Canadian Inuit challenge U.S. stance on Northwest Passage

“The Northwest Passage is part of Inuit Nunangat, our Arctic homeland”

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, at left, speaks with the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, outside the Arctic Council ministerial, held May 7, in Rovaniemi, Finland. The two hold opposing views on who controls Arctic waterways, such as the Northern Sea Route above Russia, with the U.S. implying Russia’s control of the Arctic seaway is illegal. The Inuit Circumpolar Council has also come out against Pompeo’s statements about the Northwest Passage, which he also maintains is an international waterway. (Photo courtesy of the Russian Foreign Ministry/Twitter)

By Jane George

The Inuit Circumpolar Council–Canada is pushing back at U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion that Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage is “illegitimate.”

“The U.S. has a long-contested feud with Canada over sovereign claims through the Northwest Passage,” Pompeo told reporters May 6, the evening before the Arctic Council’s meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, which all eight circumpolar foreign ministers attended.

This image shows the Arctic routes which the U.S. maintains are international waterways. (File image)

Pompeo’s statement about the Northwest Passage prompted the ICC to reaffirm Canada’s sovereignty over the waterway through High Arctic islands.

Canada’s position has long been that the passage is internal and any country that wants to pass through needs permission, but, more than that, “the Northwest Passage is part of Inuit Nunangat, our Arctic homeland,” said Monica Ell-Kanayuk, President of ICC Canada, in a May 8 news release.

Canadian sovereignty is based on Inuit-Crown land claims agreements as well as more than 4,000 years of Inuit land use and occupancy throughout the region, Ell-Kanayuk said.

She also said the U.S. position goes against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”

Ell-Kanayuk also pointed to ICC’s 2009 Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic, which states that, besides an inherent right to self-determination, Inuit have gained rights through international law, land claims and self-government processes.

That declaration also talks about the development of international institutions in the Arctic and Indigenous peoples’ organizations.

“These new forms of governance must transcend Arctic states’ agendas on sovereignty and sovereign rights and the traditional monopoly claimed by states in the area of foreign affairs,” she said.

Inuit are currently working with Canada on the development of an Arctic Policy Framework, which will include a regime for co-managing the Northwest Passage.

“This will include coordinated action to ensure sustainability, safety and security, as well as healthy communities across the Canadian Arctic,” she said.

The ICC also condemned the U.S. refusal to support an Arctic Council declaration at the end of the ministerial that would have mentioned climate change.

Pompeo declares “a new age of strategic engagement” has begun

The lack of support for the common declaration and the challenge to Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage weren’t the only provocative stances adopted by the U.S. Secretary of State in Finland.

On May 6, Pompeo also suggested that the Arctic Council needs to focus more on “threats to the Arctic and its real estate.”

“In its first two decades, the Arctic Council has had the luxury of focusing almost exclusively on scientific collaboration, on cultural matters, on environmental research—all important themes, very important, and we should continue to do those,” Pompeo said May 6.

“But no longer do we have that luxury of the next hundred years. We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in that region.”

In those same remarks, Pompeo honed in on Russia’s claim over what he called “the international waters of the Northern Sea Route.”

“In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow already illegally demands other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply with their demands,” Pompeo said.

“Under President Trump, we are fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence in the area.”

That’s despite Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s mild comments at the Arctic Council ministerial that “we are open to the broadest possible co-operation in the Arctic where, as we have repeatedly noted, there are absolutely no pretexts for conflicts or attempts to address any issues arising here with a military response.”

Ell-Kanayuk also condemned Pompeo’s characterization of the Arctic as a place of geopolitical and military competition.

“Geopolitical differences in the Arctic have always been resolved peacefully. Indigenous peoples living in the Arctic are integral to its international institutions and decision-making that has achieved this,” she said.

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(25) Comments:

  1. Posted by Israel MacArthur on

    The Americans, Russians, and no doubt the Chinese routinely send subs through these waters without Canadian consent as they consider them to be international waterways.

    Pompeo is just re-iterating a long-standing American position, which is actually strong, as much as it pains me as a Canadian to say it. The only reason that other nations haven’t pushed the international waterway argument much before was that it was moot because of the ice cover. As that changes, expect to see many nations push shipping through the Canadian arctic without seeking Canadian government clearance. We all remember the American Coast Guard Polar Sea – expect to see more of that sort of thing. The Americans just announced the construction of three or 4 dedicated ice breaker Coast Guard ships, expect to see them transiting the arctic in a few years to reinforce the American claim. The Malacca Straits are a very good analogue for the situation in the Canadian arctic. As a Canadian I don’t like it, but the claim of international waterway is strong.

    The ICC opinions or protestations are not appearing on anyone’s radar.

    • Posted by Gobble Gobble on

      I have to disagree with you, Izzy. I don’t believe the claim that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway is as strong as you think. I don’t believe Canada’s claim is as strong as Canada likes to think, either. I did some reading up on it a little while ago and one of the things I found was an article that explained what defines international waters and what defines internal waters. I wish I could find it again, but right now Google results are full of Pompeo. I’ll have to look again later when I have more time or this news blows over. Anyway, in the end it’s a debatable topic, but seems to lean towards Canada’s position that they do indeed have a legitimate claim to these internal waters.

      • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

        Yes, it is certainly a topic that will keep the lawyers busy, as it can be parsed a number of ways.

        At the end of the day though, we have no way to enforcing our will over the region. Hell, I remember how embarrassed I was when the Polar Sea went through and all that we could do was fly overhead dropping weighted Canadian flags on the deck.

        I was tangentially (very very) involved with something related to this at the time, and I remember a colleague saying that he hoped that our government didn’t push it too hard, because it was far from guaranteed that Canada had the law on its side. Fortunately, Ronnie and Brian sat down and hashed it out, and there things have sat for 30 years.

  2. Posted by Raymond Kaslak on

    If U.S. recognizes the 200-mile territorial waters of Canada, there is a 2km wide separation between Cornwallis Island ( Where Resolute Bay is ) and the northern shores of Boothia Peninsula across Bellot Strait. I don’t think any U.S. fishing vessels operate within Canada’s territorial waters.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Fishing vessels are of little concern, and the 200 mile territorial waters aren’t really what we’re talking about.

      The US has created the precedent and other nations’ commercial interests could choose to use this precedent and the Northwest Passage for the tremendous fuel savings it offers. We’re moving from a very few, highly specialized vessels a year to dozens of far less capable ships – just look at the increase in the last 5 years.

      It is very conceivable that in a few years we could have Chinese, or Panamanian or Cypriot flagged cargo ships, without the proper hull reinforcement and necessary training, moving through the passage and shaving about 2-3 weeks off of their journey when compared to the Panama Canal.

      We are not ready for this. What happens when the first accident comes?

      I’m not super worried as the the Russian side is more economical for the time being, but Canada needs to think ahead on these things.

  3. Posted by Israel MacArthur on

    Fishing vessels are of little concern, and the 200 mile territorial waters isn’t really what we’re looking at, we’d be better to look at the continental shelf issues.

    The US has created the precedent and other nations’ commercial interests could choose to use this precedent and the Northwest Passage for the tremendous fuel savings it offers. We’re moving from a very few, highly specialized vessels a year to dozens of far less capable ships – just look at the increase in the last 5 years.

    It is very conceivable that in a few years we could have Chinese, or Panamanian or Cypriot flagged cargo ships, without the proper hull reinforcement and necessary training, moving through the passage and shaving about 2-3 weeks off of their journey when compared to the Panama Canal.

    We are not ready for this. What happens when the first accident comes?

    I’m not super worried as the the Russian side is more economical for the time being, but Canada needs to think ahead on these things.

    • Posted by Lloyds of London on

      Not to worry. It’s highly unlikely that the Northwest Passage will be a regular commercial route for end to end transits any time soon.

      The reason is insurance. The NW Passage is too risky which means the cost of insurance is prohibitive. The global marine insurance industry, as they should, is constantly assessing risk and they have concluded NW Passage is just too risky for Europe to Asia shipping.

      Check out this quote:

      ““As things currently stand, the majority of ships and their crews are not ready, the support service facilities are not in place and the risks involved are not understood at a level to enable underwriters to price insurance for Arctic transit with either clarity or certainty,” the report concluded.”

      Or this quote:

      “In spite of the popular concern and enthusiasm surrounding Arctic shipping, our survey of recent Canadian and international studies and data reaffirms that the much-hyped Northwest Passage routes will remain inhospitable to international shipping for the foreseeable future. Fears that cargo ships will carve a new commercial transshipment route through the Canadian archipelago and, in so doing, undermine Ottawa’s internal waters position, are overblown.”

      Yeah, there’s the odd one-off voyage but beyond the seasonal summer sealift for Nunavut, Nunavik, NWT, the NW Passage not viable for end to end commercial traffic.

      • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

        I hope you’re right, but I’m afraid that I expect to see unprepared freighters moving through the area and having accidents within (what remains of) my lifetime.

        We have proven ourselves pretty much incapable of providing the necessary emergency services in the region, so I expect it to be a God-awful mess when it happens.

  4. Posted by Observer on

    There a common misunderstanding about the issue. The Americans and others don’t dispute that Canada owns the Passage and its resources, and they don’t care how Canada divides it up internally regarding Indigenous peoples. There’s no risk of Americans suddenly showing up to fish everything, or the Chinese claiming an island. Their argument is that Canada can’t prohibit the movement of shipping, that the Arctic Archipelago is no different from the Indonesian Archipelago, and so if anyone can sail between the islands of Sumatra and Java (which they can), then anyone can sail between Victoria Island and the mainland.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Exactly, if it gets treated like an international strait like the Malaccas and freighters start exercising their right of innocent passage we are completely unprepared.

      • Posted by Lloyds of London on

        Its extremely unlikely that any “freighters” will exercise a right of innocent passage through the NW Passage any time soon. Do you have any idea what ice conditions were like in Bellot Strait or the Gulf of Boothia last year?

