By R. Bruce Striegler

Far from the thoughts of most Canadians lies the Arctic Ocean. Covering over 14 million square kilometres, it touches the shores of Russia, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland Canada and the United States (Alaska). It is connected to the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans through several straits and seasonal waterways including the Northwest Passage between the U.S. and Canada and the Northern Sea Route, between Norway and Russia.

The Arctic Ocean Basin is not far from the mind of K. Joseph Spears who wrote recently in Canadian Sailings on Canada’s potential as a shipbuilder of vessels designed for operations in the Arctic. Mr. Spears, the Vancouver-based Principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Consulting spoke at PortSecure 2012, presenting his views of Arctic security threats and future regulation in the area. “Rapidly changing conditions driven by global warming are beginning to impact international shipping, and hence will impact the global economy. We are seeing more and more commercial activity because of the thinning ice.” There are predictions the Arctic Ocean Basin will be ice free by 2017.

Arctic shipping is crucial to the delivery of supplies to Northern Canadian communities, to support oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic mining activity. The issue that grabs Canada’s attention is international marine traffic unconnected to activities that take place on Canadian territory, that could take advantage of the thinning ice to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Canadian patchwork of authority

Spears says, “At this conference we have heard a lot about perimeter security but, basically, the top of the continent is wide open. We have some work to do there, and we need to see the government putting effort into the Arctic.” He references an August 23, 2007 incident in which a Norwegian sailboat with links to organized crime landed in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a 1,500-person hamlet 200 kilometres North of the Arctic Circle. The boat had originally cleared Canada customs in Halifax, then left Canadian waters, sailed to Greenland, picked up a suspected affiliate of the Norwegian Hells Angels, and re-entered Canadian waters without reporting to Customs in nearby Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

In a similar story a year earlier, on September 18, a Romanian man linked to human smuggling and drug trafficking made his fourth attempt to enter Canada illegally – this time by sailing from Greenland to Grise Fiord, Nunavut. He was apprehended by local RCMP.

Most of Canada’s Arctic border lies in the territories of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, comprising 34 per cent of Canada’s land mass and less than one per cent of its population. Several federal departments and agencies share responsibility for protecting this remote coastline. The Department of National Defence coordinates military planning and response, and conducts sovereignty patrols.

Canada Border Services Agency has a mandate to monitor incoming persons and goods, while the Canadian Coast Guard handles Arctic search and rescue. The RCMP’s main role in the North is to deter activities that threaten border integrity or national security, and to ensure the legitimate use of inland waterways. However, the RCMP is the only federal law enforcement agency that is in every community in the North.

The last great frontier and the people who live there

For Joseph Spears, “A time of change can provide great opportunities. What we do in Canada as a nation is often improvised.” Spears has worked with the 2nd Ranger Patrol Group based in Nunavik. The Canadian Rangers are a component of the Canadian Forces Reserve providing a military presence in Canada’s North. Although Canada signed an international search and rescue agreement – the first international agreement set out by the Arctic Council, Spears thinks it is a practical step to fully engage the Inuit to provide a Canadian security presence in the North.

The Canadian Rangers are a volunteer force consisting of knowledgeable members of the Army reflecting the diversity of the communities they belong to. Many Canadian Rangers are aboriginal and there are a total of 23 different languages spoken. They play a role in advancing public recognition of Canada’s Inuit, First Nations and Métis.

A land with little infrastructure

Spears says, “It’s great to say these words, but you not only have to talk the talk, you need to do the dance. I think we have a tremendous opportunity in the coming year to embrace that.” He points to Polar Epsilon, a Canadian Forces project which is intended to provide enhanced all-weather day and night surveillance capabilities using imagery from the RADARSAT-2 earth observation satellite.

There is little marine infrastructure in the Arctic, with the number of Artic ports limited to a handful. Gaps exist in hydrographical data for significant parts of shipping routes, meteorological and oceanographic data is minimal, and there are serious limitations to radio and satellite communications. There are few systems to monitor and control the movements of ships in this territory. Except for a few areas, there is a lack of emergency-response capacity for saving lives and for pollution mitigation.

RADARSAT-2 information is used in many ways, including surveillance of Canada’s Arctic region and maritime approaches, the detection of vessels, and support to Canadian Forces operations globally. Polar Epsilon is to include three additional satellites, forming the RADARSAT Constellation scheduled for launch in 2014-15. Spears says the project is bogged down in the procurement process. “We need to get it up and running, not only for our own purposes, but also for other countries.”

Arctic Council an international forum

The Arctic Council is an organization that few Canadians are likely to be familiar with. Formed in 1996, it has a membership of eight Arctic states and permanent participation of over six international regional indigenous peoples. The eight states include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the U.S., providing a high-level intergovernmental forum for cooperation and coordination with Arctic indigenous people on Arctic issues, specifically sustainable development and environmental protection.

The Chairmanship of the Council rotates every two years, and Canada will take the helm in 2013, replacing Sweden. Joseph Spears says “Canada as a nation must have a clear strategy and policy. There are enormous economic opportunities including equipment sales, services, training. We can become a truly Arctic nation.”

On May 29, 2012 the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program – a partnership between the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation – presented 19 recommendations to the government as it prepares to take the chair in 2013. The proposals flow from a two-day meeting in Toronto last January involving more than 100 stakeholders from 15 countries, including Northern indigenous leaders and six foreign ambassadors.

The January conference recognized how critical it was that voices of those who actually live in the North be heard by decision-makers, and recommended that the expertise of Northern state, territorial and regional governments should be more fully utilized by the Arctic Council.

The paper says the need for continued work on effective international cooperation agreements on air and sea search and rescue was underlined by two fatal air accidents in Northern Canada and a deadly fire on board a Norwegian cruise ship. An unprecedented agreement in this field was signed last year in Greenland and will be followed shortly by another on maritime oil spill preparedness and response.

The competition for Arctic presence

Spears fears that, without a cohesive strategy and the capabilities to enact it, other countries will move swiftly to fill the vacuum. “China has taken an inordinate interest in the Arctic; it is seeking observer status at the Arctic Council, a step up from its current ad hoc status. China currently has the largest nuclear-powered icebreaker in the world, and is building a new $300 million icebreaker.”

For the Chinese, there’s another potential in what is known as the trans-polar route, across the top of the Arctic Ocean. Spears says, “The Premier of China was recently in Iceland, and Chinese investment has ramped up there including land purchases. It has created controversy, but the fact that China has indicated so much interest in a country of 300,000 people says something. The incentive is most likely connected to the U.S. Geological Survey study showing 25 per cent of the world’s oil and gas reserves are located in the Arctic.”

He says that Russia has a keen interest in developing a new sea route across the top of Siberia that could save thousands of kilometres compared to current East-West routes. They are developing bases, developing a whole new infrastructure and moving to nuclear-powered icebreakers. Pausing, he says, “The reality may be that with no ice in the Arctic, we’re not going to need the icebreakers, but no ice means that there are hazards to navigation, which could change the whole perspective.”

Spears says, “I think the developments coming along could change world trade dynamics and potentially change the port of Vancouver. It’s possible we will see a lot more transshipment from here across the Arctic. It’s a moving target and it’s moving quickly. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring an opportunity like this that comes on the radar screen once in 30 years and then disappears. This one is going to be on the screen for a long time.”