When an American fast-attack submarine, the USS Charlotte, pulled into harbour in Norfolk, Virginia at the end of November 2005, its 154 crew members were jubilant. After spending months away at sea, they had managed to sail right under the Arctic ice cap and were very proud of their remarkable feat. 'Conducting an under-ice transit presented both unique challenges and rewards for the Charlotte team', proclaimed the captain proudly. 'I am very proud of the men on board who engaged the situation head-on, and I am ecstatic that they were able to experience a North Pole surfacing.' Nicknamed 'Bluenoses' by their colleagues in the United States Navy, most of these sailors also had some great stories to tell: 'I couldn't believe how dark it was at the Pole. It was pitch black and incredibly cold, but it was still really exhilarating', as one sailor put it, 'after all, how many people can say they have been at the North Pole?'3 Others recounted how they had been able to take a walk on the windswept ice and even play a quick game of football in the bitter temperatures, which sank well below freezing.
Although the United States Navy refused to reveal details of the Charlotte's precise route, the submarine had started its journey from Hawaii and then headed northwards, steering through the Bering Strait and then reaching the Pole on 10 November. But what deeply alarmed the Canadian government and general public was the very real possibility that it had managed to slip unnoticed through what they regarded as their own sovereign seas. After all, the shortest southerly course between Virginia and the North Pole runs past Ellesmere Island, through the Nares Strait and then leads into Canadian waters. Nearly all independent observers were sure that the Americans hadn't even bothered to ask permission: a retired senior officer in Canada's Northern Command told the press that Ottawa usually relied 'on their goodwill to know if they're in our waters or not', adding that 'I don't think they told us a thing: I don't think they told anyone'.4
Within hours a political storm had broken out. Prime Minister Paul Martin made public assurances that his government would take the 'necessary measures' to stop American submarines passing through Canadian seas. 'Arctic waters are Canadian waters, and Canadian waters are sovereign waters', he asserted. 'Canada will defend its sovereignty.' But his Conservative critics accused him of being a soft touch, claiming that he had completely 'failed to enforce our sovereignty and increase our security in the north', and that the government was guilty of slashing the defence budget and imperilling the national interest by doing so.
The US ambassador to Canada also entered the ring, accusing politicians on both sides of whipping up a fervent anti-Americanism that was on a 'slippery slope'.5 Even if the Charlotte had gone past Ellesmere Island, ran the Washington line, it had traversed an 'international strait' instead of moving through Canada's 'internal waters'.6 And under the Law of the Sea, submarines may pass through an international strait without surfacing or even alerting the adjacent coastal state.
This was not the first time that the two countries had clashed over the question of who ruled Arctic waters. In the late summer of 1969, the American ship, the SS Manhattan, completed a journey through the Northwest Passage, moving at a slow, even agonizing pace from the Beaufort Sea to Davis Strait.7 Because this was the first time anyone had sailed the whole way down the Passage since the end of the Second World War, and because only ten such voyages had in any case ever been previously made, the crew were doubtlessly overjoyed at their achievement, even if their sponsors, a number of American oil companies, were disappointed by the amount of time, effort and money the journey had taken.8 But the passage of the SS Manhattan infuriated and outraged many Canadians. Two Inuit hunters even tried to ram home the message by driving their dogsleds into the path of the passing ship, forcing it to make a sudden halt before they were forcibly removed and the Manhattan could continue its journey.
In one sense at least, the public and political outcry was hard to understand. Two American submarines were thought to have passed through Canadian waters in the Passage - USS Seadragon in August 1960 and USS Skate two years later - but their journeys had not sparked any serious diplomatic incident.9 On this occasion, a representative of the Canadian government had even been on board the Manhattan as it made its way, and a Canadian coast guard vessel, J. A. Macdonald, had in any case always escorted the ship.
The two American submarines, Skate and Seadragon, had slipped through these waters quite unnoticed and unnoticeable. But the voyage of the Manhattan was made in full glare of the general public, and was seen as a brazen, blatant intrusion into Canada's national waters. This would have been bad enough if any other country was deemed responsible for such an intrusion but for the United States to do so - a country that Canada has long viewed with a certain suspicion and mild hostility - was that much worse. In the full glare of the public eye, the United States was seen to have arrogantly disregarded Canadian sovereignty or, at the very least, Canadian feelings, because although the authorities in Ottawa had been informed of the trip in advance, it seemed that no one had ever approached them to request official permission.
Not surprisingly, the announcement, made soon afterwards, that the Manhattan would make another attempt to cross the Northwest Passage inflamed public indignation even more, prompting Prime Minister Trudeau and other government officials to publicly declare that the waters did, despite high-handed American behaviour, belong to Canada. But, as in 2005, Washington refused to admit that it had done anything wrong. In 1969, Canada had never even made any formal assertion of its sovereignty over these waters, which the Americans claimed were 'high seas' under international law.
Sixteen years later, in the summer of 1985, the same controversy broke out when an American icebreaker, the USS Polar Sea, made its own voyage from east to west. The scenario was just the same, for once again the organizers failed to request permission from the Canadian authorities to make the journey, even though Ottawa was informed of the plans in advance and arranged for coast guard vessels to accompany the ship as 'invited observers'. Keen to downplay the incident and limit any political damage, the government balked at lodging a formal protest and instead claimed that the voyage 'does not compromise in any way the sovereignty of Canada over our northern waters, or affect the quite legitimate differences of views that exist between Canada and the United States on that question'.10
Such careful diplomatic language could not disguise the fact that, as in 1969, there was considerable disagreement between Washington and Ottawa over the status of the Northwest Passage. This strong disagreement persists to this day. 'The longstanding position of the US is that the Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation - that's the same position shared by many others in international communities such as the European Union', as the American ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, told one media organization in 2007. 'No one is questioning sovereignty over the land or over the mineral rights, it's simply an international navigational strait.'11
Lying at the very heart of this disagreement is not any concern about the possible presence of oil, gas or minerals in the region, or even about the strategic significance of its location. It is something much simpler, and that is national pride. Of course some countries are more insular and private than others, but all countries resent others meddling in what they regard as their own domestic issues for the same reason that most people resent the same thing. Canada's long-serving prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, once spelt out exactly how important 'national prestige' is as a political consideration, writing in his memoirs that 'it would have been a terrible abdication of Canadian pride and power to say as soon as we did anything the Americans didn't like, "well, we'll try to adjust"'.12 It was plain that to many Canadians, American actions in the Passage crossed what seemed to be a very clear line.
Exactly when Canadians began to regard these waters as their own is hard to say. By the end of the nineteenth century the Canadian government had acquired all of the territories that belonged to Great Britain; although this included a number of islands, the waters of the Northwest Passage had never been formally ruled from London. But at the beginning of the twentieth century a number of politicians and officials began to make more ambitious claims about how much belonged to Ottawa. In 1907, Senator Pascal Poirier spoke before the Canadian Senate and recommended that Canada should proclaim possession of all the lands and islands lying north of its coast up as far as the Pole, while the expeditions made by explorers like Captain Bernier have to some extent become the stuff of myth.13 As Stephen Harper has said, Canada's Arctic 'is central to our national identity as a northern nation. It is part of our history'.14
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