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SSNS Home > Check This First > News > Northern Manitoba News > Churchill > Churchill & Canadian Sovereignty


Churchill and Canadian Sovereignty in the North

Churchill’s strategic location has become increasingly important as Canada asserts its territorial claims to the Arctic. Follow the debate to determine the appropriate role for Churchill as Canada turns northward.


5 August 2007: “Once again, Churchill gets left out in cold: Politics will send port elsewhere” [Winnipeg Free Press, A4]

Journalist Dan Lett deserves praise for explaining why Churchill was unlikely to be seriously considered as the base for a proposed fleet of Arctic patrol vessels. Churchill seems the logical choice. It is a deep-water port, fully developed, with rail links to the rest of the continent, and it presently supplies most of the dry goods and fuel required by Nunavut communities. Doesn't it make sense that it also harbour the fleet that will assert Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic? It would seem so, but in politics, common sense often takes second place to expediency. In this case, as Lett pointed out, there were other interests. Nunavut politicians wanted their own deepwater port that would enable freighters to come in directly to their communities. At present they receive their goods on barges that are towed in from Churchill. However, Nunavut politicians have little clout in and of themselves. Add the voices of Quebec companies that would like to take over the business of supplying the North, and you have a powerful lobby, particularly with a Conservative government that is wooing the Quebec voter. It gets worse. It is in the interest of big grain companies,[1] the railways,[2]and the three provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia to see Churchill diminished.[3]

Yet the HBR-Churchill Route is the best option for many Manitoba and Saskatchewan farmers wanting to get their grain to market at the cheapest rate. The railway is doing an excellent job of transporting the grain allocated to it by the Canadian Wheat Board. It is also doing a good job of supplying the eastern Arctic with “groceries and gasoline.” Its owners are at present negotiating with the federal and provincial governments to increase the storage capacity and improve the infrastructure of Churchill. Churchill’s airport can accept the largest cargo planes, and it has a “fuel tank farm,” for the storage and distribution of oil products.

Even though Churchill might be the best choice, for those who know the history of the Hudson Bay Railroad, the best choice is not always made by politicians, especially when they want to gain the support of voters in powerful regions of the country. It was the influence of influential Montreal businessmen that almost prevented the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill from being built in the first place. Those same interests may still be working against the facility. There aren't many voters in Churchill and the communities along the HBR, and the farmers of Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan are ever decreasing in numbers, so the political clout they can muster is limited. However, if the costs attached to alternatives were calculated, it might just tip the balance in Churchill’s favour. It was a miracle the HBR and the Port of Churchill were even built; it might take another miracle to ensure them a permanent place in the transportation infrastructure of Western Canada.


Addendum: In response to Dan Lett’s article, Clem Toner wrote a letter to The Winnipeg Free Press entitled “Churchill wrong for port.” He pointed out that Churchill was not the ideal location for a base from which to exercise Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic. The reason was geographic. Churchill is simply too far away from the area that needs to be patrolled. This is a good point. Toner went on to claim that the High Arctic is more accessible from eastern ports than it is from Churchill, but he did not explain how he came to that conclusion. He may be right. He was unconvinced by the old arguments about political interference, and claimed that the decision about the new location of an Arctic base would be made by the cabinet, not by Stephen Harper alone, based on advice from the Department of National Defence. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but there are more votes in eastern Canada than in Churchill, and our politicians know that.

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11 August 2007: Snubbing of Churchill outrages Manitoba politicians [Winnipeg Free Press, A6]

According to Mia Rabson, Manitoba’s politicians were “outraged” over Ottawa’s decision to bypass Churchill as the site for two new military facilities in the Arctic. However, judging by the reactions of those politicians as reported by Rabson, “outraged” seemed a little exaggerated. Churchill Mayor Mike Spence rightly pointed out that the Ottawa decision was short-sighted. It was obviously the cheaper site, having rail links to the south, an airport, and other facilities that did not exist in either of the places chosen by Harper’s Conservatives. Premier Doer thought the government “erred” in its decision, and he would continue to promote Churchill in the hope that Ottawa would change its mind. Liberal MP Tina Keeper, representing the federal riding of Churchill, did not say what she would do. According to Rabson’s report, Keeper is uncertain whether anything would come of Harper’s announcement.

