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Water Today Title November 24, 2017

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Updated 12/8/13

Canada's North Pole claim, a grandstanding paper tiger

As expected, the Harper government has submitted Canada's claims to the Arctic seabed; extending beyond the 200 nautical mile limit as far as the North Pole. Doing this represents a challenge to Russia and Denmark, whose own claims overlap with ours. While many Canadians will applaud this assertion of Canadian sovereignty, unfortunately we are upping the stakes in a game where our hand is very weak. Throughout this government's term in office, press releases and photo opportunities have been used to give an appearance of action, while the scientific, military and economic reality has seen nothing but cutbacks in capability and delays in planning.

New reports during the last week have made it clear that our Arctic claim is political rather than scientific. The government has overruled its own scientists by increasing the area of seabed which they had considered to be Canadian by following internationally-recognized criteria. Our rivals know this; our claims will be treated with scepticism by them and by independent arbitrators. This will weaken our whole claim, and not just the most disputed areas. It is quite possible that our eventual area of jurisdiction will be smaller than would otherwise have been the case.

Of course, as Jason Kenney said in the House of Commons last week, boundaries are not all about science. Politics are also likely to be involved, and practical politics will be very dependent on Canada's ability to enforce any form of control over any areas that we claim. Our current ability to enforce any claims at the North Pole is precisely zero, and this is not going to improve at any time in the foreseeable future.

One Canadian icebreaker has been to the North Pole, the Louis St. Laurent. She made this voyage jointly with a more powerful US icebreaker, and trying the trip alone would have been very risky. The Louis will remain Canada's only heavy icebreaker until she dies of old age - the ship is already well over 40 years old, and increasingly unreliable. Her replacement by the much-announced John G. Diefenbaker has been officially postponed but in reality cancelled. The Coast Guard's project team is being disbanded and its members assigned to other duties. No other Coast Guard icebreakers figure anywhere in the potential future projects that have been announced under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, which now stretches out towards mid-century.

The Harper government's other great Arctic sovereignty initiative, the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS), was never intended to be a high Arctic icebreaker. Many commentators have poured scorn on its notional capabilities, and on its extraordinarily high projected costs. The reality of this project is that it is also many years behind schedule. Most optimistically, the first ship may start construction in 2015 and enter service by the end of the decade. Once an actual bill is presented to the government the project may or may not survive; but it is most unlikely to stay on track.

AOPS is intended to operate out of the Nanisivik Naval Facility, another regularly announced pillar of Canada's Arctic sovereignty strategy. With each announcement the facility has been postponed and become smaller. The budget for this so-called naval base is roughly the same as the advertising costs for Canada's famous Economic Action Plan.

Of course, if the Navy and Coast Guard can do little or nothing we can always rely on the Royal Canadian Air Force – or not. One of the criticisms of the F-35 is that its range, single engine and communications technology make it less suited for Arctic operations than the CF-18. The fixed-wing Search and Rescue aircraft project is another of the Department of National Defence's many procurement fiascos; and Canada has a declining capability to make any form of intervention in the far North.

Meanwhile, other countries are taking concrete measures to increase their Arctic capabilities and presence. Russia is building a fleet of new nuclear icebreakers, the least powerful of which will have three times the horsepower of the Louis. Russia is also building new military and civilian infrastructure along the length of its Arctic coastline, and taking measures to control and benefit from the increasing traffic along the Northern Sea Route. Denmark is planning to add to its ice-class patrol vessel fleet, and to upgrade the capabilities of its existing ships.

The situation in the US is rather more like the Canadian position, with lots of talk but rather less concrete action. However, the new US Arctic defence policy makes it quite clear that the US intends to maintain its challenge to Canada's claims over even the waters within our current 200 mile limits. The US is in the planning stages for up to four new heavy icebreakers, and of course the US and Russia routinely operate nuclear submarines under our proudly Canadian ice.

The Arctic is supposed to be important to Stephen Harper and his government. It has certainly been used to generate a huge amount of favourable publicity for “strategies”, “initiatives”, “policies”, and so forth. But all of this is just exploiting Canadians sentiments. By relying entirely on words rather than concrete actions we are running a real risk of damaging not just our reputation but also our long-term national interests.

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