K. Joseph Spears

Since being elected on October 19, 2015, there has been a great interest in the future direction of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government and what tack would be taken with Canada’s future Arctic policy. There was criticism that there was no direction forthcoming in the first 100 days of the new government other than brief statements of instruction contained in the Ministerial mandate letters issues by the Prime Minister to his new ministers on the Arctic.

There is a unique opportunity with the new government to hit reset and get Canada’s Arctic policy in mesh with a warming Arctic.

Canada’s Arctic policy is becoming clear after the first state visit to Washington by a Canadian Prime Minister. On March 10, 2016 a statement were released after high level meetings between President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau that makes it clear that the United States and Canada are becoming aligned on Arctic issues, while some sticking points remain, such as the status of the Northwest Passage. In a joint statement, the shared vision between our two countries was expressed as follows:

“They emphasize and embrace the special relationship between the two countries and their history of close collaboration on energy development, environmental protection, and Arctic leadership.  The two leaders regard the Paris Agreement as a turning point in global efforts to combat climate change and anchor economic growth in clean development.  They resolve that the United States and Canada must and will play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades, including through science-based steps to protect the Arctic and its peoples. Canada and the U.S. will continue to respect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples in all climate change decision making.” See more at: http://pm.gc.ca/eng/news/2016/03/10/us-canada-joint-statement-climate-energy-and-arctic-leadership#sthash.FiUAjTWh.dpuf

The communique needs to be placed in the context of rapidly changing Arctic environmental conditions. A warming Arctic is changing the region in ways never imagined, with impacts of global climate change are being felt most rapidly in the Arctic and Canada’s North. This past February was the warmest on record and the extent of sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean Basin has been the lowest since records have been kept.

In addition, the volume of Arctic sea-ice is decreasing. Each year, climate records in the Arctic are being broken. It is impossible to predict the potential positive feedback loops caused by warming conditions and the impact of methane release in the region from melting permafrost and seabed hydrates. The Arctic is arguably the canary in the global coalmine. Canada is greatly impacted by these changes, and does not have the luxury of lingering. Canada needs to get its Arctic policy focussed and flexible in this time of rapid environmental change.

Some of the specifics of the communiqué dealing with shipping and commercial activities (broadly stated) include the following:

Low impact shipping corridors: We will work together to establish consistent policies for ships operating in the region, taking into account important ecological and cultural areas, vessel traffic patterns, Indigenous and Northern Arctic input, and increased cooperation of our Coast Guards. The two countries will also work together to share assessments of navigation data quality and capacities for supporting safe and low-impact shipping in the Beaufort Sea. In addition, we will determine with Arctic partners how best to address the risks posed by heavy fuel oil use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.

Abundant Arctic fish: The leaders call for a binding international agreement to prevent the opening of unregulated fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean to preserve living marine resources and promote scientific research in the region. Canada offers to host the next round of negotiations, to continue momentum and build on a precautionary, science-based principle to commercial fishing that both countries have put in place in their Arctic waters.

Science-based approach to oil and gas: If oil and gas development and exploration proceeds, activities must align with science-based standards between the two nations that ensure appropriate preparation for operating in Arctic conditions, including robust and effective well control and emergency response measures.

The commitments will require Canada to increase its scientific infrastructure and programs to build the necessary data set to analyze changes in the Arctic, as well as guide science-based governance.

Canada will need to work closely with the United States to develop the necessary marine infrastructure including the construction of expensive new icebreakers which form part of the National Shipbuilding Strategy. This may open the door to Canada and the United States cooperating on a joint construction program based on Canada’s Polar class icebreaker CCG John G. Diefenbaker. A collaborative approach would enable lower-cost icebreaker construction, as well as integrate oceanographic knowledge through shared data collection. While collaboration is not a new concept, it is now embodied in bilateral agreements and has the support of the senior leadership of the two countries. This bodes well for future scientific research and Arctic cooperation in many shared areas of interest and governance. It has done this successfully with North American air defense with NORAD for 50 years.

Canada’s mandate to its Foreign Affairs Minister, Stéphane Dion, did not set out any specific references to the Arctic. However, the joint statement released on March 10 provides an opportunity for Canada to once again lead at the international level on Arctic issues. As we move more away from the militarization issue and focus on sustainable commercial development (which is critically important for the people of the region), as well as potential onslaught of international marine traffic, Canada will have to invest significant resources for shipping infrastructure.

Independent of what Canada may think, the world is coming to the Arctic. We are seeing with respect to the planned voyage of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity that Canada can achieve a great deal of influence by engaging both bilaterally, through the Arctic Council and specialized organizations like the International Maritime Organization (IMO) which develop the Polar Code.

One long experienced Ottawa insider, Tom Axworthy, in a recent op-ed stated “Canada’s North could be Trudeau’s policy sweet spot”. He described how to reach that sweet spot through promoting a larger role for the Arctic Council to bring together thinking around climate change, science ocean governance, the emerging Arctic fisheries and sustainable development for the region, taking a collaborative approach of balancing commercial activities against the need to preserve and protect this pristine and sensitive environment and integrating indigenous peoples into decision making..

The recent review of the Canadian Transportation Act also described a variety of transportation infrastructure requirements for our Arctic and recommendations with respect to marine shipping and the Canadian Coast Guard.

The above issues will have to be considered within the context of Canada’s overall Arctic policies, and confirming these broad parameters and guidelines will show that the government of Canada is committed to the long-term sustainable development in the region as well as protecting the pristine and sensitive Arctic environment. As I noted in 2014 in an earlier article, “Canada needs to walk the walk. Canada needs new icebreakers, new fixed wing search and rescue aircraft, new rifles for its Canadian Rangers, vastly improved pollution countermeasures capability, increased communications and Arctic marine domain awareness, and more hydrographic surveying and charting. But more than anything, Canada needs a new perspective. Canada needs to look at these changing conditions as an opportunity,…..”

We now have a new perspective an opportunity to get this right. In the Arctic, getting anything done is based on personal relationships and limited infrastructure and financial assets. As Tom Axworthy stated in this recent opinion piece -”Canada will always be a bit foreign policy player in the Middle East. In the Arctic, Canada can be a major force.” As Canada moves forward in a warming planet and thawing Arctic ice, we are going to have to make use of all the relationships and goodwill we have to achieve a safe and environmentally friendly sustainable economy and safe shipping, both domestically and internationally. Prime Minister Trudeau breaking the ice in Washington, and the resulting cooperation will go a long way to ensuring Canada remains an Arctic nation at the forefront of Arctic governance and thinking. In the Arctic, Canada can and will become a major force and influence.

K. Joseph Spears is the principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and is involved in the development of various Arctic governance regimes and an regulation of shipping. Joe can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com