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Navigation in the Canadian Arctic

Navigation in the Canadian Arctic

With the consequences of global warming and the advance of technology, the significance of the Arctic and the circumpolar routes are being reconfigured, between the anxiety of sovereignty and the new visions of foreign policy of the States


Laura Borzi*
Article written in collaboration with Osservatorio Artico


Climate change and geopolitical dynamics. This is the combination that since the mid-2000s has drawn attention again to the Arctic region, an area of fundamental importance at the time of the Moscow-Washington confrontation during the Cold War, but then almost disappeared from the strategic debate during the 90's.


Among the consequences of global warming, with the rapid reduction in the extent and volume of sea ice, there is, as is known, the prospect of the opening of the circumpolar routes to international trade which already allow those connections between East and West previously not accessible with an advantage in terms of reduction of distances and travel times.


Arctic sea routes

There are notoriously three sea routes which constitute a shortcut to navigation between the Atlantic and the Pacific:

  1. the North East Passage Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs along the Eurasian continent
  2. the transpolar sea route, the shortest although the most exposed to climate threats
  3. the Northwest Passage (NWP) through the Canadian archipelago and along the coast of Alaska.

If on the whole the trans-Arctic lines are not able to influence in such a way as to overturn the world trading system, and exponential growth in their use should not be expected, nevertheless it is legitimate to hypothesize a continuous expansion, such as to structure the future of the Arctic economy.

Secondly, in the current dynamics of the world power system, the meaning of the Arctic is being reconfigured also because of the conditioning deriving from the guidelines of the rise of Beijing, of its strategic contrast with Washington, of the residual prestige of Moscow which, however, in the North of the world, it enjoys a role of superpower.


Russia and Canada: the two arctic giants

Therefore, the expectations for those involved concern the geopolitical value that navigation in the Arctic is capable of assuming.


This is especially true for the two geographic giants for which the circumpolar environment is an integral part of their political identity, Russia and Canada.


For Moscow, the NSR projects are part of the complex framework of the ambitious Arctic policy whereby the Kremlin sees in the North one of the main strategic bastions and a key region to assert its role as a great power.

The NSR administration is in fact supported by a structured government approach with an Arctic Commission charged with carrying out the economic development and competitiveness of the route.

Moscow's determination and climatic conditions, which translate into different ways of melting ice and a more developed infrastructure, make this route much more practicable than its Canadian variant.


For Canada, the Northwest Passage (NWP) is actually a route of currently limited economic potential.


The NWP remains a poorly used route for international traffic due to complicated geographical conditions and environmental concerns, but also because the Canadian government has not sufficiently supported the challenge.


During the Cold War, American and Canadian maritime activities were functional to the construction and supply of meteorological and radar stations, while Canada was engaged in supplying Arctic settlements. It was therefore a destination traffic, not an international transit.
In 1969 the passage of the US tanker Manhattan managed to raise serious concerns about Canada's sovereignty but did not translate into a solid economic case for the route of the North West. In recent years, a debate about mining and energy resources has generated new interest, reviving Canadian fears about northern control.


Canada - United States: defense against help

In fact, quite another meaning is attributed to the political value of the passage, the one based on the question of sovereignty or the definition of the status of the waters of the Canadian archipelago which basically focuses on the Canada - United States controversy.

For Ottawa, the NWP is part of its inland waters where it exercises full sovereignty, as well as the right to regulate and control the navigation of foreign ships.

Washington, which does not intend to create precedents likely to restrict its naval mobility in other parts of the world, instead believes that it is an international strait that allows commercial and military ships a right of passage in transit.

An agreement, or rather a pause in the controversy, was reached in 1988 through a "mutual disagreement" which well exemplifies how sovereignty and security issues are almost inseparable when sharing a continent with a superpower.

The constant weaving of a discreet diplomacy has allowed Ottawa to reconcile the priorities of continental security and national interests, and if there are no real threats to sovereignty either in the archipelago or in the continental part, Canadian strategic culture remains partly conditioned in the against the American ally from the (disputed) concept of defense against help.


This is a dynamic characteristic of the positioning of "minor" States in international politics for which Canada must maintain a certain level of preparation in defense to avoid unwanted help from the great powers whose security can be threatened by the low level of defense of the smaller countries.


Added to this is the Chinese charter, Beijing's interest in Arctic navigation, with the "Polar Silk Road" in search of infrastructure investments in every continent in order to support its position as a leading nation in world trade.


Having said that, we understand the concept of "anxiety of sovereignty", as a well-known Canadian arctic scholar, P. Whitney Lackenbauer, defined it, which in fact constitutes a constant presence in official documents for the North.


The Canadian strategy for the Arctic

In the Canadian Arctic strategy[1] issued by the Trudeau government in September 2019 Arctic and Northern Policy Framework (ANPF), Canada definitely affirms its presence in the North with a "well established and long standing" sovereignty, the same expression used by the Conservatives in the 2010 in the foreign policy statement for the Arctic.


