Canada Responds, Bolsters Claim to Northwest Passage

Times Staff Writer

The Canadian government, reacting to criticism that it sold out national sovereignty by allowing a U.S. Coast Guard ship to sail through the Northwest Passage in August, acted Tuesday to strengthen its claim to the waterway.

In an emotional speech before the House of Commons in Ottawa, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark acknowledged that Canada “has not developed the means to ensure our sovereignty” over the ice-clogged channel that runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Beaufort Sea.

To reverse that situation, Clark laid out a program that he said would protect Canada’s claim to sovereignty against an expected U.S. claim in the International Court of Justice that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway open to shipping by all nations.

In a statement opening parliamentary debate over the issue, Clark said the government has drawn up boundaries around the Arctic archipelago--called “straight baselines” in international law--to establish that all the waters within that delineated zone are internal waters, completely under Canadian jurisdiction.

Super Icebreaker Planned

Construction also will begin soon on a $360-million superclass icebreaker that will be capable of patrolling the passage year round.


Canada will pass legislation to extend its civil and criminal law to the area, including the offshore waters and sea-based oil drilling rigs, Clark said.

The government also plans increased military flights in the area, a naval exercise in the eastern Arctic next year and additional police presence in the region. Residents of the area also will be encouraged to take steps to establish a greater presence on the shores of the waterway.

Clark said Canada has changed its policy of refusing to take part in any action before the International Court of Justice. In 1970, the government told the court that it would not abide by any decision that challenged its sovereignty over the passage.

Ottawa Changes Position

But, Clark said Tuesday, the government would no longer take that stand if the United States should go to the international court to resolve the matter, though so far the Reagan Administration has not filed such a complaint. Clark said Canada’s case is strong enough to win, particularly if it establishes the fact of control by carrying out the program he put before Parliament.

The government was forced into action by the uproar over a two-week trip through the passage in August by the Polar Sea, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker that sailed from Greenland to the Alaskan north coast of the Beaufort Sea.

The U.S. government notified Canada in advance but pointedly refused to ask permission in line with the traditional American position that the channel is open to international shipping.

“During that voyage, Canada’s legal claim was fully protected, but when we looked for tangible ways to exercise our sovereignty we found that our cupboard was nearly bare,” Clark said.

Tried to Blunt Criticism

The Canadian government tried to ease criticism at the time by obtaining an agreement with Washington that the Polar Sea’s trip would not be used as a precedent to prejudice Ottawa’s claim in any future legal action. Clark also belatedly gave permission for the Polar Sea voyage and persuaded the United States to put Canadian pilots on board.

But when Washington continued to dispute Canada’s jurisdiction and said the Canadian pilots were on board only as “guests” and not as pilots, many Canadians were angered, and the opponents of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government pushed the issue hard.

Although Clark received a standing ovation after his presentation and a handshake from Mulroney, the criticism did not abate. Jean Chretien, a former external affairs minister under the last Liberal party government, scorned Clark’s presentation, saying that “now that the horses are gone, they have closed the fence.”

Shortly after the debate ended, Thomas Niles, the new U.S. ambassador to Canada, told reporters that the matter is “a very big issue” that the United States “didn’t handle as well as we might have.”