Canada isn’t paying proper attention to developments in Arctic

The bad news is that Canada’s Arctic is melting.   The loss of habitat will spell doom to a Canadian icon, the polar bear.  The good news is that Canada’s Arctic is melting and the dream of a Northwest passage will soon be realized.


Not that most Canadians would know. Canada’s Arctic rarely appears in the consciousness of southern Canadians except as a frozen apparition.

The Northwest passage was very much on the minds of European explorers.  They were trying to find a way around the barrier of the Americas that stretched almost from north to south pole.   The fascination  with Canada’s Arctic was what lay beyond – – the riches of the orient.

Some things have changed since the early explorers but North and South America are still a formidable barrier to world shipping.   Even with a hole punched in the middle of the Americans,  the Panama Canal provides only slight relief.

The Northwest passage is the shortest distance between Europe and Japan, and all the countries of the northern Pacific rim.   And even in cases where the Panama Canal is the shorter, the Northwest passage allows ships twice the size.

The Northwest passage is also shorter than the Suez Canal in many cases.  For example, a ship traveling from London to Yokohama, Japan, through Canada’s north would travel 4800 nautical miles less than through the Suez Canal, according to the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.

Last winter the Bering Sea was effectively ice-free, which is unprecedented, and if this big melt continues the formerly ice-locked Arctic could have open sea lanes as soon as 2015.  By 2050, the summertime ice cap could disappear entirely.

“Although recent terrorist events keep our minds occupied elsewhere in the world, what a navigable Arctic means for our national security is significant,” says Dr. Dennis Conlon, Program Manager for Arctic Science at the Office of Naval Research. “Geographical boundaries, politics, and commerce changes would all become issues.”

Consciously and physically, we hardly know that our Arctic exists.  No Canadian radar watches our northern skies and no Canadian coast guard patrols its waters.  We don’t even have a plan for development or policing the Arctic, let alone protect it from environment disasters such as oil spills.

Unless they tell us, we don’t even know when foreign ships are traveling through our sovereign waters.   Even when they do tell us, we are often surprised.  In 1999, the Chinese told  Canadian embassy in Beijing that a research vessel was going to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

The visit was a big surprise to local Canadian officials who were not told, and only learned of the Chinese vessel as it sailed into Tuktoyaktuk. The incident would have been a big embarrassment for Canadians if they had been paying enough attention to know.

A foreign tanker could go to Canada’s Prince Patrick island and load up with fresh water and we would be blissfully ignorant.  Water pirates are not the only problem, says Pierre Leblanc, executive for a diamond mining company in Canada’s north.  “Diamond mining has a history of attracting organized crime,” he says.

The nations of the northern hemisphere – – U.S., Japan, China, Russia and Europe – –  are watching with keen interest as the Arctic barriers to international trade melt away.  Most, except Canada.  In typical fashion, we will wait for others to validate our riches so we can believe in them.

Northern countries could rightfully challenge Canada’s right of sovereignty in these hinter lands that we care so little about.   While we promise to stand on guard for the “True North, strong and free,” we have been reluctant to display a real commitment to the region.


*   *   *


In response to my last column, T. Bruce McNeely says in his letter to the editor (Charbonneau Logic Seriously Flawed, The Daily News, Sept.7) that I “hint at a conspiracy.” He’s referring the financial gain of U.S. president George W. Bush’s family from the promotion of war.

No conspiracy theory is required – – it’s a matter of public record.  The elder George Bush’s employment with the arms manufacturer Carlyle Group can be found in articles such as this one in the New York Times:

When Bush goes hunting Arabs, he does so with weapons made by his father’s employer.  It’s a clear conflict of interest, a serious lack of ethical judgment.   It’s the kind of business practice that president Bush condemns when he preaches to the crooks of Enron and WorldCom.

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