April 21, 2006

Canada Scrambles to Assert Sovereignty in Arctic

By David Ljunggren

CORNWALLIS ISLAND, Nunavut -- After decades of virtually ignoring its remote, frozen Arctic lands, Canada is belatedly trying to assert its sovereignty over a gigantic region rich in mineral resources.

Ottawa's problem is that it has little idea of what is going on in the North and far too few resources to patrol the area properly.

And that could be bad news when climate change and the appetite for energy and commodities mean the world is suddenly paying more attention to an incredibly inhospitable place.

In some places the sun does not shine for three months. Polar bears easily outnumber the tiny human population. Winter temperatures sink far below minus 40 Fahrenheit and ferocious winds scour the landscape.

The 1.3 million square miles of ice, sea and rock comprise 40 percent of Canada's land mass yet the forces stationed there are minuscule -- 190 soldiers, 1,700 part-time Inuit volunteers and four small, slow aircraft.

This means there is no chance of tracking down all the reports and rumors of foreign craft and visitors, quite possibly up to no good at all.

"We get sightings of stuff that are almost out of the (hit television series) 'X Files' because we can't get out there fast enough," said Captain Ken Bridges.

"By the time we get there it's too late to find out if (what people saw) was a whale or a submarine or a boat."

The military contingent is based in Yellowknife, some 280 miles south of the Arctic Circle. This means the front-line work is left to the Canadian Rangers, part-time reservists based in the handful of communities dotted across the North, and it can take two days to reach an area where an incident has been reported.

"We recognize we're small here," said Bridges. "There's no doubt we could use more people here."


Amid increasing questions about whether Canada can even pretend to assert sovereignty over the Arctic, Ottawa is trying to show who is in charge.

This month Canadian forces mounted their largest operation in the region in 60 years, albeit with a force that comprised just 50 soldiers and part-time Rangers.

They traveled 2,800 miles by snowmobile and sled over the central and western Arctic before ending up in Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, some 2,100 miles northwest of Ottawa.

"We wanted to show the ability to operate in a very austere, remote and unfriendly region ... (The mission) says, 'This land is ours. We did it'," said Lt-Col. Drew Artus, acting commander of Canada's northern forces.

Exhausted patrol participants reported the strain of crossing snow and jagged sea ice for two weeks had blown snowmobile engines and broken many sleds.

Frozen batteries crippled the satellite phones. At night, winds that reached 70 miles per hour meant each tent had to be weighted down by three snowmobiles. Polar bears roamed everywhere. Medicine pills shattered in their bottles.

"It's hard to light a stove at minus 45 Celsius," said Maj. Chris Bergeron of the Canadian Rangers, who led the exercise. Officials say such missions also help pinpoint airfields, buildings and other infrastructure not marked in government records.

Although Canada says there is no immediate threat to the Arctic, it wants to show it can operate there now to head off potential problems.

But critics such as Pierre Leblanc, former commander of forces in the North, says more patrols are not the answer. He wants extra police, soldiers and spies on the ground.

"I compare the Arctic to the attic of Canada, full of riches. And we need to protect that so that one day we will go there and get those riches as opposed to finding someone else is there," he told Reuters.


Canada is embroiled in territorial disputes with the United States over the Beaufort Sea and its natural gas deposits as well as with Denmark over who owns Hans Island off Greenland.

Canada and Russia are also mapping the continental shelf around the North Pole in a bid to prove their control. The reward could be billions in oil and gas revenues once demand dictates that previously untapped reserves be exploited.

"China and Vietnam have had major wars over little pieces of rock and we've got much more substantial disputes coming down the road as we speak," said Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary.

Another concern is global warming, which could ensure the normally ice-clogged Northwest Passage -- a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans -- is ice free in summer.

Canada insists it controls the passage and does not want foreign ships steaming through without permission, since this could cause disaster in an environmentally fragile region. The United States and others have long rejected this claim.

Canada's new Conservative government is taking a harder line. Prime Minister Stephen Harper won the January 23 election, in part by vowing to do more to defend the Arctic.

He rebuked the U.S. ambassador for repeating Washington's position on the Northwest Passage and promised to build a deep sea Arctic port and equip it with two icebreakers. A new satellite system due on line in 2007 should help track rogue ships.

Next year, Canada will host a military exercise in the western Arctic to tackle three scenarios -- a terrorist attack on energy facilities, the spread of an infectious disease and an airliner disaster. Officials say that, given the number of commercial flights crossing the Arctic, a crash in some of the world's most inhospitable terrain is inevitable.

But the talk of exercises and patrols leaves some unmoved.

Nancy Karetak-Lindell, the federal legislator representing the northern territory of Nunavut, said the poor education system meant Inuit youth found it hard to get jobs and relied on expensive welfare payments.

"Instead of spending that on Arctic defense, surely it should be spent on Inuit employment," she told Parliament the day after the exercise ended. "As Inuit become more involved in their own governance ... Canada's sovereignty is asserted."