The cold truth

Why Harper’s tough talk on Arctic sovereignty is empty

The cold truthIf you’re going to defend Canada’s sovereignty in the High Arctic it is almost always a good idea to do it in the summer, and not to aim too high. Even then there are no guarantees. It’s a tricky business.

Earlier this month I sat in a briefing room in Iqaluit while an assortment of Canadian navy officers explained some last-minute amendments to Operation Nanook ’09. Every summer, Op Nanook is the Forces’ premier Arctic exercise. Every summer it has more moving parts and tackles more ambitious goals. Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes this Arctic business very seriously. He has personally gone up north every summer since he was elected in 2006. He likes to say that in the quest to protect Canada’s North against various foreign marauders, the guiding principle should be “use it or lose it.” This year Op Nanook would use Canadian Forces soldiers, sailors and pilots; the Canadian Coast Guard; more than a dozen civilian ministries of the federal government; the entire federal cabinet, flown to Iqaluit for a cabinet meeting fuelled with fresh seal meat; and bewildering numbers of civilian and military public relations specialists, the better to orchestrate the Prime Minister’s assorted photo opportunities.

And it would have gone off without a hitch if it hadn’t been for the ice.

“Weather and ice has played havoc with my original intent to land the force by air and sea at BAF-3, the Northern Warning Site 120 nautical miles from Iqaluit to the northeast,” an email from Brig.-Gen. David Millar, the commander of Joint Task Force (North), informed me the day before I flew to Iqaluit.

Here’s what that meant. Military exercises are built around little scenarios. There’s an element of play-acting involved. In Op Nanook ’09 a navy frigate, HMCS Toronto, and a coast guard icebreaker, the Radisson, were to motor out of Iqaluit Bay and around the nose of Baffin Island to Brevoort Island where, they were to imagine, aerial surveillance had spotted an unmanned drone aircraft going down. Whose drone was it? Where did it land? A few dozen soldiers from an Arctic reserve company group were to land and poke around until they found the “drone” (“It’s made out of crutches, with duct tape,” one of the briefers admitted).

The point of it all was to show the world Canada’s military can work anywhere on our territory. The other point was to get better at what Millar called “tactical-integrated effect,” in which all three military services would work together and with civilians to accomplish a task.

The problem was that when the Toronto and the Radisson went out to Brevoort Island a few days early to look around, they found the waters of Davis Strait were thick with ice.

“It was bergy bits and growlers,” one sailor said: chunks of ice no bigger than a house, scrawny in iceberg circles but more than enough to end the single-hulled Toronto’s day in a hurry if things went awry. There’s just no way to predict the weather up here. “Even though we’ve got very talented met techs [meteorological technicians, or weathermen],” the sailor said, “it comes down to chicken bones and tea leaves at some point.”

Fortunately, the imagination of the Forces’ scenario planners is up to any task. Millar decided another mysterious drone had landed at Apex, a few minutes’ hike from downtown Iqaluit. The Toronto and the Radisson would go back to Iqaluit, weigh anchor, chug down Frobisher Bay for a day, turn right around and go back where they came from.

Which is precisely what happened, two days later. The reservists rose at dawn and rode in motorboats over ice-free water as smooth as marble to a beach at high tide a few paces from Iqaluit’s old Hudson’s Bay outpost. I was already onshore, watching with some officers and colleagues from an observation tent with a well-stocked snack tray.

The plan is for Op Nanook to drive further north every summer, in conditions that will be, in the jargon, successively more “austere.” Lancaster Sound in 2010. Isachsen in 2011. Alert, 2,092 km north of Iqaluit, in 2012.

I don’t want to make too much of the contrast between Op Nanook’s ambitions and its accomplishments to date. The Toronto is a fast, powerful frigate, and in two days aboard her I was pleased to meet her dedicated, fearsomely competent crew. Alex Grant, the Toronto’s commander, insists that if this had been a real emergency instead of an exercise, Belvoort Island would not have been beyond reach.

But still. For a navy that was given serious pause by bergy bits and growlers in 2009, getting to Alert in 2012 is an ambitious agenda. Another part of it has already drawn critical attention: the carefully chosen timing. “You have to move beyond being able to go up there in August,” Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, told the Financial Times. One step at a time.

