By Brian Dunn

One of Canada’s biggest “national weaknesses” is how little is being done in the Arctic, according to a leading Arctic specialist. In fact, The Canadian Arctic is the least developed part of the Arctic, whereas Russia is a superpower in the region, said John Higginbotham, Senior Distinguished Fellow, Carleton University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “We are now seeing a kind of Putin Master Plan with free access to oceans due to melting ice and large scale state investments,” he said during a presentation at the third annual Cargo Logistics Canada Expo and Conference in Montreal on February 19, entitled Exploring Arctic Corridors.

Alaska has a population of 750,000 compared to 250,000 in Canada’s three territories with Nunavut being the least developed territory. It has promising mineral wealth but a weak government and small communities spread thinly throughout the territory, noted Mr. Higginbotham.

“Exploration of the Canadian north stopped with the opening of the Suez Canal. The S.S. Manhattan traversed the Northwest Passage in 1969, but it got stuck in ice. That’s why the Alaskan Pipeline was built. But shipping in the north is being revived with melting sea ice, particularly since 1979 when eight million square kilometres of sea ice has been reduced to less than six million square kilometres and ice density has also declined,” said Mr. Higginbotham. “Canada has claimed sub-soil resources beyond the 200-mile sovereignty limit of each country, but it should have a 20-year infrastructure development plan for the Arctic if it doesn’t want to remain a minor player. And its system of navigation for Polar traffic is not as advanced as that of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

The cruise ship Crystal Serenity with 900 passengers aboard plans to traverse the Northwest Passage later this year, pointing to the long-term future of Arctic cruising that could benefit some northern communities, remarked Mr. Higginbotham. In addition, Russia is building ten LNG vessels in South Korea to transport liquefied natural gas to Asia in the summer and European markets in the winter via the Northern Sea Route. Overall, however, traffic on the route is drying up due to higher insurance rates and hostilities towards Russia.

“The Northwest Passage is the quickest route between Northwest Asia and the North American East Coast and there is cooperation on the route between Canada and the U.S.”

In fact, by 2040, more patrol coastal ships and tanker class ships will transit the Arctic Ocean via the Northwest Passage than either the Northern Sea Route or Transpolar Sea Route than runs between the two, due to melting sea ice, according to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

In September, 2013, the first Cosco container ship travelled from Dalian, China, to Rotterdam in 35 days via the Northern Sea Route, shaving 13 days off the traditional Suez Canal route. The major drawback, apart from icebergs, is the Northern Route is only open from July to November which may be extended as the sea ice melts, suggested Mr. Higginbotham.

Cargo in transit and cargo traffic to and from Russian ports using the Northern Sea Route is expected to increase from 5.1 million tons last year to 88 million tons by 2030, according to the Russian Ministry of Transport.

Ottawa has recognized the changing landscape of the north. On Dec. 21, the 2014-2015 Canada Transportation Act Review was submitted to the Minister of Transport. Issue 7 in the Review mandate is considering “how to address rapid changes in the north and associated challenges for the continued safety, security and sustainability of the northern transportation system and specifically, the federal role in supporting the northern transportation system.”

The new Liberal government is honouring a promise made by the Conservatives last July of providing funding for the Iqaluit Marine Infrastructure Project which will include a small craft harbour and a potential base for military and search and rescue operations in Iqaluit. At the time, the federal funding was pegged at $63.7 million of the total $85.5 million price tag. A spokesperson for Infrastructure Canada said “we are working with the Nunavut government on the terms of the contribution agreement.”