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11 August 2007: “Two new sites to back claim Arctic is ours” [Winnipeg Free Press, A6]

In a Canadian Press article by Alexander Panetta, we learned that Prime Minister Harper had made it official. Two new military facilities would be built in the Arctic and neither of them would be in Churchill. Instead, he had chosen Resolute Bay and Nanisivik. Resolute Bay was only 2ºC, when Harper was there to make the announcement, so perhaps it was a good choice for a new army training centre for cold weather fighting. Apparently, the new facility will house up to 100 military personnel, so it’s not large. The new deep-sea port will be built at Nanisivik on the north end of Baffin Island, apparently for “navy and civilian purposes,” whatever that means, but perhaps Churchill can take heart. If the old complaint that Churchill had a short shipping season still holds, it can’t be any better at the north end of Baffin Island. If global warming continues, there should be more ice bergs floating up there, and that would surely disrupt those Montreal ships that will be waiting to take over commerce from Churchill. And, who knows what will happen now that cooling appears to be occurring? It was a disappointment for Churchill, but the priority in Ottawa was to establish sovereignty in the high Arctic, and that undoubtedly privileged the more northerly sites. There may be a silver lining, though. Since Ottawa had turned down Churchill as the northern port, it could be willing to support other ventures that Churchill might promote in the future. Time will tell.

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3 October 2007: “PM to announce new deal for Churchill?” [Winnipeg Free Press, A6]

Mia Rabson reported on a trip that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was planning to Churchill and suggested that he might possibly announce “a federal-provincial agreement to upgrade the northern Manitoba port and the rail line linking it with the south.” Since Manitoba and Ottawa had been discussing an upgrade of the port of Churchill facilities and Premier Doer and a “number of other senior federal ministers” were accompanying Harper on his visit, the suggestion seemed sound.

Rabson pointed out that “the port is mainly used by the Canadian Wheat Board to ship grain overseas as well as to ship supplies in communities in Nunavut,” but it is hoped that it will become “a new link between North America and markets in Asia.” She also noted that the province had asked the federal government to help upgrade the Hudson Bay Railway, which is privately owned by OmniTRAX Canada and the only land link Churchill has to Southern Manitoba. This could be accomplished through the new federal-provincial infrastructure deal that is presently being negotiated.

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4 October 2007: “Churchill’s new life all about friends in high places” [Winnipeg Free Press, A3]

Dan Lett began his article with “It appears that Churchill may once again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.” “Deep political sources” were telling him that Prime Minister Harper would be in Churchill on October 5 to “announce a deal to improve both the rail line and port facilities” just a week after the town had been turned down as the location for the new deep sea Arctic port. He reiterated the main points of his August 5 article, describing Churchill as “public enemy No. 1 for big grain companies and railways” and quipping that “any time you try to get grain companies and railways thinking about vertical [north/south as opposed to east/west] movement, they faint.”

When Churchill faced an earlier crisis in the 1990s, it was Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy who helped put together a deal enabling Denver-based OmniTrax to purchase the rail line from CN. More recently Premier Doer pushed for Churchill as the Arctic deep sea port, and when it didn't come through, he was quiet, possibly because he knew something else was in the works. In late July, Manitoba Transportation Minister Ron Lemieux challenged Ottawa to upgrade the port and railway and Treasury Board President Vic Toews replied that there was nothing preventing the province from applying for money under a federal infrastructure program. What effect this had is anyone’s guess, but Lett speculated that the deal was finally made between Doer and Harper “face to face.” Both men bypassed the regional ministers in the past to achieve their goals. In Lett’s concluding words, “Churchill should be glad this premier and that prime minister get along.”

