Canada's military has again delayed the opening of a major new Arctic port, a sign the government is struggling to assert sovereignty over a remote resource-rich region. The planned deep water naval facility at Nanisivik - some 3,100 km (1,900 miles) north of Ottawa - is one of the key components of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "use it or lose it" approach to the Arctic. The port, initially due to open in 2012, will now not be operational until 2018. Additionally, the proposed and needed vessels to enforce Canadian claims of the Arctic waters will enter service in the same year according to official news.

The planned Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships will be 103 m long and have a crew of 65. The main armament will consist of a remote-controlled 25-mm gun. The ship’s design will allow the detachment of the new Canadian Force’s CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter, which will be operational in 2018 as well.
The planned Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships will be 103 m long and have a crew of 65. The main armament will consist of a remote-controlled 25-mm gun. The ship’s design will allow the detachment of the new Canadian Force’s CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter, which will be operational in 2018 as well.

Nanisivik lies at the entrance to the Northwest Passage, which could become a shortcut for shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as global warming gradually opens up ice-clogged waterways. Canada claims sovereignty over the passage and the port at Nanisivik would help to maintain a presence in the region. The United States disputes Canada's claim, saying the passage lies in international waters. Ottawa said in 2007 the port would be open in 2012. In August 2013, it delayed the opening to 2017 and scaled back the facility to avoid cost overruns. Instead of the planned naval base, Nanisivik will operate as a refuel station, an important one however. The defense ministry blamed the new delay on efforts to decontaminate land at Nanisivik, the site of a now-closed lead and zinc mine. "The target date was adjusted to 2018 after (we) completed initial site investigations ... to ensure all requirements of the facility could be met," said spokeswoman Dominique Tessier. Nanisivik was originally designed to include a permanent office but will operate as a four-month summer refueling and docking station. This falls in plan with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had announced the deployment of patrol ships along the Northwest Passage during the four-month shipping season.

The port of Nanisivik is situated about 3.7 kilometers away from the former town and the Canadian coast guard uses the port for training purposes.
The port of Nanisivik is situated about 3.7 kilometers away from the former town and the Canadian coast guard uses the port for training purposes.

The delay is another challenge for Canada's plans to stamp a footprint on the Arctic. Ahead of the 2006 election that brought the Conservatives to power, they promised to build three armed ice-breakers for the region. In 2007, Ottawa said instead it would build six to eight patrol ships that could operate in moderate ice conditions. In January this year, it diluted that commitment, promising five or six vessels. The $3.5 billion deal was signed with Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax this January and the first ship named Harry DeWolf will enter service in 2018, followed by one ship approximately every nine months.

Nanisivik is a former mining town in Nunavit, supporting lead-zinc mining until 2002. It is approximately 20 kilometers east of Arctic Bay, which is frequented by cruise ships in the Northwest Passage.
Nanisivik is a former mining town in Nunavit, supporting lead-zinc mining until 2002. It is approximately 20 kilometers east of Arctic Bay, which is frequented by cruise ships in the Northwest Passage.

These so-called AOPS (Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships) are 103 meter long vessels which will be able to operate in moderate ice conditions up to one meter thick first year ice. This opens the southern and western areas of the Canadian archipelago and the crucial western entry point of the Northwest Passage. However, for any operations in heavier ice conditions, a coast guard icebreaker will have to provide the necessary escort. “How the ships are going to be deployed is yet to be determined. There are no specifically identified patrol areas to the AOPS. (They) will vary depending on several variables, most notably the assigned mission”, according to a Navy statement to the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. The ships will provide surveillance of Canadian waters as well as a mark for “assertion and enforcement of Canadian sovereignty”. Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, RCN commander, states: “Obviously the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships will play a key role in enabling the Royal Canadian Navy with its government partners in opening up our ability to operate and sustain operations in the High Arctic. We’re excited by the opportunity to establish a refueling facility in Nanisivik, which will allow us to stage ourselves and reach even farther into the north.”

The plans see an extension of operations in Arctic waters with the deployment of the AOPS as far as the North Pole region until 2030 (red line), Picture: The Globe and Mail
The plans see an extension of operations in Arctic waters with the deployment of the AOPS as far as the North Pole region until 2030 (red line), Picture: The Globe and Mail

Despite the announcements made by the RCN and the speeches by Mr. Harper, the delays and cutbacks come at a time when criticism on Canadian Arctic policy has become louder in its own yard. It has become an open secret that Canada has missed opportunities in asserting its sovereignty and authority in the High Arctic. Disputes with the USA over seabed rights in the Bering Sea and with Russia about the North Pole are the consequences. It remains to be seen if the proposed roadmap for the AOPS and Nanisivik and the other plans of the Canadian government will be sufficient to keep up Canada’s claim as an Arctic power, particularly with regard to a changing climate, not only in the environment but also politically.

Source: Michael Bird: The Globe and Mail, Mike De Souza Reuters