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TORONTO — You probably missed it. With the new year focus on America’s continued efforts to deal with U.S. President George W. Bush’s three “evils” — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — you probably were not aware of the potential long-term international consequences of a speech by a Russian minister in January, in Canada.

The speech involved the development of a year-round sea route through the islands of Northwest Canada. But before we look at Russia’s interest in this matter, a little background is in order.

First of all, the United States strongly denies that Canada has sovereignty over the waterways through the islands of Northwest Canada. From time to time it sends ships, and submarines, through the Northwest Passage, arguing that it does not have to ask permission to do so from the Canadian government because the routes are international. The European Union takes the same position.

One of the first things the current prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, did after he came into office was to publicly reprimand the U.S. ambassador to Canada for criticizing Canada’s claim to sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. So upset was he that he renamed the route on Canadian maps and in school textbooks as the “Canadian Internal Waters.”

Harper has also announced that resources will be allocated to the armed forces to strengthen Canada’s control over the Canadian Internal Waters. Lots of nasty noise on the topic is moving between Ottawa and Washington. Such is the strength of the arguments on either side that commentators are saying that an agreement is unlikely to be reached for several decades.

The Northwest Passage (best to use the old name for now) is frozen and closed to shipping for most of the year. In a “normal” year, the ice melts enough to let ships pass — for four to six weeks — from Asia into Canada and on to Europe.

Meanwhile, the ice north of Canada that doesn’t melt is softening. Some experts believe that the Passage will be open to sea traffic year-round in about 30 years. If so, then a lot of infrastructure planning is needed along with the development of regulations and security.

People in Washington are worried that if it opens as an international waterway, then terrorists, smugglers and people traffickers (such as slave traders) will use the route as a way into the U.S. by crossing remote and weakly controlled Canadian territory.

In claiming that the Passage is not Canadian but rather an international route, Washington asserts the right to maintain a naval presence to control ship movements suspected of being threatening to the U.S. Thus the potential exists for the development of a very unhappy state of affairs between Canada and the U.S. if the U.S. continues to take this position.

The Russians, on the other hand, have taken a different point of view. Moscow Transport Minister Igor Levitin was in Canada in January to press the case for allowing Russia to develop a commercial international sea route between the port of Murmansk in European Russia and Port Churchill, a port on Hudson Bay in Manitoba.

Levitin claimed that, given the climate change that has taken place, a fleet of seven modern icebreaker ships now operated by Russia could keep the Northwest Passage open all year round.

Currently, and curiously, the port at Port Churchill, a town of 1,100 people, is owned by a American company. Omni-Trax Inc. of Denver, Colorado, bought the port from the local government for $7 (no zeros) and has spent several million dollars developing it. At present, the port is open from July to November. The main product shipped through it is Canadian wheat.

The Russians are interested in developing the port further so that they could ship liquefied natural gas from Russia’s Far East and Siberia into Canada and central and northern U.S.

Chinese and Indian companies have also been talking to Russian transport officials about the possibility of working with Russia to develop and take advantage of the route as a way of avoiding clogged up U.S. West Coast ports and the long route through the Panama Canal.

The route could further be developed to go to the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada, and on to Europe. The route from Tokyo to London, for example, through the Northwest Passage would be 5,000 km less than that through the Suez Canal and 8,000 km less than that through the Panama Canal.

Russia’s interest is in transporting gas from the Shtokman field, about 555 km offshore from Murmansk, into the North American market. It announced this year that a new company, Gazprom Marketing and Trading USA, has been established to market gas directly to North American consumers. Port Churchill would be a convenient transit point from Murmansk.

Naturally, the people in Port Churchill are getting quite excited. They had been worried about the fall in tourist income since polar bears were said to be moving away because of the increasing warmth.

It will be interesting to see how the U.S. reacts to a Canadian agreement with Russia to open up the Northwest Passage (or the Canadian Internal Waters) and to a Russian acceptance of Canada’s sovereignty over the waters.

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