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6 October 2007: “$68 million to fix port, rail line” [Winnipeg Free Press, A3]

Mary Agnes Welch reported on the bonanza that Churchill received, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper came calling on October 5. The port would get “as much as $8 million in upgrades over the next few years to boost its storage capacity, so that ships will not be stuck waiting to load and unload grain and other goods.” One of the first projects would be a “new bulk storage facility” used for “new imports” like the 18,000 tonnes of fertilizer that was expected from Russia in the middle of October. $60 million [$20 million from Ottawa, $20 million from Manitoba, $20 million from OmniTRAX] would be used to repair the rail line “linking grain farmers all over Western Canada directly to the Port of Churchill and the global market.” The line is in disrepair and was even closed down for a week last summer, so this is welcome news for Churchill.

Things were really looking up. The port had a “stellar year” with exports of “600,000 tonnes of grain, a thirty year high.” It had also been ice-free for longer than usual. The prime minister was also encouraging. While in Churchill, he made it clear that the port would not be abandoned. “As an entryway to the great Hudson Bay and the Far North, Churchill has played a major role in northern development throughout our country’s history, Harper said, “Rest assured, as the world beats a path to our Arctic doorstep, our government is working hard to ensure that Canada is ready to greet them when they arrive.” The only sour note was that there were no representatives from the Canadian Wheat Board among the political and business leaders at the announcement. The Wheat Board has supported the port for many years, but the present federal government's vow to dismantle the Board left the future of grain export through Churchill up in the air. Still, Prime Minister Harper promised that “the Government of Canada will ensure this port is used and that there are shipments.” It remains to be seen if the government is true to its word.

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9 October 2007: “Churchill deserving” [Winnipeg Free Press, A14]

This Free Press editorial expressed approval for the federal government’s decision to upgrade the Port of Churchill and the H.B.R. It noted that in years past, use of the port facilities there was limited because of the short season, and “Canada’s rail companies preferred efficiency over patriotism and built an infrastructure to support southern ports.” The Canadian Wheat Board kept the port going – “90 percent of shipments are grain and 80 per cent of that is board wheat.”

The implication here is that it was more efficient to transport Canada’s grain by rail east through Thunder Bay, the Great Lakes, and the St. Lawrence Seaway. However, was this really more efficient in view of the fact that the Churchill route was considerably shorter? Perhaps there were political considerations as well. When the H. B. R. was first constructed, it was the hope that it would be a short and economical route to Europe. Patriotism didn't enter into the picture.

The Free Press compared Churchill’s past disadvantages with its apparent advantages today. It was now ice free for much longer than in the past. Arctic trade possibilities had increased, particularly because of Russian interest in a northern shipping route linking the Russian port of Murmansk with Churchill. Also, it was an important link in Canada’s claim to control of the Arctic. The editorial mentioned that there was $40 million pledged by the federal government to look “at how animals, marine life and pollution have been affected as global temperatures rise,” and that this research would help to support Canadian claims to the north. By mentioning the research money while extolling the present advantages of Churchill as a northern port, the implication followed that some of that research money would flow to Churchill. However, this was never stated outright in the article.

A quick read might suggest to the reader that the $40 million research pledge would be going to Churchill. A more careful read reveals that nowhere is this explicitly stated. So, the critical reader might ask, why was this reference included here?

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13 October 2007: “Springtime for Churchill" [Winnipeg Free Press, A6]

Mia Rabson and Larry Kusch reiterated earlier reports on the “banner year” Churchill had in 2007, but added a couple of points of their own. Churchill benefited from “a flurry of mine exploration and development in western Nunavut” through its “Arctic resupply business.” It was also to receive a shipment of fertilizer from Murmansk on October 16, the first cargo to pass between the two ports via the “so-called Arctic Bridge.” which the Russians felt was more efficient than the route to Thunder Bay because Churchill was “four days closer to Russia.”

After reviewing the recent cash infusion announced by the prime minister, Kusch and Rabson looked at the possible future of the port.

1. Trade Expansion with Asia: The development of a trade route between Russia and Canada (Murmansk/Churchill) would provide a short, efficient link between Asian manufactures and midwestern U.S. markets that would bypass West coast ports like Vancouver and Seattle. A Manitoba/Russia agreement was expected early in 2008 to explore ways to promote the “Arctic Bridge” to business interests.