In the chapter dedicated to defense, the document of 2019 reaffirms the determination to exercise sovereignty over the Northwest Passage (NWP). This reiteration was necessary. Over the last decade, the area has aroused considerable interest on an international scale, becoming the subject of increasing competition from state and non-state actors, attracted by natural resources and the geo-strategic position of the region.

Facilitated access to the area due to the reduction in the amount of ice and the improvement of advanced technologies has contributed to increasing the presence on foreign waterways also related to tourism, scientific research, maritime transport with large and small ships and other activities commercial.

The strategy issued by liberals just on the eve of the federal elections, underlines that the activities that take place daily through governments and indigenous peoples are an expression of the constant Canadian sovereignty over land and sea

This means that the political and economic aspects are intimately connected, insofar as the protection and strengthening of Arctic sovereignty, including the passage to the North West, could benefit from a new economic impulse, or the urgent and fundamental need to infrastructure and investments in the North.


The needs highlighted by the local communities themselves that actively participated in the process of elaborating the Arctic Strategy are numerous:

  • cartography
  • energy infrastructure
  • air/port transport infrastructure
  • rail transport
  • roads to access communities and mineral resources.


Infrastructure deficiencies, such as the lack of deep-sea ports, have an impact on economic potential also in relation to the transit through the Northwest Passage.

The alternative to the Suez and Panama canal represented by navigation in Canadian waters could reduce the distance between Northwest Europe and Asia by 30%, as well as up to 20% between the east coast of the United States and East Asia .

In recent years, there has been an increase in the transit of research ships and commercial cargoes that have embarked on navigation in Northern waters
[2]. In 2017, over 190 ships made 385 trips to the Canadian Arctic with a 22% increase over the previous year.


If the observers do not predict in the short term a significant development of this maritime route at an international level, it is also true that there will be an increase in navigation related to the destination traffic which, as for NSR, remains the predominant one.

Let's briefly see the characteristics and critical aspects of the Canadian variant.

North West Passage (NWP): critical issues and adaptations to global change


Climate change with the constant decrease of the ice layer in the Arctic Ocean and the alteration of marine and terrestrial environments is occurring at an alarming rate in the Canadian North.

Here the heating rate is three times higher than that recorded in the rest of the Planet, in particular due to a phenomenon known as arctic amplification[3] that impacts the geographical complexity of an archipelago made up of 36,000 islands that occupy an area of 2.1 million km2.

The Northwest Passage, like the NSR, is not a specific route but a combination of waterways and narrow waterways that connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific through North America.


From east to west, the Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, to the Beaufort Sea, the Chukchi Sea to reach the Pacific Ocean through the Bering Strait. The route can be oriented north, through the Parry Canal, or south, through Victoria Island.

The southern route is less risky and with deeper waters and allows the navigation of larger ships. However, the environment remains difficult for navigation since these areas are still subject to particular ice conditions even during the summer, creating risks to navigation.

In particular, the melting of the most recent ice in the west of the Arctic causes winds and ocean currents, such as the Beauford Gyre, to push older ice into the narrow canals of the archipelago. Which has translated, from a navigation point of view, into increased danger except for the heaviest icebreakers. Therefore, the possibility of navigation is less constant and above all made more complex by the lack of ports.


Canada has three nodal references in the Arctic:

  1. the port of Churchill, in Hudson Bay, which despite the depth of the waters, has ice conditions that limit its profitability
  2. navale the second node is that of Nanisivik where the Canadian Navy has built a naval facility
  3. the Beauford sea area, the Tuktoyaktuk area in the Northwest Territories, near the border with Alaska.


To be mentioned, in the middle of the archipelago the Port Resolute, where the Canadian army has expanded the facilities to make the site suitable for responding as SAR (search and rescue). But overall, the port facilities along the North American coast are small.

However, climate change has imposed a wider sailing season[4]  managed by the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), which acts by monitoring ship movements and providing time and route services through the Northern Canada Traffic Service Zone Regulations (NORDREG).


The Canadian Arctic has been divided into 16 safety control zones where navigation is permitted according to ice conditions.

The support provided by icebreakers and domain awareness will be improved, as indicated in the national shipbuilding strategy[5] through the following assets:

  • commission of ships for patrolling, six for the Navy and two for the Coast Guard;
  • repair and equipment of three Norwegian icebreakers to update intervention capacities on an interim basis;
  • construction of a new heavy icebreaker ship, the John G. Diefenbaker.

The Federal Government has therefore understood the need to adapt the tools available to the criticalities of navigation in the Arctic for the internal destination but also because traffic on a global scale is increasing.

A report by the Arctic Council working group on the protection of the maritime environment, Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment
[6] PAME focuses on the theme of navigation in the Arctic over the past two decades, recording a 25% increase in the passage of vessels from 2013 to 2019 . 


