly recognizing its inability to protect its northern region without American assistance, Canada has co-operated with its powerful ally by allowing the testing of cruise missiles and by entering into an agreement with the United States in March to pay $511 million of the cost of the joint North Warning System that will replace the DEW Line.
Still, Ottawa has taken some strategically important steps to assert its sovereignty in the Arctic. In April a team of 20 scientists from the department of energy, mines and resources established a research station on an ice island drifting in the Arctic
Ocean near Axel Heiberg Island. The three-by-six-mile island, which is expected to drift in the Arctic Ocean for at least a decade, will become Canada’s first semipermanant ice research station. From April until the island freezes into the icepack each September, the isolated community of as many as 25 scientists will map the ocean floor and attempt to determine the resource potential of Canada’s continental shelf.
But the Canadian effort is not original: American scientists operated two similar research islands in arctic waters from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s, and Soviet scientists have encamped on a series of 26 ice stations in international waters since 1936.
Resettled: Ultimately, federal lawyers say they hope that the continuous Inuvialuit and Inuit occupation of the Arctic will weigh heavily in Canada’s favor in any eventual court challenge of its control of arctic waters. Indeed, many arctic experts contend that during the 1950s the federal government resettled Inuit in the isolated High Arctic settlements of Resolute and Grise Fiord in order to reinforce Canadian sovereignty in the face of the heavy American military presence during construction of the northern radar net.
John Amagoalik, past president of the 27,000-member Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, an organization that promotes Inuit interests, was among those resettled. His family and about 70 others from the community of Inukjuak, on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, were moved in 1953 about 2,000 km northwest to Resolute, where Canadian and American forces maintained a weather station and airstrip. Amagoalik, who was five years old at the time, said that officials told his parents the isolated settlement in the centre of the Arctic archipelago offered better hunting and fishing than their Quebec homeland. It was not until later that they learned that a desire to reinforce Canadian sovereignty in the area was probably the government’s real motive. “I remember landing on the beach in late August or early September. It was snowing great big heavy snowflakes,” Amagoalik recalled. “Everything was grey. It was like landing on j the moon.”
After more than a decade of homesickness and suffering in the harsh climate, Amagoalik’s family returned to Northern Quebec at its own expense —another human casualty of the vast and forbidding hinterland that has for so long defied Canadians and their governments. And it is a region of swiftly growing strategic importance that may no longer permit the luxury of abandonment.