Challenges: The Russians had offered their ice-breakers to clear the route between Murmansk and Churchill for 10 months of the year, but since they planted their flag on the north pole Canada was reluctant to agree. Some argued that the shipping season had to be year-round to make the route competitive. Also, in order for businesses to use the port of Churchill, it had to be upgraded. The Russians had already committed $2 billion to the port at Murmansk.

2. Increased Grain Transport: The goal of OmniTRAX was to upgrade the port facilities to be able to handle more than twice the volume of grain it was presently handling.

Challenges: The CPR and CNR transported grain to Thunder Bay, Vancouver, and Prince Rupert because they could collect more freight charges on these longer routes. They also had storage facilities at these ports, so they could also charge for storage and handling. They had no facilities at Churchill. Some grain customers were hesitant to pick up grain from Churchill. Also, the Harper government was unfriendly to the Wheat Board, which supplied 80 percent of the grain going through the port.

3. Increased Transport of Other Freight: The goal is to increase the transport of goods coming into the Arctic from Canada and other countries as well as the transport of ore from northern mining communities to southern Canada. Already goods were being shipped via Churchill to some Nunavut communities and northern mining communities.

Challenges: The port facilities needed increased storage space and handling equipment, if it was to start receiving shipments from overseas. Some of the federal money announced by Prime Minister Harper would be used to upgrade the port.

4. Make Churchill the Military Re-Supply Centre for the Arctic: This would mean that all supplies for the new deep sea port and military training site in Nunavut would come through Churchill, which was closer than either Halifax or Montreal to the planned military sites.

Challenges: The rail line to Churchill, the H.B.R., had to be upgraded to ensure a reliable and efficient supply line for military supplies. In order to obtain the military supply contracts, Churchill had to convince the Canadian government that it was cheaper and more efficient than either Halifax or Montreal.

To be valuable to the reader, an article must be informative. By describing four “key areas for the port” in the coming years, then listing the challenges that each area presented, how did Kusch and Rabson inform the reader? Why is this approach more useful than just listing what the port authorities hope to achieve in the upcoming years?

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15 September 2008: “In many more ways than one … The Arctic Heats up” [Winnipeg Free Press, A11]

It was federal election time and the political parties were making promises. Journalist Tom Ford noticed that Prime Minister Harper visited the Arctic for three days in August and promised a “$100-million fund to boost geo-mapping searches for minerals and oil and gas deposits and promised to strengthen regulations for ships using the Arctic.” [Evidently, Harper thought that economic development was a good thing for the North, and it was a good strategy to get Northern votes. After all, families needed incomes and a future for their children].

Stéphane Dion, on the other hand, argued that environmental issues need priority over economic development. [This would win ‘green’ votes from fervent environmentalists, who thought the Arctic ice was soon to disappear, but in view of the fact that the earth had not been warming for ten years and there had been slight cooling recently, that argument was wearing thin.] The Americans were concerned, too, because they didn’t want any Canadian action to interfere with the international status of the Arctic Northwest Passage.

There was a great deal of interest in the Arctic. Two international organizations had been set up to figure out who owned what and how it should be developed, and other nations besides Canada were staking a claim to the area. The big interest was oil, and some companies were drilling. [This should have been some comfort to Northern people who were paying obscene prices for fuel. But wait. We had to save the Planet, didn’t we? So maybe the sooner we returned to dog teams the better. Anyway, wasn’t that what Northeners really wanted?] Ford pointed out that the government was even involved in the search for Sir John Franklin’s ships that were lost in the 1840s, in part because it was a good heritage project, but also because finding them could “strengthen Canada’s sovereignty claims in the Arctic.”

Ford pointed out that we were already asserting Canadian sovereignty. “About 120 regular Canadian Forces soldiers and 70 Canadian Rangers, the largely aboriginal reserve that helped patrol the Arctic, had just finished manoeuvres with two warships and some surveillance planes.” Behind much of this activity was the belief that the Arctic ice was melting rapidly. The Canadian Ice Service had reported an “unprecedented” opening in Beaufort Sea, north of the Yukon Alaska border” and the melt in 2008 was expected to “exceed the history-making one in 2007.” [Too bad, Tom, you hadn’t waited and read the September 16 post at Anthony Watt’s website. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado the sea ice minimum for 2008 is 9.4% higher than the minimum for 2007. Shouldn’t that calm the hearts of the global warmers?]

