Northwest Passage Dispute
The Northwest Passage, the shipping route which winds
through the many islands of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, has
long been claimed by Canada to be internal waters under its
jurisdiction. However, this position is disputed by the U.S. (and
various European countries) who argue that the Passage is an
international strait joining "one area of high seas to another,"
i.e. Davis Strait in the east and the Beaufort Sea in the
west. Thus, from
administration's perspective, it does not fall under Canada's
legal jurisdiction, and does not require Canadian government
permission to sail through. As Arctic ice melts and clears the
way for more trans-oceanic shipping, both commercial and
military, this issue is expected to heat up.
The Canadian stand on the Northwest Passage was
in 1985 in the House of Commons by then Secretary of State for
External Affairs Joe Clark who said: "Canada's sovereignty in the
Arctic is indivisible. It embraces land, sea and ice. It extends
without interruption to the seaward-facing coasts of the Arctic
islands. These islands are joined, and not divided, by the waters
between them. They are bridged for most of the year by ice. From
time immemorial Canada's Inuit people have used and occupied the
ice as they have used and occupied the land. The policy of the
Government is to maintain the natural unity of the Canadian
Arctic archipelago and to preserve Canada's sovereignty over
land, sea and ice undiminished and undivided."
Clark's speech came about in the wake of the U.S. Coast
vessel Polar Sea sailing through the Northwest Passage in 1985
without formal authorization by the Canadian government. This act
of defiance by the U.S. government enraged many in Canada who saw
it as a violation of Canadian sovereignty. There were protests
across the country, including an incident in which Canadian
students and Inuit activists dropped a Canadian flag and leaflets
from an aircraft onto the deck of the Polar Sea and called for
the crew to exit the Northwest Passage and return to
For its part, the Soviet Union supported Canada's claim of
jurisdiction over the Passage just as it claimed sovereignty over
the Northeast Passage which follows along its coast on the other
side of the polar ice cap (a stand which Russia maintains to this
A similar controversy happened back in 1969 when the
tanker SS Manhattan transited
the Northwest Passage from east to
west without asking permission of the Canadian government. Once
again, this action was met with protests. For example, in the
course of the voyage along the ice-clogged sea lane, "Inuit
hunters stopped the vessel and demanded that the vessel master
ask permission to cross through Canadian territory, which he did,
and they granted."
When the SS Manhattan, the
first oil tanker ever to cross the Northwest
Passage, came through Pond Inlet in 1969, Joseph Komangapik went out in
front of it and began to build an igloo. Done as a symbolic gesture, it
ran in a number of mainstream newspapers across Canada.
Even during the tense times of the Cold War and nuclear
brinkmanship, the U.S. has considered its unfettered right of
passage to be paramount, not just in the Arctic but globally. Indeed,
these global naval interests "prevent the U.S. government
from conceding to Canada on the [Northwest] passage." As one
commentator puts it, the U.S. "will continue to project power
from straits and channels and protect vital trade routes around
In 1987, more than a year after the Polar Sea incident,
Minister Brian Mulroney met with then U.S. President Ronald
Reagan and discussed the Northwest Passage issue. In essence,
rather than taking the issue further legally or diplomatically
they agreed to disagree. The two countries decided "that the U.S.
would always ask permission before sending icebreakers through
the Northwest Passage. And the Canadians would always give
At that time, according to some analysts, "the
not want to set the precedent that accepting full Canadian
sovereignty over the Northwest Passage would mean elsewhere in
places such as the strait of Hormuz [between the Persian Gulf and
the Gulf of Oman]." But there was another complicating factor.
The Americans did not want to win a court challenge against
Canada in an international court "because to do so would mean
that countries such as Russia would then have the clear
international right to transit the [Northwest Passage]" close to
the North American continent.
The issue subsided for some years. However, in the
of his administration in 2009, President George W. Bush issued
"National Security Presidential Directive -- 66." This directive
states that "The United States has broad and fundamental national
security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to
operate either independently or in conjunction with other states
to safeguard these interests ... "
The directive challenges both Canada and Russia. It
"Freedom of the seas is a top national priority. The Northwest
Passage [claimed by Canada] is a strait used for international
navigation, and the Northern Sea Route [claimed by Russia]
includes straits used for international navigation; the regime of
transit passage applies to passage through those straits.
Preserving the rights and duties relating to navigation and
overflight in the Arctic region supports our ability to exercise
these rights through the world, including through strategic
When the Harper government put in place a mandatory
reporting system, the American administration issued a diplomatic
protest on March 19, 2010 in which it restated its position that
'the Northwest Passage constitutes a strait used for
international shipping' and that Canada does not have "the right
to unilaterally impose such a requirement."
Since the Trump administration came into office,
some observers, there are signs that the U.S. may be about to
ramp up its challenge to Canada over the Northwest Passage. This
is consistent with its scorn towards international laws and
agreements, as well as bellicose attitude towards friend and foe
alike, unintended consequences to be steamrolled over.
Most recently, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy Richard
stated that "the United States will have to be more engaged in
the region" by conducting freedom-of-navigation operations "in
the northwest -- in the northern passage".
or both. Whichever operation is
undertaken would be highly provocative and, in the case of
Russia, dangerous militarily.
Andrea. "The Northwest Passage in context," Canadian Military
Journal, Winter 2005-2006.
2. Killas, Mark. "The legality
of Canada's claims to the waters of its Arctic archipelago," Ontario
Review, Vol. 19:1.
3. "1985 Polar Sea
controversy," Wikipedia, accessed March 26, 2019.
"SS Manhattan (1962)," Wikipedia,
5. Charron, Andrea. Ibid.
Carolyn. "Who controls the Northwest Passage? It's up for
debate," PRI's The World.
September 4, 2017.
7. Huebert, Rob.
"Protecting Canadian Arctic Sovereignty from Donald Trump,"
Canadian Global Affairs Institute, November 2018.
"National Security Presidential directive -- 66," White House,
Office of the Press Secretary, January 9, 2009.
10. Lajeunesse, Adam. "Is the
fight over the Northwest Passage coming?" Policy Options,
February 14, 2019.
This article was published in
Volume 49 Number 12 - April 6, 2019
Northwest Passage Dispute