The Arctic ice cap is melting at an unprecedented rate, off- and on-shore resource development dependent upon Arctic shipping is expanding, and trans-Arctic commercial shipping is becoming a reality. 

An open ocean is being born, and an unprecedented opportunity for Canadian economic development and responsible social policies is emerging.

Just as Canada aligned transportation, trade, investment, and value-added opportunities through the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative, so the federal government needs to address Canada’s governance gap on Arctic marine and related northern resource and community development.    

The minister for the Arctic Council, Leona Aglukkaq, recently said Canada would make economic development and shipping new priorities during Canada’s two-year term as Arctic Council chair, a positive sign of new thinking about the Arctic. 

On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, Russian President Vladimir Putin is implementing a comprehensive national strategy of state support to exploit the economic opportunities afforded by new physical and legal accessibility to resources in the Russian Arctic region. 

Canada competes directly with Russia for petrochemical and mining investment and for the jobs and growth this investment provides.

Russia recently introduced legislation on regulating and implementing the Northern Sea Route as a means of opening up Russian Arctic petrochemical and mining resources and creating a faster and cheaper alternative to the Suez Canal. Russia is also building several giant new nuclear and diesel-electric icebreakers to support Arctic resource development and navigation. 

The Russian government is vigorously promoting integrated port, rail, road, satellite communications, and industrial development throughout the Russian Arctic with various foreign partners. 

The Scandinavian countries are co-operating intensively bilaterally with Russia and amongst themselves as a national priority on new Arctic marine transport, surface infrastructure, and resource development projects. 

The North American situation

Canada has made important strides in its Arctic on environmental stewardship, scientific research, the creation of and devolution of certain powers to territorial governments, strengthened aboriginal rights (including land title and self-government), attention to the welfare of local communities, a careful project-by-project approach to resource development, and symbolic military expressions of sovereignty.   

But this system of dispersed governance is proving unwieldy from a jobs and growth point of view. Federal responsibility for Arctic economic development is clear constitutionally, but under-exercised in practice, diffused as it is among a number of ministries with heavy non-Arctic responsibilities and competing budget pressures. 

The recent announcement on Radarsat and federal efforts to streamline project permitting in the North are positive signs, but heated security rhetoric and slow-moving multilateral diplomacy have overshadowed critical domestic economic policy and infrastructure requirements in the Canadian Arctic. 

Canada has limited or non-existent Arctic Ocean icebreaking, deepwater port, oil spill remediation, search and rescue, reliable charting, and navigational aid capacities. 

Small communities have dangerously poor port facilities. East-West Arctic air service is non-existent. Serious development will be impossible without better facilities, given the very challenging natural conditions of the Arctic. 

Resource development projects face an often-prohibitive financial bar because of lack of public infrastructure normally found in the South and lack of planned synergies with neighbouring projects. Private sector developers must do everything themselves, almost like establishing a base on the moon.

Meetings of corporate, aboriginal and government leaders and experts both in Canada and Alaska have recently raised the alarm about the need for more pro-active and better co-ordinated federal approaches in both Canada and the United States to marine, ground, and air transport infrastructure, and resource and local community development. 

Private stakeholders are now fully aware of environmental, safety and aboriginal engagement imperatives, and feel these human security goals will suffer in the absence of planned, prudent transportation development and new public infrastructure investment.

For different reasons and starting from a stronger base, United States Arctic economic policy is as icebound as Canada’s in the face of the inevitable opening and commercialization of sea routes and accelerated resource development in the Arctic Ocean. 

High-level American concern is growing in Alaska and the Congress over: the need for additional Coast Guard icebreakers; deep water ports; safe and efficient marine corridors; stronger marine environmental regulation in ice-covered waters; UNCLOS ratification; quicker processes to permit resource development; an examination of new terminals at either end of the Arctic Ocean; and military activities that directly support developmental goals. 

The case for co-operation

Meanwhile, Canada and the US share a unique framework of bilateral treaties and pragmatic arrangements, such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, the International Joint Commission, the International Boundary Commission, NAFTA, NORAD, the Permanent Joint Board on Defense, and the Beyond the Border plan, as well as practical department-to-department co-operation in many Arctic fields.  

These bilateral linkages provide a uniquely strong foundation for potential new bilateral co-operation in meeting North America’s new Arctic maritime challenges as a stepping stone to much closer co-operation with other countries like Russia bordering on the Arctic Ocean. 

As natural partners in the Arctic, the governments of Canada and the United States nationally and sub-nationally should align their efforts through a new high level initiative to facilitate sustainable, efficient, safe, and secure northern marine highways from the Bering Strait in Alaska to Northeast Canada. 

These new bi-national marine safety corridors would invigorate destination shipping in support of sustainable resource and local community development in the North American Arctic, lay the groundwork for large cruise ship tourism in Arctic Canada, and provide a North American link between East Asia and the East Coast of North America. This could provide a North American alternative to the emerging Russian commercial monopoly on Arctic shipping.  

The challenge to Canada starts at home. If Canada is to promote Arctic maritime, resource, tourism, and community development while meeting important social goals in the new Arctic, then better national planning, smart new federal infrastructure investment, and improved private-public partnerships will be essential. 

An objective arms-length Arctic policy review like that recently performed by David Emerson on the aerospace industry or John Manley’s panel on Afghanistan would be a good first step. 

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.