Whatever the reasons for global warming, the reality is that the mountains of ice and snow that once made travel into and across Northern Canada the stuff of lore are fast receding.
But does the advent of ice-free waterways and a few new transportation infrastructure projects in the region mean Canada is on the cusp of a golden age of shipping into and around the Great White North?
Not unless and until there is a sea change in Canadian attitudes and investments toward the North, say experts in the field, including top executives with two Canadian shipping companies that predominate the movement of people and goods in the region.
“Shipping has always been a fundamental feature and a major challenge of Canada’s North,” says Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia and Canada research chair in global politics and international law. “But I think our development of transportation there is extremely slow.”
According to Byers, whose work focuses on Arctic sovereignty, climate change and Canadian foreign and defence policy, Ottawa has long paid lip service to the need to enhance northern transportation infrastructures and create marine corridors that are competitive, safe and environmentally and socially sustainable.
But he says decades of inaction have left Canada unprepared and unable to regulate and/or support the domestic and international maritime traffic that is rising as quickly as sea ice is vanishing from the waterways that link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Canada’s Arctic, particularly the Northwest Passage.
“The Canadian Arctic is a big and dangerous place,” says Byers. “You need search and rescue capabilities, aids in navigation, ports of distress—you name it. But Canada has almost none of that.”
One example of the federal government’s failure to act, is the promise it made in 2007 to build a naval refueling station for the Arctic. “That’s still the plan,” says Byers, “But there’s been no action.”
He also noted that Canada has only one ship—the ice breaker Louis St. Laurent, which turns 50 in 2019 and is now used as an Arctic research vessel—capable of getting into our northern-most territorial waters.
Though he applauded the start of work in July on a new deep-sea port and small-craft harbour in Iqaluit—an $85-million, Inuit-built facility that is expected to open in November of 2019 and provide 24-hour access for sealift carriers and facilitate delivery of cargo and fuel to Nunavut’s capital—Byers lamented the closure since 2015 of the port in Churchill, Manitoba.
It is Canada’s only Arctic deep-sea port with land connections southward.
Talks aimed at finding local buyers for the port and flood-damaged railroad, which was closed last year by American owner OmniTRAX, were held onboard a Canada Coast Guard vessel in the port of Churchill on July 3.
By August however no agreement had been reached.
Byers says the only operating facility right now in the Canadian Arctic is the deep-sea wharf built by and for Baffinland Iron Mines in 2015 at Eclipse Sound near the Mary River iron-ore mine on Baffin Island in Nunavut. “We need to get Churchill reopened,” says Byers. “It should be a national priority.”
Breaking the ice
The lack of infrastructure in Canada’s North, he adds, has put a damper on the hopes and enthusiasm of sea-trading nations and businesses for a viable commercial route between Asia and Europe that is nearly half as long as transiting the Panama Canal.
In early 2018, for example, China’s ministry of transport published an operating manual for the Canadian Arctic that calls the route “the world’s most efficient and fast passage” between eastern and western markets.
However, unlike Russian’s Northeast Passage, a route lined by major ports with two million people and enough modern icebreakers (more than 50, the world’s largest such fleet) to help ships move an estimated five million containers a year, Chinese officials say the dearth of everything from ports and hydrology data to telecommunications and search-and-rescue capabilities in Canada’s sparsely-populated Arctic region mean “commercial operations (there) will have to wait a long time.”
Tom Peterson agrees. A former ship captain cum vice president and the No. 3 executive at Montreal-based Fednav, the world’s largest Arctic shipping company, he says Canada should discourage commercial traffic through the Arctic for the foreseeable future.
“It’s not true that sailing is getting easier in the north,” says Peterson, who oversees Fednav’s fleet of three identical Polar Class-4 icebreakers that serve as support vessels for world-class nickel, lead and zinc mines in Canada’s North, including Voisey’s Bay and Deception Bay. “I think trips through the passage should be restricted. It’s too risky for spills and possible problems that require assistance and cost Canada plenty.”
According to Peterson, operating in the Arctic is a dangerous business at the best of times.
“There is a lot of risk and reward in the equation,” he says. “You need a lot of experience and infrastructure to do what we do, which is relatively high risk.”
Privately-owned Fednav, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2019, has been involved in every major shipping project in Canada’s Arctic for the past 65 years, from the building of the first Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line facilities on Hershel Island to community and mine supply and resupply.
Fednav ships make some 100 trips per season between the Arctic, Europe and eastern Canada, notably Quebec City, carrying a combined tonnage of six million tons of minerals, supplies and fuel—seven million litres worth.
“That is a significant amount of material and it has increased steadily over the years,” says Peterson. “It’s still a niche business for us but it’s an important one because it’s not market sensitive and contracts are stable.”
Though the infrastructure Fednav uses in the Arctic (mostly docks and loading equipment) are built, owned and maintained by the blue-chip miners the company works for, Peterson says its ships are designed and built specifically for the rugged conditions of the dedicated routes they run.
“These are 30,000-ton ships worth $80 million to $90 million apiece, four times the cost of a bulk carrier,” says Peterson. “We carry high-value cargo that can be worth $15,000 a ton. That’s the same value as a super tanker of oil.”
Unlike ships that use the Panama Canal, Peterson says there’s no smooth sailing or predictability when sailing through Canada’s Arctic waters.
