Dispute Over Northwest Passage : Troubled Waters: Canada Angered by U.S. Voyage

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea sailed Thursday from Greenland for Alaska, a voyage that will take it through the legendary Northwest Passage and straight into the face of growing Canadian anger and frustration.

Canada has sent a diplomatic note to the Reagan Administration expressing “deep regret” over what the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney says is a violation of Canadian sovereignty.

“The government of Canada has made clear that the waters of the Arctic archipelago, including the Northwest Passage, are internal waters of Canada and fall within national sovereignty,” External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said in the note.


The U.S. government has traditionally viewed the ice-clogged Northwest Passage, which runs from Frobisher Bay on the Atlantic Ocean to the Beaufort Sea on Alaska’s north coast, as an international waterway, free for navigation by ships of all nations.

But Canadian maps show the passage to be within this country’s borders, and officials say its status is like that of the Mississippi River in the United States. “It is ours, and we control who sails on it,” an External Affairs Department official said on a not-for-attribution basis.

U.S. officials notified Canada in May that the Polar Sea would sail from Greenland to Point Barrow, Alaska, arriving about Aug. 12, and then proceed to its home base in Seattle.

The ship came to Greenland by way of the Panama Canal, and Coast Guard officials say they want to save time and money by returning through the shorter Arctic route.

However, the Americans stress that they notified Canada of the trip as a courtesy only and did not request Canadian permission.

The immediate Canadian reaction was low key, as Clark sought to play down any confrontation. He asked that two Canadian pilots be on board “to guide them (the Americans) through waters which we consider to be ours.”

And this week, even as he filed a protest, Clark gave permission for the voyage, although the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa quickly repeated that permission was neither sought nor accepted. U.S. official describe the two Canadians on board as “invited observers,” not as guides.

As it stands, the two governments have agreed to consider the issue one on which they agree to disagree. The Polar Sea’s voyage will not be treated as a test case by either side.

But Clark’s measured response has not satisfied Canadian critics, who charge that the Polar Sea is the harbinger of American plans to eliminate Canadian sovereignty claims.

Donat Pharand, professor of international law at Ottawa University, said the Polar Sea’s transit is “part of the Americans’ policy to seek the greatest naval mobility in the world. And it’s a good time politically to do that, with the buddy-buddy relationship between the prime minister and the President.”

The charge was echoed by Jean Cretien, foreign policy spokesman for the Liberal Party, the principal opposition to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s ruling Progressive Conservative Party.

“It’s part of the cronyism between Brian Mulroney and the Americans. He goes on his knees all the time.”

Other critics say that the government’s weak reaction and a consistent failure by the Canadians to use the passage--navigable only two or three months a year--render Ottawa’s claims to sovereignty vulnerable.

‘Put Up or Shut Up’

“We’ve got to get up there,” said Prof. Franklyn Griffiths of the University of Toronto. “We’ve got to put up or shut up about our Arctic sovereignty.”

If Clark and Mulroney continue letting American vessels use the passage without first getting permission, Griffiths added, then the eventual result will be shared jurisdiction and a loss of Canadian control over its own internal waters.

In fact, the waterway, which runs between several largely uninhabited Canadian islands, is seldom used by anyone, including Canada. American officials in Ottawa assert that Canada has not even charted all the waters that it claims and does not at present have an icebreaker capable of making the trip.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner St. Roch transited the Northwest Passage twice in the 1940s, and the Canadian icebreaker Labrador made the first transit by deep-draft vessel in 1954. Three U.S. Coast Guard ships crossed in 1956, and the nuclear submarine Seadragon made the first underwater voyage through the passage in 1960.

In 1969, a specially outfitted U.S. oil tanker, the Manhattan, sailed through the passage in both directions during the same season to explore its feasibility as a transport route for oil from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

As occurred in the case of the Polar Sea, the United States did not ask for permission for the Manhattan’s voyage, although the Canadians gave their approval and sent a vessel along to aid in the exploration.

The Manhattan’s trip ignited a major controversy in Canada and resulted in Parliament’s passing laws extending its offshore boundaries from three to 100 miles and prohibiting the pollution of Arctic waters, as signs of its jurisdiction.

Concern About Pollution

Pollution is of particular concern to environmentalists and groups representing people native to the Arctic region, especially if the Polar Sea were to be followed by significant numbers of other ships.

The Baffin Regional Inuit Assn., representing the Inuit (once known as Eskimo) people, issued a statement in July saying such trips could threaten the local food supply, largely fish.

“If there was ever a major disaster, an oil spill, there is going to be a lot of impact,” the statement said.

Canadian Defense Ministry officials, speaking on the condition that they not be named, said the U.S. position actually endangers both Canadian and U.S. security.

“By claiming the Northwest Passage is in international waters,” one official said, “the Americans are opening the way for anyone, including the Soviets, to use the passage,” perhaps with submarines.

He noted that the U.S. Navy has recently begun a research program to improve under-ice submarine detection systems and that U.S. defense officials have expressed concern about increased Soviet naval activity in the Arctic.

“At least if we can claim sovereignty, we will have the legal right to keep the Russians out of there,” the Canadian said.