Posted on: March 12th, 2017
K. Joseph Spears
Canada’s Liberal government was elected October 2015 and is now in the second year of its mandate. A picture is emerging of the Trudeau government policy in the Arctic. Canada and the United States entered into a Joint Policy Statement on the Arctic when Prime Minister Trudeau attended his first state visit to Washington while President Obama was still in office. The joint declaration was based upon the foundation of climate change and science-based decision-making that provided a guidepost for resource development and sustainable shipping activities, to name two of the issues addressed in the joint statement. This joint declaration is the subject matter of an article in a March 2016 issue of Canadian Sailings. With the new Trump Administration, the status of this joint declaration remains undetermined, especially given the new Administration’s avoidance of statements related to climate change.
However, it is clear that the United States recognizes the importance of the Arctic, and the need for cooperation with other Arctic nations. One can argue quite strongly that the U.S./Canada Arctic relationship is a special one. We share the northern boundary of the continental North America and defend the region jointly via NORAD. We share a common interest in the region with respect to shipping, and Arctic security. With increased international marine traffic this will grow in importance. The long-awaited Polar Code has become mandatory this year, and it applies to vessel owners, but does not set out criteria for minimum levels of marine infrastructure for Arctic coastal states. As Canada has learned, this infrastructure is very costly to put in place and has a lengthy lead time. As was noted in the 2016 fall Arctic special edition of Canadian Sailings, Canada has major infrastructure gaps in the Arctic. Through the use of Marine Transportation corridors, Canada is seeking to channel limited resources to develop increased shipping infrastructure.
At the international level, Canada also reached out to Russia to smooth the waters. In a speech last fall by then Minister of Global Affairs, Stephane Dion, Canada extended cooperation on science-based Arctic issues with Russia. Because of Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, Canada’s previous government shunned Russia and boycotted key Arctic Council meetings. The current thawing of relations is seen as a very positive step and it is critically important to engage in the region through various scientific forums and seek regional cooperation. This could become especially important as both Canada and Russia have made extensive continental shelf claims under article 76 of the Law of the Sea Convention and will need to work together.
Canada also is a strong participant in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum which seeks to develop cooperation on marine response, search and rescue and other Coast Guard related issues in the region on an operational basis. It is critically important not to underestimate the importance of this work for cooperation in Arctic waters. This will become especially important as in transit international shipping continues to increase, along with increased marine traffic in the region through domestic destinational shipping and resource development. This is especially true with increased cruise ship traffic through U.S. and Canadian waters. The U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian Coast Guard have a long history of working together and we are likely going to see such cooperation encouraged by the Trudeau government.
Stephen Harper’s Northern strategy was the development of natural resources and protection of Canada’s sovereignty as key components of an Arctic strategy. That policy rested on four pillars:
• Exercising our Arctic sovereignty
• Protecting our environmental heritage
• Promoting social and economic development
• Improving and devolving Northern governance
This policy was part of the underlying foundation for the development of the Royal Canadian Navy’s Arctic offshore patrol ships (AOPS) that are presently being built by the Irving shipyard in Halifax at the cost of $3.5 billion to provide five, or possibly six armed ice-strengthened patrol vessels. Initially there was discussion of providing three armed icebreakers, which morphed into the AOPS RCN Harry Dewolf class. The AOPS naval vessels are being constructed to commercial and not warship standards. These vessels have limited armaments, and are not icebreakers.
The issue of Canada’s defence policy is presently being examined and one of the issues is the role of Canadian Armed Forces in the Arctic. While there was a lot of talk about the development of infrastructure in the previous government’s Northern strategy, very little was actually achieved. The challenge in Canada’s Arctic is the creation of critical Arctic infrastructure and capability in the region.
