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July 22, 2024

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Update 2020/5/21


By Suzanne Forcese

“There’s enormous economic development potential in the Arctic and I would argue that because of the climate dynamic, that because the ice is melting in a different and slower way in the Canadian Arctic than elsewhere and because we have time to make sure that we do this right and we do it sustainably. But we can only do that if we start paying attention to the Arctic and we’re not doing that right now.”

- Dr. Jackie Dawson, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa

According to a report represented by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, “The Canadian Arctic has the largest ocean area in the country. Canada’s Arctic Ocean area would cover 41% of Canada’s land area. The many islands and long coastlines are areas where sea ice can freeze securely to the land, an environment integral to Inuit survival and culture. No other polar region has as much of this type of land-attached ice.”

The problem is the ice is melting at more three times the rate of the global average. Some scientists are predicting that by 2040, the Arctic Ocean will be almost completely ice-free during the summer.

Climate change is now intersecting with the global appetite for untapped natural resources and the growing traffic through the Northwest Passage; a situation that is testing Canada’s safety, security, and challenging Northern Indigenous communities.

WaterToday had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Jackie Dawson, Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa.

“We have to realize we are locked into the reality of climate change,” Dr. Dawson said. Dawson is also Principal Investigator for Arctic Corridors Research, a team of academics, community researchers, practitioners, and students. “We really need to focus on governance and policy to get ahead.”

Sea ice-- or lack of it-- is completely changing the potential for economic trade on a global scale.

The Fisheries and Oceans Canada Report states: “The Canadian Arctic cannot be understood in isolation. Canadian waters are linked to the greater Arctic Ocean, and waters are received from both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.”

A startling example of this link can be seen in the retreat of glaciers. “The retreat rate is five times quicker now than it was twenty years ago, “Dr. Luke Copland, Research Chair in Glaciology, UOttawa, told WT in a telephone conversation. “Glaciers in Greenland are melting from beneath because of warm water currents. The warmer currents have not yet reached the Canadian Arctic so the melt in our Arctic is due more to atmospheric warming.”

Dawson adds that much of the melt in the Arctic has to do with the albedo effect. “If you wear a long-sleeved black shirt on a hot sunny day you feel much hotter than if you wear a white T-shirt because you are absorbing the sun’s rays. In the past, the Arctic was mostly white, covered in snow and ice so it did not absorb a lot of that solar radiation. Because of climate change, we now have reduced sea ice, a darker landscape. So, the region is absorbing a lot more heat than it used to. What’s happening in the Arctic warms all the oceans. We understand that but not the dynamics. We need more research.”

Dawson continues, “We are committed to working in partnership with the Indigenous communities,” in response to understanding and unlocking the means of creating a responsible and sustainable existence within the dynamics of climate change.

WaterToday reached out to Dr. Natalie Carter, epidemiologist and Inuit knowledge researcher who is working together with Dr. Jackie Dawson on the Arctic Corridors and Northern Voices project.

Dr. Carter, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, UOttawa, told WT, “Ship traffic has nearly tripled in the Canadian Arctic over the past decade and additional growth is expected as climate change continues to increase navigability in the region. In response, the Canadian Government is developing Low Impact Shipping Corridors as an adaptation strategy that supports safety and sustainability under rapidly changing environmental conditions.”

“While a large amount of data from different sources were used to establish the location of the corridors, important local and traditional knowledge from Arctic communities has yet to be considered in much detail.”

Disruption of sea-ice formation and break-up by icebreakers and marine vessels is especially disruptive to Inuit and Northerners’ ability to use local travel routes, and travel, harvest/hunt, and camp safely on ice. Other concerns include:
  • ships passing through traditional hunting grounds
  • potential oil spills
  • insufficient spill-response capacity
  • wildlife moving away from ship noise and traffic
  • shoreline erosion
  • modified ice conditions
  • contaminants in the sea, sea mammals (country food)
  • increased incidence of dangerous ice conditions
  • increased delays and expenditures when travelling and harvesting
  • restricted country food access
  • increased food insecurity and increased dependence on expensive store-bought food
Carter adds, “There is a lack of monitoring and enforcement of ship traffic, ballast water and sewage disposal; a lack of charting and a lack of scientific evidence documenting the impact of ships on northern waters and shorelines.” In response to this fundamental gap in knowledge, Carter and Dawson have implemented a collaborative research approach by:
  • Working closely with Inuit leaders and communities in Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homeland in Canada), Nunavik, and Inuvialuit Settlement Region
  • Community-based training and participatory mapping workshops
  • Training 59 Inuit youth (ages 18-31) in research methods and participatory mapping
  • Hiring these newly skilled researchers to conduct mapping workshops with Inuit hunters, Elders, and marine users in their communities in order to identify important marine areas and impacts from increased shipping
“Inuit and northerners must be and wish to be included on an on-going basis in the management of Arctic marine transportation.”

