K. Joseph Spears

This past summer has seen the continued warming of the Arctic with a two-fold increase in average Arctic temperatures as compared to southern regions, contributing to a more intense climate impact, and decreasing sea ice concentrations. This has made ice conditions more unpredictable. The lack of sea ice cover in Canadian arctic waters saw the heavy lift ship Happy Rover transit the Northwest Passage this summer bound for the Great Lakes. It used the shorter route via Fury and Hecla Strait. Earlier in the year it had transited the Northern Sea Route over the top of Russia. Does Canada have the necessary marine infrastructure to handle increased marine activities?

In the past, Canada needed to sustain only limited commercial marine activity in its Arctic waters, and did not have the obligation to invest heavily in costly Arctic marine infrastructure. Today, however, as marine activity increases and the region’s economic development is seen to be a key governmental policy objective, the reality is changing. Canada’ federal government has stressed supporting sustainable development, which in the Arctic means supporting marine infrastructure, as there is no land-based infrastructure.

Presently, the Canadian Arctic has little maritime infrastructure by way of ports or designated mooring facilities. Community resupply is done over the beach using barges and lightering equipment to move containers and breakbulk cargoes to their final destination from offshore cargo vessels. For many years this community Sealift was managed by the Canadian Coast Guard but is now in private hands use a number of commercial shipping firms based in Montreal that specialize in this activity (NEAS and Groupe Desgagnés). Commercial vessels carry their own self-contained barge lightering system and in some cases small tugs to move the barges from the anchored vessels to shore. Community electrical power generation consists, for the most part, of operating diesel-powered generators which require fuel resupply, which is often done using floating hose arrangements from a marine tanker to the shore. In the western Arctic, fuel barges have been used for that purpose. Recent incidents have shown that this carries the risk of diesel fuel spills in local waters.

The state of affairs in Canada is in contrast to the situation in Greenland where all communities have dedicated port facilities and docks for unloading of commercial vessels. In addition, the infrastructure supports a robust fishing industry with processing plants. There are seven ports and a container line with regular service from Denmark, operated by Royal Arctic Line using five container ships and nine cargo vessels. Royal Arctic Line has an exclusive performance-based concession from the government of Greenland to provide this community resupply which is part of Greenland’s infrastructure. There is also a marine passenger ferry service operating between a number of select communities, as well as passenger air services like those in Canada.

Canada’s lack of Arctic marine infrastructure is a major impediment to future economic development, and inflates the cost of community resupply and the overall cost of living in the Arctic. The President of NEAS, Suzanne Paquin, had this to say about the gap: “The marine infrastructure deficit in Nunavut increases the cost of everything in Nunavut, from housing to new construction to everyday pricing of everyday products, there is no doubt about that.” Presently, cruiseship and expedition vessels must anchor offshore and bring passengers ashore using small vessels, because there are no docking facilities. It is a time-consuming and potentially dangerous operation if the weather turns bad. We will briefly examine some selected infrastructure.

Dempster Highway The government of Canada has taken steps to extend the road to the Arctic Ocean from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk at the mouth of the Mackenzie River. This 130 km all-weather gravel highway will be completed later next year, creating the only road access to the Arctic Ocean in Canada.

Port of Churchill Canada’s only Arctic port completed in 1929 has rail access through Manitoba, but has been shut down by its American owner, Omnitrax. The port provided tidewater access for various Canadian grain products through Hudson Bay and has important strategic significance. Its current status is unclear. Canada divested the port and rail line in 1997.

Northern Transportation Co. Limited, (NTCL), formally a Crown Corporation, provided fuel and breakbulk services through the western Arctic and the Mackenzie River, using shallow draught tugs and barges, has sought Creditor Protection and as of this writing, its marine (158 vessels) and non-marine assets are being sold off to satisfy $130 million bank debt. At one time during Beaufort oil expiration in the early 1980s, the Mackenzie River’s inland waterborne cargo was second only in volume to the Mississippi.

Iqaluit Port Development At present there is no port facility in this community, as a result of which cargo is moved through beach landings of cargoes using barges. Work is afoot to develop a port facility which would greatly decrease the time for unloading of community resupply vessels. Work is proposed to commence in 2018, with completion in 2020. The cost of this infrastructure is estimated at $70-$100 million.