The spectre of Global warming led five neighbouring nations (Canada, Denmark, United States, Russia, and Norway) to set up an Arctic G-5 group to “oversee polar oil and mineral exploration, maritime security and transportation and environmental regulations.” This group has to work with another group, the Arctic Council, which includes these five nations as well as Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and indigenous people “to develop rules for managing Arctic resources and environmental threats.” According to a recent study it sponsored, “the Arctic could become increasingly militarized as demand for energy, minerals and fresh water outpaces and overwhelms diplomacy.” Certainly interest is awakening. Oil companies are becoming active in the area, including BP in the Beaufort Sea, Shell Oil in the Chukchi Sea, and Exxon Mobil along the coast of the Yukon and Northwest Territories [Those nasty oil companies! At it again!].

Any disputes over who controls what have to be submitted to the United Nations convention on the Law of the Sea by 2013, with no decision until 2020. In the meantime “our fleet of offshore patrol ships is expanding, and we’ll be building a deep-water refuelling facility for naval vessels.” All this may be too little, too late, according to University of Manitoba professor, Garry Storm, who said “the rate of ice melting is exponential because heat normally reflected back by white Arctic ice is instead retained by darker-coloured water and soil and contributes to additional melting.” [Is this Gary A. Storm, B.A., M. Ed., Ph.D (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) presently an associate professor, Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba? What research supports this viewpoint? Check our Hot Topics pages on Global Warming and see if you can find the research on which Storm bases that claim.]

Global Warming theorising aside, Ford’s article clearly outlined the increased interest in the Arctic. People in Churchill need to pay attention and consider the economic spinoffs that could occur, benefiting not only that Northern port, but the Hudson Bay Railway and the communities along its length. Keep watching as events unfold. The next few years should be interesting.

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23 January 2009: “Tories weigh costly Arctic sovereignty plan” [Winnipeg Free Press, A5]

According to an article by Murray Brewster, asserting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic could cost as much as $843 a year. This would be over and above the “estimated $4.5-billion capital outlay for new light icebreakers, a deepwater port and a support base.”

Research by various government agencies underscore the great financial challenge of asserting Canada’s presence in a region where “the vastness, isolation and lack of existing infrastructure will lead to increased costs in all aspects of implementation and operations.”

Various plans have been considered. One for $3.1-billion proposes “to build as many as eight smaller icebreakers capable of operating off all three coasts” rather than building “three armed, heavy ice-breakers” to patrol the Arctic waters. The federal government has also considered the construction of a “deepwater port and base in Nanisivik, Nunavut, and a winter warfare school of excellence.”

In spite of the cost of all these ventures, the return on the investment could be enormous, especially if there is great mineral wealth beneath the Arctic lands. However, others are interested as well. The United States and the European Union have issued statements asserting their own sovereignty in the region regardless of Canadian feelings on the matter. In the meantime, the government is moving ahead with its plans.

Discussion: The North is becoming increasingly important as its strategic importance is more widely recognised. The threat of global warming certainly directed the attention of governments to the north. However, global cooling may be in the offing, if recent downturns in temperature worldwide continue. Investigate to see if this makes any difference to the possible Canadian-Asian trade via the Arctic. Are modern ice-breakers equipped to handle Arctic ice economically?

What could it mean to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, if the United States and Europe decided to assert their own claims to the region? Is the cost of asserting Canadian sovereignty worth the expense?

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1 March 2009: “Fears grow over military presence in the Far North” [Winnipeg Free Press, A7]                             
Arctic politics are heating up, and its not global warming. According to Randy Boswell, Canwest News Service, countries with a stake in the Arctic are becoming a bit testy. The Canadian government just announced that “Canadian fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian bomber on the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s February 19 visit to Ottawa” and Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland were weighing “a possible military pact to defence each other against potential aggression on the polar frontier.” Foreign ministers from each of these Nordic countries meet in May to work out how they would respond if any of them were attacked or pressured by a hostile foreign power.

