It's never been easy for Canada to talk about the Northwest Passage with the U.S. The passage was the holy grail for explorers from Cabot to Hudson and Franklin, whose discoveries helped define our northern nation. The Northwest Passage also constitutes Canada's most significant long-standing dispute with the U.S. It's a source of both pride and anxiety in our close but asymmetrical relationship.
Still, we've managed to talk before. In 1988, Brian Mulroney resolved the sovereignty challenge posed by U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers. In return for Ronald Reagan agreeing that such ships would request permission from Canada, Mulroney promised that permission would be routinely granted.
Our current prime minister, however, seems to have missed that lesson in pragmatic diplomacy.
In fact, during his very first press conference as prime minister back in January 2006, Stephen Harper took aim at then U.S. ambassador David Wilkins for having simply reiterated Washington's longstanding position — that the Northwest Passage is an international strait open to foreign shipping. "It is the Canadian people we get our mandate from," said Harper, "not the ambassador from the United States."
It was a potentially damaging rebuke, for just a few months earlier, Paul Cellucci, Wilkins's predecessor, had revealed that he had asked the U.S. State Department to re-examine Washington's position. Cellucci's concern was that terrorists might take advantage of ice-free conditions to enter North America or transport weapons of mass destruction via its largely unguarded northern coast.
Cellucci went so far as to suggest publicly that Canada's position — that the Northwest Passage constitutes "internal waters" where foreign vessels are subject to the full force of Canadian law — might now work for the U.S.
Five months later, in July 2007, Harper bluntly stated that "Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic. Either we use it or we lose it." The message to the international community was clear: Canada wasn't interesting in compromising its go-it-alone position.
But the scale of the challenges we face in the North changed dramatically in September 2007 when there was a massive retreat of Arctic sea ice and, for the first time, the entire Northwest Passage was open to shipping.
It now appears possible that the thick, hard multi-year ice that poses the greatest risk to ships will disappear forever within five to 10 years. The Northwest Passage will then resemble the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where ice-strengthened vessels and icebreaker-escorted convoys can operate safely throughout the year.
The prospect of increased shipping, of course, brings with it security and environmental risks like smuggling, terrorism and oil spills that often transcend boundaries. And the fact is that neither Canada nor the U.S. with its long Alaskan coastline is able to address these challenges adequately on its own.
It's time to negotiate the Northwest Passage dispute; to talk about the commitments — on access, policing and search-and-rescue — that the U.S. might wish from Canada, in return for recognizing our claim to this passage as "internal waters."
Time, Canada, to negotiate the Northwest Passage - Canada - CBC News