Developing a Coherent Plan to Deal with Canada’s Conundrum in the Northwest Passage


  • Captain (Navy) James Cotter


Imagine the media storm surrounding a 10,000-gallon oil spill at the entrance to the Northwest Passage. The Canadian public would be incensed and would question what the federal government could have been done to prevent such a horrific environmental disaster. For this reason, the time has come for Canada to develop a coherent and comprehensive strategy to attain control over its Arctic waters and to put in place monitoring and enforcement capabilities that mitigate the increasing risk that such a disaster might occur. Canada’s federal government has put in place some controls to establish responsibility for the Arctic waters; however, its interventions have rarely been pre-emptive but rather sporadic and reactive as they were to events such as the voyages of the SS Manhattan and USCG Polar Sea. Mounting scientific evidence confirms that the polar ice cap is melting. Although this trend does not mean that the Arctic waters will be navigable this decade, forecasters suggest that they will be navigable by mid-century. This gives Canada both cause and time to implement a comprehensive plan. Furthermore the geopolitical situation suggests the need for a coherent continental security plan and Canada has the opportunity to establish effective controls that also satisfy US concerns. The time is right to develop and implement a comprehensive plan that builds upon a whole-of-government framework. This plan must recognize the legal context of Canada’s sovereignty claim over these waters, can draw upon a myriad of existing policy options, and must utilize a whole-of-government approach. In this way, Canada can establish effective conditions for de facto stewardship over the Arctic waters through regulations and monitoring.

Author Biography

Captain (Navy) James Cotter

Captain(Navy) Cotter, CD, MBA is currently Director of Reserves at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. The paper is a scholastic document, and thus contains facts and opinions, which the author alone considered appropriate and correct for the subject. It does not necessarily reflect the policy or the opinion of any agency, including the Government of Canada and the Canadian Department of National Defence.