Melting sea ice has opened up the possibility of Arctic development in “shipping, tourism, and oil extraction,” thereby, increasing its strategic importance to the surrounding nations. They are all vying for a portion of that wealth, but security is an issue, too. The Nordic countries fear Russia’s “revitalized military activity in the polar north,” including a recent commitment “to strengthening military training and infrastructure” there.

Canada is keeping an eye on developments. Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Prime Minister Stephen Harper “made strong statements on Friday conveying concern about the latest Russian flight in the Arctic,” although critics argued that the Conservative government was “exploiting a relatively routine encounter with a Russian aircraft to bolster support for its spending on the Canadian military and the Arctic region.” However, University of Calgary political scientist Rob Huebert said “it’s important for the Canadian government to respond firmly to displays of Russian military power in the Arctic region.”

One of the issues at stake involves Canadian sovereignty along the Northwest Passage, which goes through a region of islands belonging to Canada. Both the U.S.A. and European nations reject Canada’s claim. However, if the route is in international waters, then flights by the Russians, Chinese, Americans, or Europeans have to be permitted. This naturally poses problems for a number of countries, because Russian foreign policy is becoming “more ambitious and self-assertive,” and the “High North is still of military-strategic importance as a base for Russia’s nuclear fleet and as an exercise area.”

Discussion: If the Northwest Passage becomes an increasingly divisive issue internationally, what impact could that have on the proposed Arctic trade route between Murmansk and Churchill? What kind of control would Canada be able to exercise, if its sovereignty were recognised along the Northwest Passage? Would its control of the North be jeopardised, if the Arctic waters became an international free zone? The U.S.A. disputes Canada’s claims of sovereignty regarding the Northwest Passage, but would it be any happier about Russian ships coming through an unimpeded international waterway open to all?

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27 July 2009: “Denmark to beef up military in Arctic: Latest nation to do so; sparks worries of conflict” [Winnipeg Free Press, A7]

This article by Bob Weber, The Canadian Press, provided an update concerning the growing military presence in the Arctic. In July 2009, Denmark “released an all-party defence position paper that suggest[ed] substantial improvements to the country’s northern capabilities.” It recommended that an Arctic military contingent be created that combined the assets of army, navy, and air force with ship-based helicopters, so that troops could be dropped anywhere in Greenland if the need arose. The existing surveillance system would be upgraded and inspection vessels replaced.

According to Brig.-Gen. Joergen Jacobsen, Denmark’s defence attaché for Canada, all of this was necessary because, “Global warming is expected to melt (the sea ice) and that would lead to increased activity in the Arctic area.”

Others were getting into the act as well. Russia was increasing the number of its icebreakers in the region and intended to create “an Arctic special forces unit” as well. Plans were in the works to modernize its northern fleet, and long range bombers had already been sent to the “airspace boundaries of several Arctic countries.” Norway bought “48 Lockheed F-35 fighter jets for its Arctic patrols, and in March 2009, it “held a major Arctic military practice involving 7,000 soldiers from 13 countries in which a fictional country called Northland seized offshore oil rigs.” Russia considered this a provocation and protested the manoeuvres. It protested again in June 2009, when Sweden “held its largest northern military exercise since the end of the Second World War” involving “about “12,000 troops, 50 aircraft and several warships.” Both Norway and Sweden could become part of a proposed security alliance that would also involve Iceland, Denmark, and Finland.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon did not feel that the present military activity in the Arctic was going to lead to confrontation, but rather to “co-operation and collaboration.” Nevertheless, Canada had been “increasing the frequency and size of its Arctic military exercises for years” and had “promised new northern warships and military infrastructure.” An Arctic unit was being established at Yellowknife, N.W.T.

Discussion: If co-operation and collaboration, rather than confrontation, was the aim of the countries interested in Arctic development, as claimed by Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, why the military manoeuvres each had undertaken? What do the involved countries fear? And, is there justification for fear?