“Ship owners are in the business of making money,” he says. “Speed and distance equals time and the sailing through the (Northwest Passage) forces slowdowns and challenges.”
Depending on location and time of year, Peterson says ships plying northern Canada waters run a gauntlet of ever-changing dangers that range from fog and icebergs to car-sized growlers and house-size bergy bits that can breech a ship’s hull.
“The molecular structure of thousands-years-old ice is stronger than steel—it’s more like titanium,” says Peterson.
Ships that make it to the Beaufort Sea confront another menace in the form of pingo fields, which are mounds of earth-covered ice that push up from the ocean floor like underwater mountains.
“They are charted but you need to go slow,” says Peterson, who gives an annual lecture on sovereignty and the Northwest Passage to post-graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley.
Asian-bound ships, he adds, must also contend with powerful winds and monstrous waves in the Bering Sea and around the Aleutian Islands.
“By the time you get to China your ship and crew are used,” says Peterson, who oversaw the 2014 trip of Fednav’s ice-strengthened ore carrier Nunavik, which made the first unsupported trip through the Northwest Passage from Deception Bay in northern Quebec to northeastern China. “Taking a cargo from Montreal to China via the Northwest Passage is not likely.”
Not cleared for takeoff
Obstacles of a different kind face the most popular and year-round option for the transportation of people, food and consumer goods to and from northern Canada—air travel.
“Our operating costs are substantial and the climate is tough on planes and schedules,” says Brock Friesen, president and CEO of First Air.
Wholly owned by the 9,000 Inuit of northern Quebec through the Makivik Corporation, a non-profit group created in 1975 to invest proceeds from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, First Air is by far the largest airline serving Canada’s Arctic.
The airline’s fleet of 19 aircraft—including 13 ATR freighter aircraft (six for passengers, seven for carrying approximately 4,500 kilograms of cargo) and four jets—provide scheduled service between 31 northern communities plus Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Edmonton.
Only Yellowknife, Iqaluit and Ranken Inlet have proper paved runways in the northern communities the airline services.
The rest are small, Indigenous-run village airports with gravel runways that are frozen—and as hard as concrete—for several months each year.
According to Friesen, those small airstrips are mostly devoid of basic navigation systems, especially for approaches, like runway lights and navigation aids.
“These are all soft investments that need to be done but don’t get done,” he says. “But the big issue we face right now are crew and duty time regulations, which are designed for big carriers on global routes.
“To apply those norms in the North we have to hire 13 per cent more pilots. But there is a pilot shortage so it’s not easy to do.”
Friesen lauded a new federal infrastructure investment to the Cold War-era facility his company uses at the airport in Iqaluit.
Announced in May, the $35-million project involves the building of an expanded cargo warehouse operated by First Air that will increase the capacity to store climate-controlled dry goods and refrigerated products—to reduce food waste due to weather delays—by 75 per cent. Last year, a new terminal at Iqaluit Airport—eight times the size of the original— was completed.
“Our government is investing in Canada’s economy by making improvements to our trade and transportation corridors,” federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said in a press release announcing the project.
The funds came from Canada’s $2 billion National Trade Corridors Fund, which is part of the federal government’s $180-billion Investing in Canada Plan, a long-term strategy for addressing infrastructure needs. In addition to the Iqaluit cargo warehouse, the government announced funds to replace outdated and undersized airport terminal buildings in the five communities of Kugluktuk, Naujaat, Kimmirut, Whale Cove and Chesterfield Inlet.
“Transportation and distribution of goods are a vital part of our local, regional and national economies and this announcement makes our transportation system stronger by addressing urgent capacity constraints at First Air operations and at five airports in Nunavut and fosters long-term prosperity for our community,” stated Yvonne Jones, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
The North, however, is mentioned only nine times in the strategy’s master document, entitled “Transportation 2030: A Strategic Plan for the Future of Transportation in Canada.”
Similarly, the North is not one of the three strategic regions or corridors identified in Canada’s transportation and logistics system.
According to Friesen, the Iqaluit investment is needed because nearly all of the food sold on Baffin Island is flown in through its capital city’s airport.
“Our building there was hopelessly overworked and out of date,” he says. “Redoing the building enables us to redesign cargo flow through. That means better times and storage.”
Not just another road
Another recent transportation investment in Northern Canada that is earning rave reviews from backers and users is the new Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.
Opened in May and thought to be the most expensive unpaved road ever built in Canada, the 137-kilometre, $300-million road replaces the world-famous ice road on the Mackenzie River that linked the two Northwest Territory towns during the winter months.
It is also expected to replace the barges that bring fuel and other supplies downriver from Hay River to Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet on a peninsula that juts out into the Arctic Ocean.
“The road is working really well,” says Tuktoyaktuk mayor Merven Gruben, who is also vice-president of E. Gruben’s Transport Ltd., a family-owned firm that was involved in building the road. “The price of food and gas have gone down here considerably already. And people are happy they can now get down south in any weather.”
Gruben downplays concerns that the highway’s $2.2 million per kilometer price tag and expected $1.5 million in annual maintenance costs—three times the annual cost to build the ice road—are too high.
“It’s hard to rely on the ice road or barging bulk fuel and gas and it’s cheaper than flying,” he says. “It’s an investment in our future, which is looking much brighter thanks to this road. In my books, the [Canadian] Arctic is the place to be.”