Nanisivik Naval Facility In 2007, the previous government announced that the facility which was originally slated to be a year-round base was to be downgraded to a seasonal refuelling facility for the Canadian Navy and Coast Guard. The site of a former lead and zinc mine on Baffin Island at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, it is critically important to the future Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) of the Royal Canadian Navy which will require refuelling during operation in Arctic waters when they will eventually become operational. The Project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns because of technical problems. It is now scheduled to open in 2018.

Northern Marine Corridors Initiative The federal government is looking closely at defining and prioritizing marine transit routes through the Arctic in order to focus ongoing work on navigation aids. This is a collaborative approach between various government departments and the Canadian Hydrographic Service to bring charting in the Arctic up to modern standards. Today, less than ten per cent of the Canadian Arctic is charted to modern standards. The goal is to focus limited resources and budgets on resources that can have the greatest positive impact on marine safety.

Canadian Coast Guard Icebreakers- Canada has an aging icebreaker fleet that has been the subject of a great deal of public attention. The recent Review of the Canadian Transportation Act report that was tabled in Parliament earlier this year confirmed that Canada has one of the oldest coast guard fleets in the world, with an average vessel age of 34 years, and urged Canada to take steps replace its icebreaker fleet. The current National Shipbuilding strategy anticipates the delivery of one polar icebreaker about ten years from now to replace the CCG Louis St. Laurent, Canada’s only heavy-duty icebreaker which was built in 1966 and commissioned in 1969. Replacement of Canada’s medium-duty icebreaker fleet has not been the subject of any policy decision, although there have been calls from a variety of groups for Canada to charter and/or lease replacement icebreakers which are used in the Arctic region during the summer months. Davie Shipyards has proposed the conversion of container ships which have become surplus because of overbuilding, and are available cheaply. It goes without saying that icebreakers are critically important to navigation in Canada. For six months of the year, Canada has no icebreakers that can be used in the Arctic region, because such vessels are then used to keep southern shipping routes open.

Compared to other Arctic nations, Canada has a pressing need to invest in marine infrastructure. It has a very little marine infrastructure, and no major planned additions to infrastructure during the coming years. Marine infrastructure is expensive, but is the cornerstone for a variety of economic activities such as fishing, tourism, natural resource development and security and defence. The Northern Marine Corridors Initiative noted above is a small, but good example of the use of creativity to achieve more with less, which needs to be followed up by similar initiatives to put in place the infrastructure that is desperately needed.

The past ad hoc approach needs to change. A long term plan is required. There is presently no stated plan to increase search and rescue capability and capacity (a critical component of marine infrastructure), and is not mentioned in the Northern Marine Corridors Initiative. Canada played a key role in pushing for an International Arctic search and rescue Agreement at the Arctic Council . For example, more cruiseships are expected in the coming years with large numbers of passengers which will test Canada’s SAR capability. The same applies to the need for compulsory marine pilotage in Canadian arctic waters. Presently there is no requirement and no discussion on this issue.

We need to develop cost-effective funding models and strategic partnerships to make Arctic marine infrastructure a reality. Other Arctic nations have undertaken this work and as a G7 nation, we must find the resources to move forward on this critically important subject. For example, the provision of a cruiseship dock could pay large dividends for local economies. We need open discussion and dialogue on subject such as a transit/permit fee for certain marine services and escort vessels to help fund marine infrastructure. Canada does not have the luxury of time as commercial activity and increased and international marine traffic is coming to the Canadian Arctic. It is a matter of environmental and strategic importance to Canada as the Arctic Ocean basis continues to warm and global attention continues to remain focussed on the region. Like the 2016 Northwest Passage voyage of Happy Rover, there is heavy lifting ahead. Canada’s Arctic future depends on moving in a creative way on its pressing marine infrastructure gap. It is a key component of Canada’s arctic sovereignty, as well as an important component of our international credibility and international obligations.

Joe Spears is an ocean policy consultant with the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group in West Vancouver and has involved in Arctic resupply operations and field camps by fixed and rotary wing aircraft and vessels. He has been following arctic shipping issues since 1980. Joe can be reached at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com