Bernard Simon, Financial Times, May 11, 2011
A plan to open up northern Quebec to resource development will help bolster Canada’s disputed claims to the Northwest Passage, according to Jean Charest, premier of the French-speaking province.
“With global warming, a northern route is going to open up just on the tip of northern Quebec by 2030 or 2040,” Mr Charest told the Financial Times.
The plan to attract mining, energy, forestry and tourism to the northern region, twice the size of France, “is an affirmation of sovereignty, and we are very, very conscious of the fact that we need to occupy our territory”, he added.
The changing Arctic will be the main item on the agenda of a ministerial meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council in Greenland on Thursday. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, and Ken Salazar, US interior secretary, will be among those taking part to discuss increased co-operation on new oil, mineral, fishing and shipping opportunities unlocked by the melting ice caps.
Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, has made the Arctic a signature issue since his Conservative party took office in 2006. The Tories turned their minority government into a majority in last week’s general election.
Their campaign platform asserted that Canada’s north was “at the heart” of Canadian identity. “Our presence in Canada’s north is also an increasingly important factor in defending our national sovereignty,” it read.
Mr Harper has regularly visited remote Arctic communities and held a rally in Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, during the election campaign.
Ottawa has stepped up military exercises and scientific research in the region as a way of asserting its claim over the Northwest Passage. It has also set up an economic development agency for the region.
Other initiatives include a pledge to build new Arctic patrol ships and a project to expand the port at Nanisivik, a former mining town at the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage.
Michael Byers, international law professor at the University of British Columbia, said that Quebec’s move was less relevant to Canada’s case in a legal dispute over the passage than in giving Ottawa extra clout in circumpolar diplomacy.
Stepped-up development provides “diplomatic reputation, credibility and influence that flow from exercising one’s unchallenged sovereignty rights”, Mr Byers said, adding that he had noticed an increase in commercial traffic around the northern tip of Quebec and the Northwest Passage during a visit to the region last summer.
However, no other country supports Ottawa’s claim to the routes through the passage: the US, the European Union and Russia all contend that it is an international waterway.
Should the passage open up to commercial traffic, it would cut shipping times between Europe and Asia by several days compared with the Panama Canal.
“That is going to be one of the biggest geopolitical issues of our generation,” Mr Charest said. “This territory belongs to Canada.”
Under the Quebec plan, known as Plan Nord, the provincial government has budgeted C$500m (US$523m) over the next five years to buy equity stakes in development projects. It will also launch a campaign to attract foreign investors. However, half of the area will be protected from industrial development to preserve the environment.
For the original text, see: Canada boosts claim