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16 August 2009: “No Time to waste in the Arctic” [Winnipeg Free Press, A10]

Peter McKenna, associate professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, began his article by asserting that “the North is experiencing profound change – precipitated mostly by climate change and warming temperatures.” He figured that this would mean opportunities for “increased shipping, oil and gas extraction, and mining,” a challenge for which Canada was evidently preparing, as witnessed by a 40-page document entitled Northern Strategy it published in July 2009. According to McKenna, there was “a sense of relief that Ottawa had finally encapsulated Canada’s Arctic approach within a coherent policy framework,” an “Arctic blueprint,” so to speak, consisting of “four key parts: exercising sovereignty over the Arctic, promoting social and economic development, protecting our northern environment and improving governance for our northern peoples.”

Ottawa seemed to mean business. It was “moving to construct an army training centre in Resolute Bay, a deep-water fuelling facility in Nanisivik, a new world-class research station in the High Arctic, a new polar icebreaker, as well as expanding and modernizing the Canadian Rangers.” However, progress had been slow. An Arctic patrol-boat program was “put on hold and scaled back,” and the building of the icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker was still “on the drawing board.” This was unacceptable.

Since it had ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 2003, Canada was obligated to assert its claim to the Arctic continental shelf by 2013. However, it was still not clear whether “Canada’s claim would overlap those emanating from Denmark, Russia, and the United States.” From McKenna’s perspective, Canada needed to act quickly, because Russia was increasingly “exhibiting signs of severe Arctic possessiveness.”

McKenna wrote that Canada had to be prepared “to spend significant sums of money” to assert its Arctic claims, and make stronger political statements on its interests in the North, especially those of an “environmental, economic and security nature.” It needed to “enhance its surveillance and enforcement capability in all regions of the Arctic archipelago – beginning with a crucial modernization of the Canadian Coast Guard.” He also recommended that the “lead bureaucratic or organizational entity for Arctic matters” be shifted from National Defence to Foreign Affairs (along with Indian Affairs and Northern Development) and to “a high-powered cabinet committee.” The government also needed to “reinstate the position of ambassador of circumpolar affairs,” which it had cut in 2006 to save money. McKenna felt that the government had to act decisively and quickly, or nobody would take Canada’s interests seriously. He concluded by saying, “The government needs to act – and to act with dispatch. After all, the sea ice is melting a lot faster than many had first predicted. We no longer have any time to waste.”

Discussion: How important are Canadian sovereignty issues to the development of Churchill as an international Arctic port? Since it is in an ideal geographic position to capitalise on Asian trade coming into a Central North American market, would it matter if the Arctic became an international free trade zone? McKenna assumed that an ice-free Arctic will exist in the future. What if this doesn’t happen? Investigate to find out if the ice is actually disappearing from the Arctic. If the ice does not melt, what would that mean to dreams of Churchill as a transhipment centre for Asian-North American trade via the Arctic Ocean? For more information on the capacity of icebreakers to get through Arctic ice, see Icebreakers and ice strengthened ships , and Cold Irony: Arctic Sea Ice Traps Climate Tour Icebreaker.

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19 August 2009: “Perfect time for Arctic snow job” [Winnipeg Free Press, A10]

For those who interested in periodic updates on Canada’s efforts to assert its sovereignty in Arctic Canada, this article by Don Martin, Canwest News Service, certainly fits the bill. Martin considered midsummer the perfect time for a Conservative “snow job.” The government would focus on Arctic sovereignty and wave the flag, but it didn’t really intend to do anything about it, except as a strategy to embarrass “opposition rivals who are mostly mute on the popular issue.”

To underscore his point, Martin added, “But in terms of the oft-promised ice-puncturing ships, ocean floor submarine sensors, deep sea port or mandatory passage registration regulations, his Arctic strategy has produced little beyond downgraded contracts, project delays and regurgitated news releases.” Oh, yes, there would be “Operation Nanook with 700 soldiers, an ice-breaker and one of our rarely operational submarines engaged in a make-believe show of coastal defence,” but it would all be window-dressing. It’s not about sovereignty at all. In fact, the updated Northern Strategy insists that “Canada’s sovereignty over its Arctic lands and island is undisputed, with the exception of Hans Island, which is claimed by Denmark.” Moreover, “high-profile tension” between Canada and the United States over the Northwest Passage is “well-managed” and poses “no sovereignty challenges for Canada.”

