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Canada Ups Its Arctic Game With Plans to Build Port at the Top of the World

To complete the project by 2020, the territory of Nunavut will draw on designs from northern ports around the world to overcome 13-meter tides, massive ice flows, and a sliver of a typical construction season.

by Luke DeCoste
Apr 8 2016, 5:25pm

Photo near the site of a new deep water port in Iqaluit. (Photo by Luke DeCoste/VICE News)

After the fishing vessel Saputi struck an iceberg earlier this year in the Davis Strait off Iqaluit, water rushed on board the Canadian ship faster than the ship's pumps could handle. The Danish Navy arrived to help as a Canadian Coast Guard chopper made its way from a base in Greenwood, Nova Scotia — nearly 1,300 miles away.

The 220-foot Saputi was escorted by a Danish warship some 500 miles to Nuuk, Greenland, bailing water all the way, because there was no accessible deep-water port nearby.

The incident highlighted the fact that Canada's government has little capacity or ability to deal with shipping and traffic in its warming Arctic waters. The fact that a Danish ship, hundreds of miles away, had to come in to save a Canadian ship in Canadian waters raises questions about Canada's ability to exert sovereignty in the Far North. Part of solving that problem includes building infrastructure — and plans are afoot in that regard.

Nunavut's legislature is kick-starting construction of a new seaport for the high Arctic: a deep-water port at the mouth of the Northwest Passage in Iqaluit, the territory's remote capital city on Baffin Island. The federal government committed $64 million to fund the port, and in March Nunavut approved $5 million to launch the project with another $16 million to be approved next fall.

To complete the project by 2020, the territory will draw on designs from northern ports around the world to overcome 13-meter tides, massive ice flows, and a sliver of a typical construction season.

'It does, on the political level, show that Canada is taking its Arctic seriously.'

The port is a longtime coming. The previous federal government promised, but did not deliver on, plans to build seven ports across Nunavut. Canada has only two other northern deep-water ports — a private company runs one at its mine on the north end of Baffin Island, and the other is in Churchill, Manitoba, far south of the fabled Northwest Passage.

The passage, which connects the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans, is a treacherous route that has been touted for centuries as a hugely lucrative shipping lane, connecting East Asia with central Europe. Global warming is turning that dream into a problematic reality — and a potentially lucrative dream. Last month, luxury cruiseliner Crystal Cruises announced it would be traversing the passage this summer with about 1,700 passengers aboard, accompanied by an escort vessel equipped to clean up oil and a helicopter.

Some 350 marine voyages traversed Canada's Arctic in 2013, according to government figures, and the government expects resource exploration could nearly double this figure by 2020.

The project is also an important signal to other nations eyeing interests in the North.

Canada and the US dispute the status of the Northwest Passage with Canada claiming it is internal waters and the US arguing it is an international strait. The two countries also disagree over their maritime boundary in the Western Arctic. Canada also argues with Denmark over who owns tiny Hans Island.

Other Arctic nations put Canada to shame. "The closest comparison in terms of Arctic condition, in terms of length of coastline is in fact Russia, which has 16 deep water ports along its northern coastline. So on that measurement Canada is massively behind," says Michael Byers, who focuses on Arctic issues as the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

The planned site for the new port is adjacent a massive, cold-war era airport, and is being touted as key to turning Iqaluit into a strategic hub, all while managing security concerns, promoting the northern economy, protecting the environment, and conducting search and rescue. And with Arctic ice melting faster than expected and lengthening the shipping season in the Northwest Passage, the facility will act as a new northern home for the Canadian military, and Coast Guard to respond to an increase in traffic.

"It does, on the political level, show that Canada is taking its Arctic seriously," says Byers, of Canada's new port. "Infrastructure is not about defending our sovereignty, since nobody wants to take our sovereignty away."

"That said, investing in new ports, icebreakers and search-and-rescue aircraft might help to resolve the legal dispute over the status of the Northwest Passage, by persuading the United States that Canada is willing and able to protect the security interests of both countries there."

And when these disputes are resolved, Canada will need to have a presence to defend the outcomes. "It's fine to have the lawyers decide on lines on a map, but when push comes to shove, it's about what you do within those lines. It's an artificial exercise to draw the line and say it's ours and not do anything within it. That's not really exercising sovereignty in my view," says Dr. Rob Huebert, Arctic expert and associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

Near the site of the promised deep sea port, in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Photo by Luke DeCoste/VICE News)

It will almost certainly have economic, social and environmental implications, too.

Mega cruise ships, like the Crystal Serenity, might be enticed to stop by the new port. Cruise companies currently have their high-paying customers scramble across rocks as they leave zodiacs that have brought them to shore. A spot on the Crystal Serenity will reportedly cost anywhere from $21,855 to $120,000 for a penthouse suite with a veranda.

"It would certainly be a boon for anyone who is looking to run a business on Baffin Island or nearby," said Byers of a new port.

"It will be beneficial to other communities and to Iqaluit, " says James Eetoolook, who is vice president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., an organization that manages Inuit responsibilities under the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement. The lack of a marine access point has been a particular problem for the local fishing industry, according to Eetoolook. "They have to offload in Greenland, and they have to fill up in Greenland because we don't have a port in Nunavut." He believes ports are needed in the territory's other communities to improve life overall, in Nunavut.

Follow Luke DeCoste on Twitter: @lukedecoste