People & Culture

On thin ice: Who “owns” the Arctic

As the climate heats up, so do talks over land ownership in the Arctic. What does Canadian Arctic Sovereignty look like as the ice melts?

  • Published Jul 07, 2023
  • Updated Jul 10
  • 4,353 words
  • 18 minutes
HMCS Margaret Brooke surges into the High Arctic ice. (Photo: Navy Lt. Dionne)
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The ship’s searchlight pencils its beam from one suspect cake of ice to the next. The Arctic night deepens its blues and, at the horizon, flares orange across the waters of Victoria Strait, in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region, as one of Canada’s newest Arctic and offshore patrol ships makes its way south. Summer is waning across the Northwest Passage, the storied sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and with it, the Royal Canadian Navy’s latest northern sovereignty patrol, a two-month deployment that will take HMCS Margaret Brooke from her home port of Halifax to Greenland’s shores and on to Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut, then back again.

Old ice? New? Under the accusation of a naval searchlight, it all looks spectral, slightly spooky, caught-in-the-act. Tonight, none of it will pose any danger to navigation. I’ve joined Margaret Brooke on her inaugural deployment for a two-week visit as the $700-million vessel, rated Polar Class 5 for icebreaking, surges into the country’s North as part of the annual Operation Nanook.

Versatile and fuel-efficient, with a crew of 65, the ship is second to sea in a class that will eventually number six Arctic and offshore patrol ships. She won’t, officially, complete the passage this voyage, but Margaret Brooke will sail 10,014 nautical miles (some 19,000 kilometres) in all, “moving the flag around the map,” says navy Capt. Sheldon Gillis, the task group commander for Operation Nanook, who’s aboard to oversee the operation. The ship has arrived on the northern scene in the middle of a burgeoning era in everything from Arctic governance, land use and reconciliation to resource extraction, development and tourism. The warming of the Arctic isn’t anything new. But as the climate crisis accelerates, so too does shipping in a region where the geopolitical security implications of Russian aggressions and Chinese encroachments are increasingly playing out. 

On the bridge, it’s almost 10 p.m. by the central-Nunavut clock, and Margaret Brooke’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Nicole Robichaud, has gone below for the night, leaving the bridge to the first watch. Here, in the quiet emptiness of the command deck, with no lights showing beyond the luminescences of digital dials, charts on screens, and glowing binnacles, a pair of attentive sub-lieutenants supported by two sailors, a helmsman and a lookout, steer the ship into the night. One of the officers works a joystick on a small console, sweeping the searchlight across the ocean ahead. If it discloses no special hazards in the night, it does illuminate, again, the recurring theme of this and every other Arctic enterprise: it’s all about the ice. 

Sailor 1st class Kyle Moore and medical technician Cpl. Katie Santerre assess a simulated victim during a U.S.-led search and rescue exercise as part of Operation Nanook.(Photo: Cpl Kuzma/Canadian Armed Forces)
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There’s no getting away from that, not here. Astern, just 12 nautical miles behind us, ice stopped the two most famous naval vessels in Arctic history, locking them in and dooming their crews. It was there, in September 1846, that the churn of multi-year ice trapped HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the Northwest Passage-seeking Royal Navy ships of John Franklin’s expedition. By the time they were released to drift and sink, the survivors had abandoned them in a desperate bid to walk south to safety. All 129 officers and men perished. 

The shifting and shearing — and melting — of Arctic ice remains a defining context in every aspect of today’s North, whether as life and livelihood for the people who live here (and always have) or relating to warming temperatures, rising sea levels and at-risk biodiversity. The ice, and what’s happening to it, is key to the increasing traffic of tourists and adventurers, as well as those who want to fish the deeps, extract resources, study ecology and climate or safeguard national interest. Ice (and its absence) is nothing if not equal-opportunity: it provides opportunities, or stymies them, for every potential exploiter of Canadian interests you can conjure: polluters, criminals, spies — anyone (or any government) with a mind to test or contest Canadian sovereignty and security.

Back on the bridge, in the here-and-northern-now, the watch for hazards continues. A wary sub-lieutenant zaps another floe with the searchlight’s beam off the starboard bow. “I’m not mad at anybody,” he says, “I just want the ice to go away.”

In the darkness, the lookout has his answer. “Climate change is doing its best, sir.”