As the Canadian Arctic landscape changes and as corridors in the Northwest Passage pass through traditional territory and become navigable, there is another very significant question that requires scrutiny.

Who owns the Northwest Passage?

WaterToday had the pleasure of connecting with Suzanne Lalonde, Professor in International Maritime Law, University of Montreal. “Canada insists that all the waters within the Arctic Archipelago are Canadian internal waters based on an historic title,” Lalonde told WT. “Legally, it can therefore impose Canadian-made regulations on ships. I can tell you that Canada has been transparent and consistent in stating that ships ARE welcome in the Canadian Arctic as long as they respect Canada’s environmental regulations for the protection of the marine environment and the cultural well-being of Canadian Northerners.”

But the question remains, do other nations respect the Canadian Arctic?

Lalonde referred us to a recent article she has authored entitled “The US-Canada Northwest Passage Disagreement: Why agreeing to disagree is more important than ever.” The article states:

“For over fifty years, and while remaining ‘premier partners’ in the Arctic, Canada and the United States have had to acknowledge and manage a significant disagreement over the status of the Northwest Passage (NWP). Ottawa and Washington’s respective positions regarding the NWP are well established and have been for decades. Successive Canadian governments have declared that all waters within Canada’s Archipelago, including the various routes that make up the NWP, are Canadian historic internal water over which Canada exercises full and exclusive authority, including the power to govern access by foreign ships. The United States has long held the view that the different routes through the NWP constitute an international strait in which the ships and aircraft of all nations, both civilian and military, enjoy an unfettered right of passage.”

“I think,” Lalonde adds, “the slight danger is that Canada and the United States have disagreed, but it remains a local, friendly ‘squabble’. But when Secretary of State Pompeo stands up at the Arctic Council and denounces the Canadian position as ‘illegitimate’, there is a risk that other States will jump on that ‘interpretation’ – that there is an international strait that cuts through the Canadian Arctic archipelago.

“He (Pompeo) is also denouncing Canada’s Inuit claim to defend their homeland. Canada’s Indigenous peoples have constitutionally protected rights to be consulted and even to participate in the governance of the NWP.”

What about other nations’ interpretations of Canada’s position?

Dawson adds, “China is very much interested. They have intentions of developing ‘The Polar Silk Road’ trade routes through the Arctic. They also suggest they do not view the NWP as inland waters.”

Lalonde also cites the interest of Japan and Korea in the ‘international’ interpretation of the NWP and business interests in the Arctic.

In response to Pompeo’s remarks, Lalonde has stated, “Inuit leaders from Nunavut seized a valuable opportunity to assert their resolve to be heard, for their ‘own visions, aspirations and priorities’ for the region to be acknowledged and respected.” “Inuit are a marine people…. The Northwest Passage is a part of Inuit Nunangat, and future activity has implications for our communities and way of life. Inuit considerations must be central to any conversations about how the Northwest Passage is utilized by Canada and other countries….We see it as a feature of our homeland rather than a shortcut for enhancing global trade…We are positioned through existing governance structures to make decisions and advise governments on the potential impacts and opportunities associated with increased marine traffic through the Northwest Passage.”

--“Foreword” in ITK, Niiliajut 2 –Inuit Perspectives on the NWP, shipping and Marine Issues

“We need to be more aware of the international interest in our Arctic,” Dr. Jackie Dawson concludes. “We are not realizing the extent to which this could change our nation and the world. Trade is linked to global power dynamics. This has to be higher on the agenda of national policy.”

Corrections: The original version of this article incorrectly stated "The melt is five times quicker now than it was five years ago". The correct information is:" the retreat rate is five times quicker now than it was twenty years ago".

Also, it was orignially stated that "Glaciers in Europe are melting from beneath because of warm water currents. It is in Greenland that the glaciers are melting from beneath because of warm water currents.


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