So, there is no crisis, and the snow job is required to explain “what appears to be a retreat from big-ticket spending on the hardware to defend the coastline from the non-existent threat.” According to Arctic expert Michael Byers, it is a “tried and tested” election ploy to promote Arctic sovereignty and make promises to assure it, but those promises are seldom implemented after the election is over.

What then has happened? Eight heavy icebreakers have become six lighter icebreakers. Seeding the Arctic floor with sensors has been “quietly delayed.” A deep sea port has been announced, but nothing beyond the blueprints has materialised. The budget of the new Arctic development office “wouldn’t build a decent highway interchange.” Global warming proponents are now worrying that “shifting sea ice and increased iceberg-calving will make navigating the passage too complicated and costly.”

The government has moved “to soft-pedal the threat to Arctic sovereignty,” which raises “a legitimate question over whether spending the money is a worthwhile investment. “ Martin felt Harper deserved credit “for serving as an advocate of protecting and promoting the Far North,” but questioned whether he aimed “to assert sovereignty over the Arctic or an election-bound House of Commons.”

Discussion: Some questions naturally arise from this article. Has the promised money for modernising and expanding the port facilities of Churchill and for upgrading the Hudson Bay Railway materialised? What progress has been made on these two upgrades? If little has been done, does this argue in favour of Martin’s evaluation of Conservative approach to Arctic sovereignty? Martin wrote that the Northwest Passage was a “7,000-kilometre short-cut for Atlantic ships heading for Asian markets.” Would a shorter route still be economically viable, if the Arctic Ocean did not become ice free? How effective are the icebreakers in existing ice conditions? Why are answers to these questions crucial to the argument for expanded port facilities at Churchill?

Compare Martin’s article with Peter McKenna’s “No time to waste in the Arctic.” What are the similarities and differences between them? Are the articles complementary to one another?

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22 October 2010: “Feds to weigh deck guns for nation’s icebreakers” [Randy Boswell, Post Media News, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press, A21]

In October 2010 the Government of Canada announced its decision to study “the option of placing guns on coast guard ships” in order to assert its sovereignty in the Arctic. It also planned to “review new shipping regulations in the Northwest Passage and other Arctic waters.” The aim here was to extend “mandatory registration of foreign vessels … to all foreign-ship traffic in the region, regardless of size.” Existing regulations applied only to “large freighters and other heavy ships.”

The government’s action met with a positive response from Senator Bill Rompkey, chair person of a Senate fishing committee that had issued a report recommending greater action by Canada to increase its presence in the Arctic. He felt it was important to know what vessels of any kind were doing in the North, citing “terrorism, drug-smuggling, and illegal immigration as potential sources of trouble in a less-frozen Far North.”

The move by the government also met with a favourable response from “two leading experts on Arctic geopolitics.” University of Calgary political scientist Rob Huebert said “it made good sense,” if greater enforcement became necessary. Michael Byers, an expert on international law at the University of British Columbia, described a “deck-mounted gun” as a “reasonable show of force” that did not “constitute a provocation to foreign countries” like Russia.

Discussion: Canada has becoming increasingly interested in the Arctic, after some scientific reports suggested it could be ice-free in a couple of decades. But is this likely? Keep abreast of the debate over Arctic ice at Watts up with that?, one of the leading sceptical Climate Science websites on the Internet. If the Arctic does not become ice free, is there any reason to arm our coast guard ships? What other arguments could justify this action?

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Click on the footnote number to return to the text:

[1] In Lett’s words, “The big grain companies hate Churchill because it does not work into the rationalized, east-west elevator grid that has gripped the West in the wake of the termination of the Crow rate.”

[2] As Lett said it, “The railways hate Churchill because of their corporate obsession with capturing all freight moving out of, or through, western Canada on its main lines in the south. Any leakage north through Hudson Bay is just not in the best interest of the railways.”

[3] Again, in Lett’s words, “Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia hate Churchill because they all have enormous port and seaway systems that must be kept flush with grain. Even a few hundred thousand tonnes, which is probably considered spillage in a big port like Vancouver or Montreal, is too much to give to a lonely, northern seaport.”


Last updated : February 23, 2011


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