The ice was melting, of course —has been, is, continues to be. By the end of the summer of 2022, the extent of sea ice in the Northwest Passage had diminished to the fourth-lowest on record, according to the Canadian Ice Service. The broader crisis was front-page news, again, as Margaret Brooke slipped her moorings in Halifax and aimed north in early August. A new study in Nature showed that over the last four decades, the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the globe. The calamitous language of tipping points and carbon release continued to flood the discourse, with reports in the media that month amplifying forecasts that the collapse of the Greenland ice-sheet could eventually raise sea levels globally by at least 25 centimetres.

In November, the 2022 State of the Cryosphere Report declared a “terminal diagnosis” for the Arctic ecosystem, concluding that even with very low emissions, complete summer loss of Arctic sea ice will occur at least once, likely before 2050. Despite years of scientific warnings and the desperate truth that appeared on the report’s front page — “we cannot negotiate with the melting point of ice” — there’s no escaping the negligence, or the note of despair: “No one seems to have listened.”

Sailor 1st class Kyle Moore climbs a jumping ladder to board Danish ship HDMS Triton as part of a U.S.-led search and rescue exercise. HMCS Margaret Brooke (right) at the mouth of Croker Bay, Devon Island. (Photo: Cpl Kuzma/Canadian Armed Forces)
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Julienne Stroeve consulted on the cryosphere report as a scientific reviewer on Arctic sea ice and has been tracking the dire momentum and “connecting the dots” on global risk for decades. “While sea-ice loss isn’t going to raise sea levels,” says the Canada 150 research chair in climate forcing of sea ice at the University of Manitoba, “it’s going to warm up the Arctic even faster — which we know is already warming nearly four times faster [than other regions]. And then that contributes to the melting of Greenland and all the other ice caps in the Canadian Arctic that will contribute to sea-level rise. I mean, it’s these cascading impacts that are coming down.” 

In 2007, the year Stroeve co-authored another paper, “Arctic Sea Ice Decline: Faster Than Forecast,” the extent of ice coverage hit a new record low (it was subsequently broken in 2012). Other Arctic news was vying for headlines that summer, too. Russia proudly planted a flag at the North Pole — on the ocean bed, encased in titanium. Meanwhile, then-prime minister Stephen Harper was touting the government’s Canada First defence strategy, citing the decline of Canadian military capabilities in the North as he announced the multi-billion-dollar shipbuilding strategy that would, 14 years later, launch HMCS Harry DeWolf, namesake of the class that includes Margaret Brooke and the rest of the Arctic surveillance fleet. “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic,” Harper famously said then, at the home port to Canada’s Pacific fleet in Esquimalt, B.C. “We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it. Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our national identity as a northern nation.” 

Canada’s Arctic is home to some 200,000 people, about half of whom are Indigenous. Inuit Nunangat is here, the Inuit homeland that comprises the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut. All told, the region encompasses some 40 per cent of Canadian territory, including 160,000 kilometres of coastline and an archipelago of more than 36,000 islands.

It’s getting busier and busier. The number of ships entering the Northwest Passage increased by 44 per cent from 2013 to 2019, according to a 2021 Arctic Council report. A more recent prediction suggests that by 2050, the most efficient route to ship goods from Asia to the East Coast of North America will be via the Arctic. In November 2022, Karen Hogan, Canada’s auditor general, reminded Parliament of what that promises: the potential for more illegal fishing, marine pollution, unauthorized access and safety issues. 

The people who live in the region need no such reminding. “We are a coastal people,” Johannes Lampe, president of Nunatsiavut, tells me from Nain. “We rely heavily on the sea for travel and for sustenance. And that helps define who we are and will certainly continue to play a huge role in our future development, both economically and socially. That’s why we often refer to ourselves as Sikumiut, which means we are the people of the sea ice.”

HMCS Margaret Brooke at the mouth of Croker Bay, Devon Island. (Photo: Stephen Smith)
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“Everything that we do is the exercise of our inherent right to self-determination,” says Lisa Koperqualuk, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Canada. The international non-governmental organization represents some 180,000 Inuit of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Chukotka in Russia. That applies to naval patrols as much as it does to questions of land use and environmental protections. “For us, it means participating in the instances where decisions, rules, policy-making are made regarding the Arctic. So when it comes to anything related to and in the Arctic, we must be at the table.”

