Use it or lose it. Canada may lose Arctic sovereignty.

There is no doubt about it. The earth is warming. It has been doing so since the last Ice Age. What had once been an impenetrable sheet of year round ice is now turning into a passable but seasonal ocean route from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic ocean thanks to warmer temperatures and modern technology.

The Northwest Passage can reduce shipping distances by as much as 7000 kilometers and the route is becoming more viable every year. This of course has drawn the economic interest of pretty much every large, developed nation on earth from China to the United States.

We have laughed about the ongoing game between Canada and Denmark as they “battle” over Hans Island in the Arctic through the exchanging of flags, but this sport is going to become very serious and soon. Countries want to do much more than place flags to assert domination and sovereignty in the Arctic and Canada had best start preparing for this or expect to lose it.

When the inevitable international clash happens and Canada goes before international tribunals to try and assert Arctic sovereignty, two major questions will be asked. Can Canada even get to the high Arctic and is Canada doing anything with it?

I spent four winters working in the Arctic, predominantly in the Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk regions on the Beaufort Sea. That skunk hat came in damned handy in the brutal weather up there.

While warming is increasing access, make no mistake about it. The Arctic remains a brutal and unforgiving environment. Accessing, developing and surviving up there is a tough endeavor.

We would haul out camps in summer which would be anchored and then frozen into the sea ice for the winter. Starting in November or so we would build the ice road to the camp from North of Inuvik through the Mackenzie channels. If all went well, we would fire up the generators and move into the camp in January and could work on oil exploration until mid April.

The “Arctic Star” camp below was my winter home for many a long, dark Arctic night. The food was great but the sense of imprisonment was acute at times.

Whether at Bar C or somewhere on the Star, we always ended up lending some room to government scientists and such who needed access to the Beaufort for studies and such. While oil companies could come up with the means to get to those remote locations, government generally couldn’t. The sharing of the resources that way was a nice compromise.

In order to get even farther into the high Arctic, nuclear powered vessels are required. Canada unfortunately doesn’t have them. Russia, China and the USA do however and you can rest assured that they have been creeping around up there for decades. Canada can’t even get to the locations where these subs operate, much less police them. We bought rickety antique diesel submarines that killed our sailors just trying to cross the Atlantic. We sure as hell can’t try to send them to the Arctic.

If Canada wants to claim sovereignty in the Arctic we need to be able to get up there. Nuclear subs aren’t on the drawing board but they are essential. Seriously, how on earth could we claim parts of the earth that many other countries can access but we cant?

Energy companies will no longer provide access to even the lower Arctic islands any more. In typical Canadian fashion, we pissed around since the 1970s over getting a pipeline built to the Mackenzie Delta. Despite billions spent in exploration and thousands of wells drilled, not a drop of oil has been taken from Canada’s Arctic due to a lack of pipeline. With decades of dithering, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project was finally shelved after energy companies gave up. It had just become too expensive and ridiculous a proposition.

That leads on to the “use it” part of the equation when determining Arctic sovereignty.

How can Canada make a case of ownership and control of the Arctic when not only can we not get to it, but we have no plans to settle or develop it?

Like most isolated communities, the Delta towns have some very serious socioeconomic challenges to say the least. While money doesn’t solve everything, it sure as hell helps. Inuvik, Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk were actually doing relatively well due to energy exploration up there when compared to Arctic communities without any natural resource development. People were learning trades and energy companies were contributing some great infrastructure to the communities.

A road to the South was supposed to come with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline which would have reduced the cost of living the the Arctic dramatically for Delta communities along with providing reasonable access to larger centers. Tourism would flourish and those towns could become shipping centers along with energy capitals. Things were looking good.

Alas, we destroyed all that potential. Those communities now languish as government dependents. Like other isolated communities with little to no local economy to speak of, substance abuse and other social ills have begun to become acute. What else is there to do? What is there to look forward to?

There is essentially another Alberta worth of oil and gas sitting in the Canadian Arctic. We are fools for refusing to develop it and we can rest assured that if we don’t, some other country will do so. How could we stop them? What would our claim be? We don’t appear ready to develop it and we can’t even get to it?

Time is running out. If we don’t act we will lose control of the Arctic. I suspect that China and Russia won’t treat it with the respect that we do when they move in and start shipping and developing.

It will be tough for other nations to claim rights up there if we have flourishing coastal communities accessing and developing the resources. It will be much easier to claim sovereignty over the passage if Inuvik is a well utilized shipping port.

Despite claims from extreme environments, the reality is that demand for fossil fuels will continue to grow for decades and its use will continue to happen for generations. Let’s embrace reality for a change and develop these resources while we can. Otherwise, we will see new flags flying over the Arctic and we won’t be able to do a damn thing about it.


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