Climate Change and Canadian Sovereignty in the Northwest Passage (2011)

The American and European Position

The United States and the European Union position is that, contrary to Canadian claims, the Northwest Passage is an international strait. The Americans in particular do not accept the argument that ice cover makes a difference for the international legal definition of an international strait. The Americans have always maintained that the International Court of Justice’s ruling in the Strait of Corfu case is applicable for the Northwest Passage. In that case, the Court ruled that an international strait is a body of water that joins two international bodies of water, and has been used by international shipping. The United States argues that the Northwest Passage joins two international bodies of water and has been used for international shipping, albeit a very small number of transits.

Historically, the United States has posed the greatest challenge to Canadian claims of sovereignty. In 1969 and in 1970, the Manhattan, on be­half of Humble Oil, transited the Northwest Passage without seeking the Government of Canada’s permission. The Manhattan was an ice-strengthened super tanker which could transit the Northwest Passage only with the assistance of icebreakers, and even then, ice conditions made the voyage very difficult and expensive. In 1985, the American icebreaker, Polar Sea, was sent through the Passage without the Canadian government’s permission. Though not designed to challenge Canadian claims of sovereignty, the voyage led to a significant diplomatic dispute. However, to maintain good American-Canadian relations, an agreement was reached regarding future transits by American icebreakers. The 1988 agreement on Arctic co-operation between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Canada required the United States to request Canadian consent for any future transit of the Passage by American government ice-breakers. However, both governments agreed to disagree on the actual status of the Passage. When the agreement was reached, the United States had only two icebreakers capable of such a passage. Since then, the Americans have built one more icebreaker, which invoked the agreement to transit the Passage in 2000….


Will climate change result in the melting of the Northwest Passage for some parts of the year? Will international shipping interests then attempt to take advantage of the more benign conditions? Will the Canadian status regarding the Passage be challenged? Will Canada be prepared? The evidence for the first is mounting. The question that remains is how fast these changes will occur and when the Passage will become economically viable for shipping interests. It is logical that international shipping interests will wish to take advantage if and when this happens. Canada can expect to face a challenge when this occurs. It is becoming apparent that the Canadian position will probably not be successful given the current low levels of Canadian activity in the region. But even if Canadian claims of sovereignty are upheld, pressure to allow the passage of international shipping will remain. Regardless of the nature of the international status, it is clear that Canada will face tremendous challenges in adapting to the opening of the Passage. The challenge that now faces Canada is to become aware of these possibilities and to begin taking action to prepare for them.

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