Canada is taking steps to address its lack of icebreaking capabilities through its Oceans Protection Plan, and in November 2016 Public Works issued a request for information for the leasing of icebreakers and towing capacity. The request made the following statement:
Crucial to the Coast Guard fleet are its 14 icebreakers that maintain open tracks through ice, escort ships, free ice-beset vessels, break up ice in harbours, resupply isolated northern communities, and protect them from flooding. Many of Coast Guard’s icebreakers, however, are nearing the end of their operating lives; some, built in the 1960s and 1970s, have already exceeded their intended years of service.
It is important to note that this is not a request for proposals to construct new icebreakers, but merely a request to seek information on availability and costing of commercially available alternatives. Many commercial icebreakers were developed for Arctic offshore energy developments that are well suited for operations in the Arctic. It should be noted, for example, that CCG Terry Fox is a highly effective icebreaker that was developed in support of Canada’s Beaufort Sea offshore development. When that energy play ended, Canada purchased the vessel. Thus, the deployment of commercially available icebreakers can provide cost-effective alternatives in a timely fashion. Such vessels can also be used to escort cruise ships and other vessels in the Northwest Passage to alleviate some of the pressure on Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers that are often stretched thin.
It should be noted that delivery of Canada’s new polar icebreaker, CCG John D Diefenbaker, to be constructed by British Columbia’s Seaspan Shipyards as part of the non-combatant portion of the National Shipbuilding strategy, will likely not take place until 2025. However, even that delivery date is considered optimistic. Canada’s largest icebreaker, CCG Louis St Laurent, is now is in its 48th year and has done yeoman service for Canada. The vessel is being refitted and is expected to see service well into the next decade. By comparison, Russia has an icebreaker fleet in excess of 40 vessels with new nuclear-powered icebreakers under construction. China operates the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker.
The Trudeau government is presently reflecting on an Arctic strategy to replace the Northern Strategy. How the new policy will differ from the existing policy remains to be seen. The backgrounder to Trudeau’s Arctic policy announcement stated:
• The new Arctic policy will be co-developed with Indigenous, territorial and provincial partners;
• Mary Simon, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Minister Carolyn Bennett’s special representative, will conduct a “second phase” of northern engagement;
• The federal government will engage Indigenous and Northern communities in developing a governance model for northern marine transportation corridors and Arctic marine shipping in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible, including respecting modern northern treaties; and,
• A one-year consultation with companies that hold existing offshore oil and gas rights in the Arctic.
What we do not know yet is whether the proposed new Arctic policy will result in any more action or any more development of infrastructure than under the policy it will replace. While the program stresses local input, we are still years away from infrastructure development. Recently, Mr. Trudeau was in the North working with the territorial governments, and seeking to be more inclusive through direct consultations with Inuit groups. However, in December 2016, the government acted without input from territorial governments and banned offshore drilling, exploration and development – but with a five years review. This announcement coincided with the Obama’s government’s decision through an executive order to ban offshore developments in U.S. offshore Arctic waters.
As Trudeau’s Arctic warms, the government of Canada is examining how to achieve the most from limited financial resources to enable both economic development and increased international traffic through Arctic waters. There is a great opportunity to combine forces with the United States on various shipping infrastructure. Arguably, the threats to sovereignty can be resolved through cooperation, and engagement can allow needed resources to remain focused on shipping infrastructure. The first Trudeau government allowed for coastal states to protect the Arctic marine environment which ultimately was embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It was a progressive and radical approach for its time, and forms the foundation of international law in the region.
There is no doubt that this legacy will come into play in coming years as the Arctic increases in economic importance and shipping governance structures mature, and impact international shipping activity. Canada shares common interests with both the United States and Russia in the region. We need to strengthen these relationships as it relates to shipping governance by the Arctic coastal states. Canada cannot ignore the fact that international shipping is going to increase in its Arctic waters. Now is the time to develop the necessary thinking, and to start the process of putting the necessary shipping infrastructure in place. The time for action is long past due. Leadership is clearly needed.
Joe Spears is a principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and has advised the Government of Canada on Arctic and shipping issues and policy. He helped develop Canada’s position on the Arctic shipping assessment as part of the work of the Arctic Council. Joe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org