Internally, the Northwest Passage would benefit from a systematic and coordinated investment plan capable of involving government, industry and local communities in order to develop synergies for Arctic resources.

Some projects have already been started, such as the initial development of some deep water ports[7] and the integration with the internal corridors[8].


Broader considerations must instead concern American and Chinese foreign investments that can be added to Canadian Arctic policy.


The United States and Canada have common security concerns for the North and this could push them to join forces for an infrastructure system in an area where both are lacking.

The Saint Lawrence canal system already offers a reference model for the management of investments and marketing.

As for China, its intention to use the Northwest Passage is not independent of Ottawa's need to equip itself with ports to supply the Navy and the Coast Guard in support of resource development and navigation.


For this reason, Chinese investments could be useful for local communities to lower costs and to encourage the activities of companies operating in the area.

The development of Artic resources has already benefited from the Chinese intervention, for example in Québec (Raglan Mine) and Yukon (Wolverine Mine and Selwyn project) but the high costs have limited Beijing’s enthusiasm.

A system of navigation, logistics and transportation infrastructures and issues related to the world economy could in the future attract more players to an area rich in resources such as the Canadian Arctic.


The theme brings us back to the initial considerations with the problems of sovereignty of trans-arctic navigation.


However, the Chinese Arctic Strategy (2018) for the Northwest Passage is ambiguous.

If Beijing recognizes the rights of Arctic States in the waters under their jurisdiction and supports the application of the UNCLOS Convention and general international law, it subsequently claims to respect Canadian sovereignty "in the waters under its jurisdiction" without however specifying the area of reference.

This useful, highly diplomatic formula favors Chinese interests in the Arctic in economic terms and is an expression of a power engaged in global affairs.


The North Pole is not at the top of the global agenda for Beijing and the Chinese interest is of an economic nature, that is, we are not looking for a political battle with Canada on the issue.

It has been observed (A. Lajeunesse 2016) that Chinese activity in the NWP favors the strengthening of Canadian sovereignty as it contains an implicit acceptance of Canadian law to regulate and control navigation beyond what international law allows, a posture that cannot come from Washington in any way.

On the contrary, U.S. statements[9] have reiterated the illegitimacy of the Canadian position in the Arctic.


A year ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, raising attention on Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic, referred to Canada on the topic of the Northwest Passage and brought international Canadian North politics under the lens.


This consideration is significant for the Canadian Arctic for interconnected sovereignty and development issues.


In recent decades, a contrast between the global interest in the region and the underdeveloped or stagnant local economies has added to the traditional gap between the South and North of the country.


Protecting and strengthening Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic means turning attention to the urgent need for infrastructure and investment, a need that includes the attention and control of the NWP, a route that, it should be remembered, runs alongside an area rich in resources such as, cobalt, nickel and copper and other minerals essential for the transition to a renewable global economy.


The lack of infrastructure increases the cost of mining production by at least 30% making it poorly competitive for the world market and not adequate to make the economy of the North autonomous.


A Canadian leadership in the Arctic, a concept repeated in the 2019 Strategy implies the control of the NWP and in this sense the greater transit of foreign ships engaged in local activities, strengthens the country's legal position through other compliance with the laws and regulations of Canada.


This is indeed the concept of sovereignty: possession and effective control of the territory, governance of the activities carried out. In short, not only more boots on the ground to quote the former conservative Prime Minister Harper.

If anything, more development, more security (hard and soft) and more diplomacy.




The chances of the Arctic becoming an important commercial transit area are limited in the short and medium term. However, the North Pole will play a major role in the world politics of the future.


The international leadership in the Arctic which Ottawa aspires to at least on paper could be achieved in a long-term trajectory that supports the development of the Canadian Arctic proves to be functional to the cardinal objective of Trudeau's policy, namely to bridge the gap that separates the populations of the North from the rest of the country and, in perspective, support a vision of the Canadian future internationally and therefore of the weight that the North can represent in foreign policy.


*Laura Borzi is analyst at the Centro Studi Italia Canada with a focus on the Canadian Arctic and Ottawa foreign policy


Cover pic via Canadian Coast Guard


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[2]Arctic and Norther Policy framework : Safety Security and Defence Chapter,

[3]Environment and Climate Change Canada . 2019 .Canada’s Changing Climate Report . Ottawa, ON: Environment and Climate Change Canada . https://changingclimate .ca/CCCR2019/ .




[7]Nella parte orientale Baffinland  Iron Mines sta sviluppando porti e ferrovie per l’accesso al passaggio dall’isolotto di Milne Inlet e alla baia di Hudson dall’isolotto Seensby. I progetti con lo sviluppo del porto di Seensby potrebbero far raggiungere alle esportazioni la cifra di 30 milioni di tonnellate all’anno.