        Marine cargo vessels are owned by private businesses. They carry freight on contract to other private businesses or to governments. Shipping companies are not interested in sovereignty or nationalism, their only interest is getting from point A to point B as quickly and cheaply as they can, unload their cargo, then go home and count their profits. They are not going to risk their assets by using a dangerous and unpredictable route like the NW Passage. Their customers will not stand for it and their customers will refuse to pay the astronomical insurance premiums on their cargo.

        The biggest shipping risk is posed by cruise ship tourism. This is the sector that emergency management people are worried about right now, and it is a risk that already manifested itself in some increasingly scary cruise ship groundings.I would worry a lot more about cruise ships than about cargo freighters.

  5. Posted by Tommy on

    Canada should’ve thought about Coast-Coast-Coast long time ago, not just Coast-Coast. When there are financial gains to be had, Inuit are the least subjects to be discussed about.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      Ummm, what? National defence and international relations are played out between states, and the concerns of any ethnic group is subordinate to the needs of the country. If governments want to seek out the input of various ethnic groups within those states that is their prerogative, but it is not required. As for the UNDRIP, it is not in any way binding on anyone.

  6. Posted by Bert Rose on

    The first issue is determining if the USA supports UNDRIP or not

    “There is a finer point on this discussion that can be made when we note that the US Department of State contemplates the UNDRIP principle of “free, prior and informed consent” as meaning, essentially, that American Indian, Alaskan Natives and Hawaiian Natives have the right of “free, prior and informed consent” unless the United States disagrees with the decision made by the indigenous people.”

    • Posted by Terry Rudden on

      Well, that’s an easy one. No. The current US administration has made it clear that it does not consider itself bound by international agreements negotiated by previous administrations; nor will it participate in treaties or agreements that will constrain America’s “right” to act unilaterally according to the President’s interpretation of America’s “best interests”.

      • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

        The UNDRIP is just a declaration and binds no one, it is purely aspirational. The Americans are well within their rights.

      • Posted by Lloyds of London on

        I think Mr. Rudden is correct to a degree, in that the current U.S. administration is generally contemptuous of international law and regards many forms of international cooperation as threats to U.S. power.

        However, the 1988 arctic cooperation treaty which was signed by Joe Clark and George Schultz is a binding treaty under international law. This treaty requires that all navigation by U.S. icebreakers in Canadian waters must be undertaken with Canada’s consent.

        This treaty between Canada and the U.S. can be terminated by either side on three months notice. Despite all his blowhard blustering, George Pompeo did not give notice of termination of this treaty or even talked about doing so. No U.S. adminstration has ever suggested that they would terminate this treaty. So in spite of all of his rhetoric, the treaty is still binding on the U.S. and the U.S. is still constrained by this treaty obligation.

        The other thing to consider is that although George Pompeo is an inexperienced disaster as Secretary of State, the State Department is still staffed by numerous professional diplomats who, I’m sure, are working to undermine his buffoonery even as we speak.

        • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

          Yes, we’ve already showed that we are woefully unprepared for cruise ships, haven’t we. I agree that they are the most likely to show the largest near-term increase, but I’m somewhat less concerned by them. Those cruises are pricey, and the companies that run them tend to be from the nordic countries, or are otherwise experienced with northern sea conditions.

          I fully understand what you say about cargo vessels, but sadly there will be some numpty who doesn’t know what they are doing try.

          • Posted by Raymond Kaslak on

            They should just stick to Panama Canal.

  7. Posted by Putuguk on

    If Inuit have legitimate rights to an area that is contested even under broad interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (which the US has never agreed to), then the obvious solution is this. A bilateral friendship and cooperation treaty between the US and Inuit, similar to what is in place for the Panama Canal, but in this case between a sovereign state and an an intra-national interest group.

    That would leave Ottawa out in the cold. I suspect that ICC Canada probably does not want to bite the hand that feeds, so indignant blustering is the order of the day.

    • Posted by Israel MacArthur on

      That assumes that the US has any interest or need to deal with the Inuit of any country outside of the US – they don’t.

      Also, the Inuit of Canada and Iceland are in no place to strike bi-lateral agreements with any state, without the consent of Canada or Iceland. That isn’t going to happen. International relations are purely the purview of the federal authorities. The ICC can talk until they are blue in the face, but the governments drive the action, and are the final decision makers.

      The whole conversation is a nice pipe dream, but is a complete non-starter.

      • Posted by Never heard of them on

        The Inuit of Iceland?

  8. Posted by Silas on

    Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami have been holding workshops with youth, who will eventually take the lead on this issue, in all three Inuit regions within Canada since 2015/16. They came out with a paper from various Inuit in Canada and Greenland regarding the increased use of the North West Passage. I believe they have been in discussions with the federal government and others regarding the various requirements and concerns of Inuit in the Northwest Passage. I presume negotiations will be ongoing for a long time as it is not an easy route to travel with no charts as some cruise ships have found, the hard way.
    The arctic is unpredictable which is why insurance companies will not want to insure carriers taking this route. Even companies that have been using this route for years have trouble such as the suppliers to communities last year.

  9. Posted by History Repeats Itself on

    And just like they did to Hawaii, US business and military will seize control of sovereign states assets, despite International treaties and recognition of their sovereignty rights, they will take what they want because that’s what the strong with powerful militaries do. History is just repeating itself.

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