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Canada’s Senior Arctic Official weighs in on the legal issues surrounding the Canadian Arctic.

February 9, 2016

Global Affairs Canadapic

Task Force students from JSIS 495C: The Arctic – A New Player in International Relations, traveled to Canada’s capital, Ottawa, from January 23rd to 30th, 2016 to engage in on-the-ground research with organizations and specialists in the field and learn about climate change and the current issues facing the Arctic region. Below are student articles of their trip and learning experience.

While many view the opening of Northwest Passage and the Arctic as a eventual foregone conclusion, there are still insurance issues and legal disputes to resolve.

The Arctic Task Force met with Global Affairs Canada (formerly the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development), including a video conference call with Susan Harper, Canada’s outgoing Senior Arctic Official. Mrs. Harper and her team discussed the “friendly difference of opinion” concerning Arctic maritime boundaries and international rights of innocent passage concerning the Northwest Passage. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’s (UNCLOS) Article 234 allows for extraordinary exemptions for Arctic waters from most provisions of the treaty. However, most nations view the Northwest Passage as having the potential for developing into an international transit passage. Canada views its Arctic waters as internal territorial waters, and as such does not believe these waters to be subject to the provisions concerning transit passageways. Mrs. Harper identified how there were multiple issues at play. The first is Canada’s view that the Northwest Passage falls within their territorial waters. Canada sees no reason to negotiate on this point. The second is Canada’s upcoming submission to the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on the extent of Canada’s Arctic continental shelf. This submission is designed to further the extent of the Canadian exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Canada’s submission overlaps with the claims of other nations, and the CLCS will have to make a determination on this. Thirdly, UNCLOS allows for “non-discriminatory laws and regulations” within an Arctic nation’s EEZ, so any action Canada could take must be in compliance with international law. Mrs. Harper’s clear and concise explanation of the intricacies of Canada’s position on the technicalities of International Maritime Law was highly insightful. She also discussed the importance of private insurance companies in determining the feasibility of Arctic shipping. She highlighted the fact that large scale Arctic shipping can not commence until insurers are comfortable enough with the risk. Only then will insurance policies no longer prohibitive to Arctic shipping.

Author Mac Zellum


This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.