International Affairs

Can the Northwest Passage Grow into a Geopolitical Asset for Canada?

One of the major operations that businesses haggle with each and every year is getting the product from the manufacturer to the consumer. The cheapest mode of long distance transport has been and continues to be by sea, but the complications with this is that shipping by sea involves strenuous costs and time.

In 1914, the Panama Canal opened and restructured the entire foundation of international trade. In 1903, in exchange for the United States supporting and recognizing Panama’s independence from Colombia, the new Panamanian government allowed for the American purchase of a strip of land from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and for the subsequent American development of a canal from one end to the other. Once the canal was completed and opened in 1914, this was the first time a ship could travel directly from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean without going around the southern tip of South America – clearly it was a very influential asset in the forms of saving time and money. Nonetheless, the canal gave the United States an extremely beneficial geopolitical advantage as they controlled which ships were allowed to use the canal. Although in 1999 the canal was transferred over fully to Panamanian control, its impact reaches every corner of the globe.

Now that global temperatures are rising, there may very well be a more efficient and cost-effective shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – and this is the Canadian Northwest Passage. The Northwest Passage is a sea passage that traverses through the many islands of Canada’s northern territories, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and through the Bering Strait, between Russia and Alaska.

Although the Panama Canal is still advantageous for some shipping routes such as those between Asia and South America, Asia and Africa, or between the Americas themselves, the Northwest Passage is more than 1000 miles shorter than the Panama Canal route when considering trade between Asia and Europe or the East coast of North America. Given the history of the Panama Canal and the amount of profit it brought to the United States, a more efficient trade route under Canada’s jurisdiction would undoubtedly bring about similar influxes in financial gain for the Canadian economy. As well as the financial aspects, the global influence that such a critical trade route could provide to Canada could elevate the nation’s role in global governance and decision making.

For example, in 2016, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press briefing following a meeting with United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, in which he outlined his administration’s interest in securing a UN Security Council seat for the 2021-2022 term. The Security Council is involved in the maintenance of international security, easing and moderating international disputes, and providing possible courses of action with regards to diplomatic, economic, and military means in such scenarios. In recent history, Canada has not played too influential of a role on the global stage – always backing the American initiatives, but if the proper control is taken on the Northwest Passage, and proper diplomatic courses are taken to heighten its use in global trade, Canada would have a real stake in decisive action internationally.

Further, securing consistent international trade and travel through Canadian waters will have provide unprecedented support and initial growth for the northern territories. Since Canada’s establishment and far before that, the northern territories have been isolated from the rest of the developed nation, and in those far lands, the only groups who lived and could live have been the indigenous Inuit groups. The impact that northern trade and development would have on Canada’s Inuit communities is immense and it would be in the absolute best interest of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders.

As global temperatures rise, more and more ice melts each year, uncovering waterways and potential trade routes which could combine as one of the major sources of global power for years to come. With disputes over territorial claims already taking place among Canada, the US, China, and Russia, it’s absolutely imperative that Canada confidently stakes its rightful claims and invests in securing their northern assets.

The simple fact is that for decades now, Canada has acted as a mere puppet to the United States on the international stage – not to say that our interests and goals don’t align or that our strong alliance is groundless – but Canada needs to assert its own leadership role in global governance. After all, that is quite frankly how the US has played their role over the years – in their own best interest.

Canada now has opportunities to enter the highest ranks of geopolitical influence and any wise person would know that opportunities don’t come up every day. Aside from opportunism, the clear truth is just that Canada has played second fiddle to the US for most of its existence, and now finally the time has come for our nation to grow out of that shell and step into the big leagues of global decision making.

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