'We're going to need a better Coast Guard.'

Greater Arctic marine presence urged for Canada


Canada must expand its Arctic presence with new ships, new rules and new diplomatic efforts to defend the region from the risks of increased shipping, climate change and resource extraction, according to a Senate committee report issued May 5.

The report's 14 recommendations were culled from a series of hearings held in Ottawa and Nunavut last year.

Some of the recommendations to the federal government include:

  • making the Canadian Rangers part of the Canadian Forces reserves and giving them marine capability;
  • recruiting more Inuit for jobs with the Canadian Coast Guard;
  • establishing a base in Goose Bay, Labrador to be used for Arctic Coast Guard activities, search and rescue and marine enforcement;
  • upholding Canada's claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal strait;
  • developing a long-term plan to acquire heavy icebreakers that can operate in the Arctic year-round.

These steps are needed to protect Arctic residents, especially Inuit, from the effects of climate change, lost ice cover, and the increase in shipping traffic and oil and gas exploration forecast to follow, the 73-page report states.

"So far, the presence of ice hazardous to international shipping has protected Canadian and Inuit interests," the report reads. "But the testimony heard by the committee strongly suggests that, in view of the warming Arctic climate and receding polar ice, maintaining the status quo is no longer a viable long-term option for Canada."

Those steps are also needed to protect Canada's very sovereignty over the Northwest Passage from "progressive internationalization" that would occur if foreign ships began to travel the passage, aided by Canadian neglect.

Senator Bill Rompkey, the committee chair, told reporters Canada needs to station Coast Guard icebreakers year round in the North and the ability to enforce shipping regulations in the Arctic for other countries to take seriously Canada's claim of sovereignty over the passage. Canada considers the strait an internal waterway, while other countries see it as international waters.

"We're going to need a better Coast Guard," Rompkey said, including more than just the one heavy icebreaker on order to replace the aging Louis St. Laurent that is scheduled to go out of service in 2017.

So while more ships and infrastructure are part of the solution, the report says the continued occupancy of the Arctic by Inuit underpins Canada's legal claim to control over the passage.

"Inuit must be brought into the process of developing a strategy for the North, in an active partnership that will meet their economic and social needs while also buttressing Canada's sovereignty claim," the report states.

That's one of the reasons why the report recommends the creation of a Arctic Strategy Advisory Committee that would include representatives from the territorial governments and aboriginal groups "to monitor and to advise in the development and implementation of an effective and integrated strategy for the North."

Speaking off the cuff, Rompkey also suggested the creation of a cabinet-level committee for Arctic affairs, comprised of Indian and Northern Affairs, environment, transportation, fisheries and oceans and national defence to develop national Arctic policy.

The report also calls for the position of Ambassador of Circumpolar Affairs, scrapped by the Conservative government in 2006, to be reinstated to push Canada's interests at the Arctic Council.

All this needs to happen as Canada works with other circumpolar nations to establish a framework of international law governing the looming economic expansion in the North. Without such a framework, the result will be continued border disputes, unregulated shipping the potential for environmental disaster.

"If it doesn't go well, it will be chaos."

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