European explorers had long speculated about the existence of an Arctic route that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and would avoid the long journey around South America’s Cape Horn.
For centuries, able seafarers failed to find the Northwest Passage, among them John Cabot, Henry Hudson, Francis Drake and James Cook.
Harsh weather, thick ice and treacherous shallows forced many expeditions to turn back. Those that didn’t ended in disaster, such as the expedition led by British naval officer John Franklin, a retired diplomat and explorer who had never actually attempted a polar expedition by sea before, in 1845.
Exactly what happened to the Franklin expedition was a mystery that captured the public imagination. Dozens of missions to find the ships were launched, and while they never found them, during the search the northern waterways of Canada were mapped and explored.
John Rae, a Scottish explorer and a consultant for the Hudson Bay Company, contacted native Inuit who had found the remains of some of the members of the doomed expedition. He concluded that “it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative – cannibalism”.
Apart from these findings, the fate of the expedition remained a mystery for almost 170 years when the wreckage of one of the ships was found by a Canadian scientific team. The official announcement of the find was made by Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada.
“This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” he said, in a bombastic statement to the press. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”
In 1903, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and six other men set out in a tiny ship, the Gjoa. Sailing from east to west, they drew on the expertise of indigenous Inuit people to brave the dangerous conditions and reached Alaska in 1906.
The next recorded transit of the Northwest Passage, this time from west to east, was completed by the Canadian RCMP vessel St. Roch in 1942.
Over the years, there have been 410 recorded transits, mostly by Canadian icebreakers and small adventure yachts. The first cargo ship to achieve a transit was the SS Manhattan, a reinforced tanker accompanied by several icebreakers in 1969.
In 1984, the Lindblad Explorer became the first cruise ship to complete the passage, carrying 104 passengers on a trip from New York to the Japanese port of Yokohama. Thirty-two years later, the Crystal Serenity set a new record, carrying 1,100 cruise passengers through the passage at once.
Although the passage presents an attractive shortcut for maritime traffic between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, only a dozen or two vessels attempt to navigate the poorly charted Canadian Arctic Archipelago during the brief summer window each year.
Many are sturdy coast guard icebreakers, adventure cruises and thrill-seekers in small, nimble boats hoping to pick their way through fields of floating ice that can easily strand unprepared mariners. By contrast, the Northern Sea Route is generally open to traffic from late -July through mid-November and witnessed as many as 46 vessel passages in 2012.
Canada’s position is that the North-West Passage is already Canadian. In an official statement to the Guardian, Christine Constantin, a spokeswoman for the Canadian embassy in Washington, said: “All waters of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, including the various waterways known as the ‘North-West Passage’, are internal waters of Canada … Canada’s sovereignty over its waters in the Arctic is longstanding and well established.
“No one disputes that the various waterways known as the ‘North-West Passage’ are Canadian waters.”
Unfortunately, the United States disputes just that. A State Department official told the Guardian there has been “no recent change in our position – the North-West Passage is an international strait”.
This might come as news to most Canadians. “If you asked the average Canadian,” says Tim Harper, a columnist for the Toronto Star (and no relation to the PM), “they would have no idea there was dispute. We believe that is our territory.”
Since 1973, barely a few years after the S.S. Manhattan’s transit through the Northwest Passage, Canada has held that these waters constitute internal waters under historic title and thus fall under full Canadian sovereignty. In 1986, following a controversial transit of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker CGS Polar Sea, Ottawa drew straight baselines around the Arctic Archipelago, breathing legal life into its claim.
Bending ever so slightly to Ottawa’s insistence, the U.S. in 1988 made an exception to its rigid navigational freedoms mantra and acknowledged that future voyages by U.S. government, or government – chartered, vessels in these claimed internal waters would be undertaken with the consent of the Canadian government (without prejudice though to the U.S. legal position vis -à -vis these Arctic waters).
Further, by asserting visible acts of sovereignty on a recurring basis, Canada should stymie and resist any move to internationalize and classify the Passage as a strait in the years and decades ahead.
Putting aside the unlikely event that the Americans would ever agree to abandon their position that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway, Canada must act out of character and realize that you can turn a disputed claim of sovereignty into de facto ownership if only you spend money and invest human and ﬁnancial resources. Canada needs to establish a deepwater port, and attendant vessels and aircraft. Concrete actions would allow Canada’s real-world posture to mirror what are now only words and legal assertions.