Why even bother? The Harper government makes a forceful, and superficially compelling, case for its extraordinary efforts in Canada’s North. First, it argues the Arctic’s days as a sleepy region where little happened are gone for good. There is vast treasure to be had in the North. Our neighbours—American, Danish, Russian—have noticed the same thing. And in the inevitable conflicts to come, Canada will have to demonstrate that our governments, our civilian agencies and our military can function up there.

Certainly there’s ample evidence the resource wealth in the North is astronomical. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the area north of the Arctic Circle has about 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil. The resource wealth doesn’t stop there. From nickel in northern Quebec to iron in Labrador, to a trove of diamonds that has made the Northwest Territories the world’s third-largest source of diamonds in just the last decade, the barren land and frigid water of the Arctic could potentially be the venue for a resource rush dozens of times larger than the Klondike of old. Perhaps $20 trillion, by some estimates. Fifteen times the size of Canada’s entire economy.

And, the thinking goes, it’s getting easier to get around up there, because the earth is warming. The Arctic really started to become a hot topic—it gets hard to avoid lousy puns around here—in 2004, when the Arctic Council released the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which declared that annual average Arctic temperatures have increased almost twice as rapidly as temperatures in the rest of the world in recent decades. That means less sea ice, a longer navigation season, increased sea traffic and, perhaps, increased offshore oil and gas extraction.

So if it’s going to be easier to get around and more rewarding to try, what’s the guarantee that everyone will respect one another’s territory? There’s the source of Canada’s sovereignty concerns. And it goes right back to the early days of the Arctic as a resource bonanza. In 1968 a huge oil deposit was developed on the Alaska North Slope, leaving oil companies to decide whether to bring the crude south through a pipeline or by ship. Humble Oil sent the Manhattan, an immense tanker, for a test run through the Northwest Passage.

Here’s the rub. The United States regards the Northwest Passage as international water because it connects open sea to the west and east and is open to ship traffic. Canada regards the passage as an internal waterway. The U.S. refused to seek permission from Canada for the Manhattan’s voyage.

Rob Huebert explains what happened next in his contribution to Northern Exposure: Peoples, Powers and Prospects in Canada’s North, a valuable new collection of essays on Arctic policy from the Institute for Research on Public Policy: Canada granted permission the Americans hadn’t requested and sent a coast guard icebreaker to escort the Manhattan. Good thing, too. The Manhattan ended up needing the help.

Ever since then, the U.S., the European Union and to some extent Japan have refused to recognize Canada’s claim to regulate shipping in the Northwest Passage.

There are other areas of dispute, too. “The fact that there are so many is troubling,” Huebert writes. But then he lists them and they don’t sound so troubling. Nor, indeed, are the grey zones of Canadian sovereignty notably more numerous than those that face our Arctic neighbours, the United States, Russia and Denmark/Greenland, in a part of the world that has long been untracked and sparsely populated.

Everyone has heard of Hans Island, the rock in the strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, which both Canada and Denmark claim. But as Huebert admits, Hans Island is essentially worthless, both as a resource base and for its influence (zero) on the maritime boundary between the two countries. And that’s the only land dispute Canada has with any other country in the North.

What else? There’s a sliver of the Beaufort Sea off Alaska where Canada and the U.S. would draw the maritime border differently. There is indeed oil up there. But even in a warmer climate, the brutal conditions may make getting the oil “economically unfeasible,” Huebert writes. Indeed, many of the dreams of vast resource wealth in the North seem premature precisely because they’re so remote and difficult to ship or pipe back south. Wood Mackenzie, a Scottish consulting firm, retreated in late 2006 from its earlier euphoria over the scale of Arctic resource opportunity and announced that only modest windfalls could be expected, and not for decades to come. “This assessment basically calls into question the long-considered view that the Arctic represents one of the last great oil and gas frontiers,” Andrew Latham, a Wood Mackenzie executive, said.

Our list of sovereignty threats also includes the lingering suspicion that fishing boats from Greenland and the Faeroe Islands are engaged in illegal fishing for shrimp and turbot off Baffin Island. That’s a real economic and environmental problem, but the annual escapades of Operation Nanook have vanishingly little to do with it.

