The Canadian government has announced that the age-old practice of some Inuit peoples of living, at times, on the Arctic Ocean ice supports their claim that the maritime passage between the Arctic islands is Canadian territory.
In fact, the Canadian military has renamed the Northwest Passage through the islands, recognized by most maritime countries as international waters. It is now being called “Canadian Internal Waters” by the country’s military. The name change apparently demonstrates that the passage is fully under Canadian control and is not an international waterway.
Several Canadian news outlets this past weekend reported comments by Lt.-Col. Drew Artus, chief of staff for the Joint Task Force North, who announced the name change. “We’re calling it the Canadian Internal Waters now … [since] sovereignty and the security of Canada and Canada’s lands are important …,” he said.
The Canadian government wants to exercise greater control over the environmental and construction standards of ships that will be, increasingly, using the passage during the summer months. Once seasonal shipping becomes common, an oil spill or other major pollution event in Arctic waters could have a very serious, long-term effect on the fragile ecosystem of the sea and its coasts. The Arctic Ocean near the Canadian mainland may be entirely ice-free during summer months within a decade, so it is hardly an academic matter.
The news report quotes Prof. Michael Byers from the University of British Columbia, who indicates that while the name change may be “cute and imaginative,” it is really just a diplomatic ploy in Canada’s continuing struggle to assert its control over the Northwest Passage. The reality of the Canadian military enforcing effective control over ships moving through the islands in the summer would be a bigger challenge.
Part of the story was posted to the blog ViveCanada on Monday, and as of Tuesday five people had responded with comments, both pro and con to the concept of Canada exerting authority over the passage. One commenter remarked on the improbability of Canada using sub-hunters to attack American submarines that move unannounced through the passage into Arctic waters.
Neither the news story nor the blog comment string reacted to the irony of the government using the Inuit, conveniently, as a justification for Canada’s claim. The fact that the increased shipping will be the result of global climate change, which will seriously harm the living conditions of the Inuit peoples, was lost in the discussion. The Inuit are already reporting on the harm they suffer from warming in the Arctic region.
Once the Inuit can no longer live or travel on the Arctic Ocean ice, will that extinguish Canada’s territorial claims over the passage? The military folks are probably not worrying about such ironies and minor points.