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.[1] Thus, from the U.S 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 articulated 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."[2]

Clark's speech came about in the wake of the U.S. Coast Guard 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 international waters.[3] 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 day).

A similar controversy happened back in 1969 when the U.S. 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."[4]

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 the world."[5]

In 1987, more than a year after the Polar Sea incident, Prime 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 it."[6]

At that time, according to some analysts, "the Americans did 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.[7]

The issue subsided for some years. However, in the dying days 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 ... "[8]

The directive challenges both Canada and Russia. It states: "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 straits."

When the Harper government put in place a mandatory shipping 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."[9]

Since the Trump administration came into office, according to 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 Spencer 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"[10]. It is not clear whether "northern passage" refers to Canada's Northwest Passage or Russia's Northeast Passage or both. Whichever operation is undertaken would be highly provocative and, in the case of Russia, dangerous militarily.


1. Charron, 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 Law Review, Vol. 19:1.

3. "1985 Polar Sea controversy," Wikipedia, accessed March 26, 2019.

4. "SS Manhattan (1962)," Wikipedia, accessed March 26, 2019.

5. Charron, Andrea. Ibid.

6. Beeler, 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.

8. "National Security Presidential directive -- 66," White House, Office of the Press Secretary, January 9, 2009.

9. Huebert, Rob. Ibid.

10. Lajeunesse, Adam. "Is the next big fight over the Northwest Passage coming?" Policy Options, February 14, 2019.

This article was published in

Volume 49 Number 12 - April 6, 2019

Article Link:
Northwest Passage Dispute


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