The only real, enduring, nagging, large-scale sovereignty concern in Canada’s quiver is over who gets to go through the Northwest Passage. And that’s the only dispute concerning the Northwest Passage. Huebert writes: “The issue of sovereignty in the passage concerns only the regulatory regime governing international shipping. Canada has a sovereign right over all living and non-living resources in the subsoil (for example, oil and gas) and the water column (fish) up to 200 miles from its coastline.”

In the same volume, Franklyn Griffiths, one of the elder statesmen of Canadian Arctic policy, writes: “We do not merely claim but have unquestioned possession of the islands, waters, seabed and subsoil of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.” Of Harper’s “use it or lose it” slogan, Griffiths writes: “The premise is misguided. The slogan should be stricken from our vocabulary. Canadians should know that they have not been, and continue not to be, informed of the realities by a succession of federal governments only too pleased to talk the talk of an imperilled Arctic sovereignty.”

That’s Harper’s tune. Some of the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on these issues has been breathtaking. And reckless. And none too bright. “The single most important duty of the federal government is to defend and protect our national sovereignty,” Harper said during the 2006 election campaign. So far, so good.

Then: “And now there are new and disturbing reports of American nuclear submarines passing through Canadian waters without obtaining the permission of—or even notifying—the Canadian government. It’s time to act to defend Canadian sovereignty.” Oh? How? “A Conservative government will make the military investments needed to secure our borders. As Prime Minister, I will make it plain to foreign governments—including the United States—that naval vessels travelling in Canadian waters will require the consent of the government of Canada.”

This is all very lusty stuff, and indeed Op Nanook this summer featured the Toronto and a Canadian sub engaged in a capacity-building game of cat and mouse at sea, after I debarked from the frigate. But Griffiths is rude enough to ask a delicate question: what happens if Canada ever detects an American sub sneaking around in waters we claim as our own—such as the Northwest Passage?

There is, to say the least, no guarantee that a court challenge would go our way, no matter how much chest-thumping we ask our soldiers and sailors to do. Huebert writes that the definition of an international strait was fixed by the International Court of Justice 60 years ago. And “even if Canada does make a tremendous effort to bolster its surveillance and enforcement capability in the Arctic, there is still no guarantee that it would win such a challenge.”

Griffiths says a court challenge would amount to “taking ourselves to court,” with the attendant implication that we could well lose. “Nor would we confine ourselves to public protest,” he writes, because “in advertising unauthorized naval activity, we would help to establish an international practice that contravened our claim.” So we can’t sue, and we can’t howl because it would amount to announcing we don’t dare sue. Which leaves, one supposes, a third option: the Canadian navy could try to scuttle a U.S. nuclear sub. Do we actually need to say out loud how insane that would be?

So to sum up: despite spending serious money to bulk up Canada’s military and civilian resources in the North, our ability to reliably project power will remain limited. The zones of international conflict are also limited, in geographic size and in the likely real-world payoff for any player, Canadian or foreign, who hopes to strike it rich there. And most important, our legal claim to be able to tell anybody else what to do in the Northwest Passage is slender at best.

What to do, then? Griffiths and Huebert suggest Canada needs to get back in the habit of co-operating with our northern neighbours instead of chest-beating. A well-regulated Northwest Passage is in American interests too, Griffiths argues, because the Obama administration won’t want terrorists or rogue states sending anything nasty through the Arctic Ocean. While “agreeing to disagree” on the fundamental question of the Northwest Passage’s legal status, Canada and the United States could work together for mutual benefit. Probably it will help if Harper stops threatening to scuttle the U.S. sub fleet.

And just in general, a lot of what the Harper government is doing in the North is beneficial. Op Nanook teaches soldiers and civilian agencies to pool resources and expertise and to improvise creatively under pressure, which can only be to the good in any future environmental disaster or search-and-rescue crisis. Harper has belatedly turned his attention to another fundamental challenge, programs that could enhance the quality of life for the Inuit and other Arctic residents. There is nothing wrong with more concerted government activity in the North.

All that’s wrong is the justification, the false fears and hopes it engenders. At the top of the world, just like anywhere else, we deserve more straight talk from our leaders.

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