By Mark Cardwell

Is Canada missing the boat when it comes to the development of a potentially lucrative international trade route through Arctic waters? It all depends on who you ask. If it’s Michael Byers, the answer is an emphatic yes.

A professor at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, Byers believes Canada is lagging far behind Russia, which has issued a record 204 licenses for commercial transits through its Northern Sea Route in 2013. Some 50 vessels are expected to actually make the trip through the Arctic waterway this sailing season. By comparison, the first-ever commercial vessel travelled through Canada’s Northwest Passage last month.

“Canada is not doing the things Russia is,” said Byers, author of International Law and the Arctic, recently published by Cambridge University Press. “The contrasts are very stark.” A big one, says Byers, is Russia’s century-old interest and efforts to develop a northern sea route for military and economic purposes. And the advent of climate change and the increase in seasonally open water, he added, have finally provided the Russians with an opportunity to do just that. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made the development of Russia’s Arctic region one of his government’s highest priorities,” said Byers. “They are spending 20 per cent of their GDP in the region [and] are putting billions into the Northern Sea Route. The investments are dramatic.”

Some concrete examples, he noted, include the recent launch of the world’s most powerful icebreaker, the building of ten new search and rescue stations (each with its own aircraft and ships), and the renovation of 16 deepwater ports along Russia’s vast northern coastline. Russia also recently set up the Centre for High North Logistics, which notably owns and operates the Northern Sea Route Information Office (NSRIO) (

Founded in 2011 as a joint venture with Russia’s Rosatomflot, which has four nuclear icebreakers and provides ice pilotage and SAR services, and the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, which funds and promotes Russian-Norwegian cooperation projects, NSRIO provides planning assistance and issues permits for the Northern Sea Route. “The purpose of the Route (is) to provide an alternative to the Suez and Panama Canals,” reads an email sent to Canadian Sailings by the Russian embassy in Ottawa. “It is the shortest route between the ports of Western Europe, Russia, the Far East and South-East Asia.” According to the email, the distance travelled by vessels between Murmansk and Yokohama via the Suez Canal is nearly 21,000 kms, while the same trip via the Northern Sea Route is less than 10,000 kms. Similarly, a trip from Murmansk to Vancouver via the Panama Canal is 15,500 kms, and only 8,600 kms via the Northern Sea Route. “It is projected,” it added, “that the Northern Sea Route could attract a quarter of commercial shipping between Europe and Asia by 2030.”

Despite the possibility of offering significant cost-saving shortcuts on shipping between, say, Shanghai and New York City through the Northwest Passage, Byers says Canada has done little to develop the potential of that route. “Despite all the announcements made by the Harper government since 2007 – plans to build surveillance ships, polar ice breakers, a deep water port on Baffin Island – there has been no construction of any of these things, zero,” said Byers. He noted that Canada has no port on the Northwest Passage, SAR services are based in southern regions, and only a fraction of Canada’s Arctic waters have been charted according to modern standards. Without proper navigation aids and ready-at-hand emergency services, Byers said allowing ships through the Northwest Passage is like playing Russian roulette with both the environment and people’s lives.

Though he downplayed the potential fallout of last month’s passage by the Danish bulk carrier Nordic Orion on Canada’s claims of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, Byers said the federal government needs to move quickly to build the infrastructure that will allow it be seen and considered as “a reliable and responsible coastal state.”

For her part, Transport Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette said in an email that the federal government is “enforcing our existing regulatory regime and monitors vessels for compliance with our regulations under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 and the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (to) confirm they are fit to operate safely in our waters.”

Transport Canada, she added, will review current Canadian Arctic shipping regulatory regime “to ensure it supports Northern development and environmental protection objectives.” Durette said the federal government is also taking initiatives with the provinces and territories “to monitor and prepare for the expected changes in shipping in the Arctic.” Those actions include a risk assessment of oil and other hazardous spills in the Arctic and a review of marine pollution preparedness and response by the independent Tanker Safety Expert Panel.

“On the international front,” added Durette, “Canada (currently) holds the chairmanship of the Arctic Council (with) a focus on responsible Arctic resource development, safe Arctic shipping and sustainable circumpolar communities.” She said Canada is also working with the International Maritime Organization to prepare and adapt to the increase in ship traffic in our Arctic region. “One example,” wrote Durette, “is the development of a mandatory Polar Code for ships. Canada is participating in this exercise to create advantages for the marine industry by developing a more robust and predictable global framework for polar operations and to enhance overall safety and environmental protection in international waters.”

Canada’s cautious approach to the development of Arctic shipping in general and the Northwest Passage sea route in particular gets a nod of approval from one eminent source: the owner of the only shipping company in the world that has sailed both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. “Russia’s Arctic waters are easier to sail because there are not as many islands and the coastline is straighter and is more charted,” said Christian Bonfils, Managing Director and one of two partners in Nordic Bulk Carriers, the Danish company that owns Nordic Orion. “But the Arctic is a dangerous and tricky place to navigate in. So I like better the Canadian approach, which is to go slow and steady, and develop their northern waterways with the environment and safety and the future in mind.”