The global search for new energy and mineral resources, combined with a potentially viable short east-west global transportation route, has focused considerable world attention on Canada's Arctic. Despite much government fanfare about new ships and sovereignty assertions, Canada is in danger of losing any voice of influence in the use and development off its northern shores. We are in no position to stop a potential "northern economic takeover" by countries and global corporations acting in their own best but narrow interests.
Time is quickly running short for Canada to establish the infrastructure, Coast Guard capacity and settlement viability to ensure Canada's economic and political sovereignty in its northern regions. Global climate change has begun to open up the Arctic for longer shipping periods, including commercial access through the Northwest Passage.
Last year, China sent an icebreaker across the Arctic Ocean, and along with Japan, South Korea and India, has permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, with EU status under consideration: energy and minerals are the focus. Another new Chinese icebreaker is expected to begin operations in 2014.
The best Canada can do at this point is insist its only (and aging) heavy icebreaker accompany the ships traversing the Passage. Canada runs out of capacity to control Arctic waters if more than one vessel is traversing in a given year. Plans for new icebreaker construction are so far into the future they will be too late.
The CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent is Canada's only icebreaker capable of making the trip, and its needed replacement has been deferred by almost 10 years. This delay is due to Canada's limited existing ship-building capacity being fully utilized producing long-delayed replacements for navy supply ships, and the refusal of the Harper government to purchase externally.
Russia built its first nuclear-powered icebreaker in 1957, and at present is operating six. Although only one of these will still be operational by 2020, a new icebreaker capable of year-round operation is under construction and two more will soon follow.
Delaying the acquisition of essential equipment, such as icebreakers, needed for ensuring Canadian sovereignty in the North and providing environmental protection, is a gamble too risky to contemplate. Canada must find a way to build icebreakers faster, or consider purchasing one from Russia or other countries with construction capacity.
Based on Russia's cost estimates, converted to Canadian dollars, two all-season nuclear-powered icebreakers would cost $1.24 billion, resulting in long-term, year-round operational capability in the Arctic. In addition to national and environmental security, these would provide capacity for community supply, research, marine and shoreline habitat protection and a meaningful voice at the diplomatic table.
Beyond this immediate equipment requirement, is the urgent necessity not only for action but a consultative framework and program approach to direct strategic long-term development. The practice of ad hoc announcements associated with a summer photo op trip is not adequate, nor is it acceptable strategy for a serious essential element of Canada's future economic and diplomatic stability.
There are certain programs or projects that are of immediate priority. Short-run actions involve meeting the obvious needs of the present, including ice-breaking capacity and strengthening the Ranger Program. Others, including specific site monitoring, require consideration over the medium term. Data collection, research and subsequent policy attention will be critical for the longer term.
But, action alone is not enough. Input from and discussion with everyone affected is essential: this includes experts, communities, individual Canadians and groups of citizens, aboriginal organizations, politicians, and NGOs. There are various avenues for ensuring broad-based input -- from conferences, organized hearings and townhalls.
Beyond Coast Guard requirements, Canada's politicians must assess military priorities the opportunity cost of military resources being redeployed from some international assignments to the Canadian Arctic. Permanent bases for RCAF aircraft need beefing up, in particular existing runways and aircraft facilities at Mould Bay, Alert and Eureka, plus improvements to the Resolute and Cambridge Bay airports.
Canada can cover much of the surveillance of the Arctic region by satellite, but it also needs the ability to selectively monitor, through drones or piloted aircraft.
Communities need to be prepared to take advantage of new opportunities for equity positions in investments, job opportunities and spinoff businesses.
Basic ecological systems research is essential to improve confidence in maintaining a sustainable Arctic environment. An Experimental Lakes-type program needs thought. Sites most likely to be affected deserve immediate priority.
Environmental regulations and enforcement capacities, plus equipment to address environmental spills or "mischief," are a must.
Ultimately, within the federal government, some government body must be established to ensure government-wide resources are accessible, integrated and accountable, along with structures to ensure intergovernmental co-ordination.
We must protect Canada's sovereignty, but climate change and the interests of foreign countries make action urgent. Canadians must provide the input to get on with the job of sustainable northern development before it's too late.
Jim Collinson is a management consultant specializing in the complexities surrounding energy, economic and environmental issues.