Selfdefence and security

Besides harbouring feelings of national pride and of responsibility for its natural environment, the Canadian government is doubtlessly also concerned that, unless it imposes proper safeguards, the Arctic's waters could pose a potential threat to its national security.

Some commentators have argued that terrorists, smugglers and criminals could potentially make their way through these seas, wholly undetected, and then move into the Canadian mainland. Just as in the early 1930s, at the time of prohibition in America, the Canadian government tried to extend its national borders and powers in the archipelago to curb the problem of liquor smuggling, so too in the future might it regard the same waterways as highly vulnerable to infiltration. But climatic conditions in this area are likely to remain extreme for many decades and in the meantime there will be far easier ways for any such enemy force to infiltrate the Canadian or American mainland. Instead the Canadian government is probably more concerned by the possible seizure or destruction of key strategic assets, such as oil and gas installations, by a foreign military force in the event of a national emergency. Even in peacetime, it is possible to imagine foreign vessels or commercial organizations treating as 'high seas' stretches of water that Canada, or any other coastal state, regards as its own outer continental shelf even if its claim has not been formally accepted by the United Nations.22

Fears that the Russian military was preparing to establish just such a presence emerged in the early summer of 2008, with the disclosure that Moscow had despatched a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines in the area. The news certainly alarmed some of Canada's allies: 'Four of the five Arctic powers are NATO members, yet NATO seems ill-configured to be able to respond to the sort of activities we have seen from the Russians', as a British minister told one newspaper. 'We need to ensure NATO has the will and the capability to deter Russian activity that contravenes international laws or treaties.'23

In any event, the legal status of the Northwest Passage is, once again, extremely important: as noted above, if it is deemed to be an international strait, then it is much harder for the Canadian authorities to stop and refuse entry to a foreign ship that may perhaps have hostile intent. Any vessel that passes through its internal waters, or through its 'territorial sea', can be stopped and searched without difficulty, and if necessary, turned away. In practice this is not always possible because the Canadian coast guard has often been too under-resourced to carry out thorough searches, and in recent years ships have only had to voluntarily declare that they are abiding by the terms of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act.

A concern for Canada's national security, as well as for its environment, lay behind Stephen Harper's decision, announced in the summer of 2008, to impose a crackdown on maritime traffic. Harper declared that the Canada Shipping Act, initially passed in 2001, would be amended so that all ships within 200 nautical miles would have to report to Canadian authorities, and he hoped that this would send a strong message to the outside world 'as an environmental matter, as a security matter and as an economic matter'.24 The Prime Minister added that 'we are acting today to protect our environment, improve the security of our waterways and ensure that all northern residents - and, in particular, the Inuit - have a strong say in the future of our Arctic for generations to come'. Harper has also emphasized that 'the first priority of national defence is to assert your sovereign presence on your territory, to be prepared to defend Canadians from threats of all kinds, whether they be major threats of invasion, or simply minor threats of unauthorized surveillance or potential unauthorized economic activity'.25

Successive administrations in Ottawa have proclaimed their commitment to strengthening national defences in the High North, even if their critics claim they soon balk at the sheer cost of building or upgrading infrastructure in such an inhospitable area, or of buying highly specialized equipment. In 2000, the government released a document, 'The Northern Dimension of Canada's Foreign Policy', stating its ambition 'to enhance the security and prosperity of . . . northerners, assert and ensure the preservation of Canada's sovereignty in the north, establish the circumpolar region as a vibrant geopolitical entity integrated into a rules-based international system, and to promote the human security of northerners and the sustainable development of the Arctic'. Other governments made similar promises. In a keynote speech in October 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin announced a 'northern strategy' that would, among other things, 'protect the northern environment and Canada's sovereignty and security'. In April 2005, Ottawa released a foreign policy document that placed much greater emphasis on the Arctic region than the previous paper, published 10 years before.26

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