What was once merely a dream of nautical travellers attempting to get from Europe to Asia may now be a possibility, but who owns it is up for debate. The fabled Northwest Passage is an item of increasing concern to both Canadian and American interests as climate change has resulted in this being the fourth consecutive year it has opened.
"It's only open for a few weeks and there are still ice pieces, so it's not like it's open water, but there has always been a section that remains closed and all of a sudden, because of climate change, it has opened in the western Arctic," said University of Calgary School of Public Policy political scientist Dr. Rob Huebert, who released a paper earlier this week entitled "United States Arctic Policy: The Reluctant Arctic Power."
Much of the debate revolves around whether the newly-opened Northwest Passage will be designated an international strait or continue to be considered Canadian waters. Of concern is the recent policy document published in the dying days of the Bush administration, indicating that the U.S. is more determined than ever to push for an international classification.
"One of the hallmarks of the [policy] paper -- and I think one of the challenges for Canada -- is it very explicitly drew out where Canada has differences with the United States," explained Huebert. "It explicitly says that the Northwest Passage is an international strait and disagrees with the Canadian claim that [it] is internal waters; [it] really draws the line in the sand very clearly. It also draws attention to the fact we have a boundary issue in the Beaufort Sea with the Americans -- and, once again, makes it very clear that they will be backing up their position vigorously."
While Huebert notes this would ultimately only effect whether Canadians unilaterally control shipping in such a passage, the current lack of discussion has potential to become politically troublesome if private interests attempt to push the issue by using the strait without Canadian permission. However, he believes the situation is ultimately resolvable if it doesn't become politicized by either government or pushed into the spotlight by overly-ambitious corporations.
"As long as these issues do not become politicized, they could be handled quite easily," noted Huebert. "On the operational side, the two sides have extremely good cooperation -- our coast guard works with their coast guard, our scientists work with their scientists. And all of them wish this issue would just go away; it interferes with their ability to do their jobs. The problem we face is the issue becomes politicized very easily -- and it's on a political level that the greatest difficulties can arise."