Last September, a Danish commercial ship named Nordic Orion became the first cargo vessel to use the Northwest Passage. The Canadian Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Navy are not ready to either protect that passage nor deploy any fast Search and Rescue teams in case of any type of emergencies. Unfortunately, the hoist capable SAR teams comes from British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario. The SAR choppers have a 2500 km flight to the Passage, and the CC130 Hercules are aging and cannot hoist people onboard.
I am not going to elaborate on Russia’s capabilities in the Arctic, but let me tell you that we are far behind. For example, Russia has several search-and-rescue stations along their Arctic borders and still are building 10 more, with both helicopter and ship capabilities. Canada is still waiting on their first deep-water port in Resolute Bay, a project announced in 2007, but has been postponed until 2017. Let’s be honest about something here, we are putting our nose in every possible conflict around the globe but we cannot even protect our own backyard, which proves to be one of the biggest oil fields and diamond mines in the world.
Having the Northwest Passage open for commercial ships could be a disaster for the environment especially with our poor reaction time. Even worse, a sinking ship could wait for several hours, even up to a day before having any type of SAR helicopters or ships coming to their help. On Monday, September 9, the Captain of the CCGS Amundsen, Marc Thibault along with the pilot Daniel Dubé and scientist Klaus Hochheim were killed in an Arctic helicopter crash while scouting ahead of the icebreaker and it took several hours for the CCGS Amundsen to reach and retrieve them from the 420 metre-deep water. There were no SAR elements nearby and ready to intervene at a short notice unfortunately.
Knowing that, can we say that Canada is ready to both defend and enforce their sovereignty in the Arctic? It’s pretty obvious that we can’t. On the National Defence webpage we can read: “As activity in Canada’s Arctic accelerates, the military will play an increasingly vital role in demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in this potentially resource-rich region. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) must have the capacity to conduct training exercises and execute operations in the Arctic, and to continue to help other government agencies respond to any challenges that may arise.” But how can we operate without even a deep-water port? That is the question …
Inuit of Resolute Bay are Canadian citizens, no one can argue with that. Great Britain ceded the ownership of the islands up North to Canada in 1880 and only Denmark have disputed the sovereignty because of Hans Island. It is pretty obvious that the territory is Canadian but the real problem here is that we don’t really have any boots on the ground or “mukluk on the ice” like our PM once said in 2007. What we need to fully claim the islands and the Northwest Passage is ships, planes and soldiers that can fully operate in the region. Not to mention that we need a solid partnership with our closest ally, the United States of America. The 1988 agreement, “Arctic Cooperation,” is outdated and needs some serious negotiations between both countries on the dispute of the International Waters versus Canadian Internal Waters.
Fortunately, the federal government announced in mid-august the opening of the new Canadian Armed Forces Arctic Training Centre (CFATC) in Resolute Bay. Despite the fact that the deep-water port is still about 3-4 years away, we are moving forward with the ‘’mukluk on the ice’’ program. According to the CF news release, the training centre will be used as a facility for Army sovereignty operations, Canadian Forces joint exercises (which normally included some American soldiers), and the Arctic Operations Advisor Course. Adding this to our Canadian Rangers, who are a sub-component of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve. There are approximately 5000 Canadian Rangers over 200 communities and able to speak 26 different dialects/languages, many of whom are Aboriginal. This is a good start but I am urging the fact that we don’t even have a deep-water port!
The big question here is quite simple. Should the Northwest Passage be considered Canadian? Like I said earlier, the Inuits living up in those islands are Canadian citizens and have been using these waters for fishing for centuries. That being said, it should be considered as Canadian Internal Waters but partnerships with allied and NATO countries should be a priority. Canada has been signing off free trade agreements with the US and EU, so it could be possible to include passage up North while keeping it safe from pirates, smugglers and terrorists.
Canada does need to figure out their plan as soon as possible and be ready to intervene quickly and efficiently in case of any emergencies in those waters. Until the deep-water port is ready, there should be some sort of facilities for the SAR techs and their equipment to be able to respond quickly to any situations. In the 2013 Spring Report of the Auditor General of Canada, we can read in Chapter 7-Federal Search and Rescue Activities: “The annual budget for SAR NIF is $8.1 million and has not changed for over 20 years.” In the last 20 years, it is pretty clear that the SAR tech have been doing more and more interventions, especially in the North. How can you still be able to operate on such a small budget? Also, one of the main helicopters used for SAR is the Griffon but it has no de-icing system, which is a major deficiency knowing that it’s pretty cold up there (sigh …).
In conclusion, a strong agreement with our main ally, the United States of America, a deep-water port in Resolute Bay with the CAFATC and SAR capabilities is the way to go. It is a start, but we will need to enforce our presence in the North as much as possible to make sure no menace arrives from there, or to prevent any environmental disasters.