For its part, the Canadian Armed Forces aims to increase Indigenous representation, from 2.8 per cent in 2022 to 3.5 per cent by 2026. New to the navy, meanwhile, is the introduction of the role of Indigenous liaison officer on each of the Arctic and offshore patrol ships. Each of the new vessels will also be officially affiliated with a region of Inuit Nunangat. Sailing for home last September, Margaret Brooke stopped in at Hopedale in Labrador to formalize a new relationship with Nunatsiavut. 

Lampe sees it as an important step forward. “It is our hope that the affiliation with our region will open up new opportunities where it will give us an opportunity to help them to learn more about Labrador Inuit and our communities and our culture and way of life,” he says. “The bonds that will be established over the years and the relationships that will be forged between the Labrador Inuit and HMCS Margaret Brooke and crew is yet another important step towards reconciliation with Canada.”

It was only in the 1940s that Canada’s navy had the capability to take its first turns in the Far North. HMCS Labrador was the third ship to navigate the Northwest Passage, in 1954, following Roald Amundsen’s Gjøa (1903-06) and the RCMP schooner St. Roch (1940-42 and 1944). Labrador sailed 8,600 nautical miles on her see-and-be- seen Cold War adventure as newspapers to the south speculated she was gathering intelligence on Soviet nuclear tests (the government said that wasn’t so).  

Eventually, as the Cold War warmed up, questions over Canadian sovereignty in the Northwest Passage began to push to the fore. Not that Canada has ever doubted these are historic internal waters, but other governments, led by the United States, pressed their view that the Northwest Passage is an international strait through which ships under any flag are free to navigate. 

The Arctic is the prime area where destabilization at a global level occurs; this is where it’s going to be fought.

The dispute has been testy at times, as in 1969, when the ice-capable U.S. supertanker SS Manhattan plied the passage without seeking Canadian permission. Following another notable incident in 1985 involving a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, the neighbours managed to settle on a compromise whereby the U.S. advises Canada when its ships will be sailing the passage on the understanding that Canada will never refuse transit.

Canada’s Armed Forces continued to engage in the Arctic, but its maritime presence was limited in recent decades by the lack of ships able to operate in ice and isolation. Geopolitical gears, meanwhile, continued to turn, which brings us back to the early 2000s. Then, amid an awakening to the impacts of climate change, a Canadian military assessment of the Arctic pronounced that the evermore-accessible region was more or less undefended.

Officers watch for ice from the bridge. (Photo: Stephen Smith)
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This is still — dangerously — the case, warns retired Canadian Forces lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, a former head of the Canadian Army and subsequently a Liberal MP. “There’s no defence capability resident, permanently stationed in the North. Canada’s Armed Forces visit the North.” 

To Rob Huebert, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, the threat from Chinese and Russian aggression is as pressing and existential as that of climate change. “The Arctic is the prime area where destabilization at a global level occurs; this is where it’s going to be fought,” he says. “Geography makes it inevitable.” 

It’s not enough, Huebert continues, for Canada to rely on U.S. might and neighbourliness when it comes to Arctic security. Russia is retrofitting military bases and building new ones in its Arctic, and that can’t be dismissed, he argues, by those who say there’s no threat of incursion in ours. “In reality, how can you know?”

Amid all this, how to measure the “success” of a foray like the one Margaret Brooke took on this round of Operation Nanook? Somewhere in Ottawa, a report card is circulating. While the marks aren’t in for 2022-23, National Defence’s departmental results report gave itself 95 per cent in 2020-21 (and again for 2021-2022) when it came to ensuring that “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is preserved and safeguarded.”

Cmdr. Nicole Robichaud says as a kid, she didn’t see herself steering ships. She says Margaret Brooke “doesn’t like to stop on a dime” but has “the manoeuvrability of a ballet dancer, essentially.” (Photo: Stephen Smith)
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That’s at odds with the findings of auditor general Karen Hogan in the fall of 2022 that Canada’s ability to monitor the Arctic is still sorely lacking, as is the ability to assess, share and respond to safety and security risks. It’s an ongoing story, one that’s filled with shifting horizons and unrealized objectives that go back to Stephen Harper’s 2007 commitment to launch Margaret Brooke and the other Arctic offshore patrol ships, which was in itself an amended plan replacing a 2006 election promise for a flotilla of more robust armed icebreakers. Another whole chapter might be devoted to the troubled history of the much-delayed Nanisivik naval station on Baffin Island, once promised as a year-round base for Arctic operations, now seen as a more limited seasonal facility. 

As focused as the government has been for two decades on addressing security infrastructure and capability, Canada is falling behind, the auditor general advised. Across departments, including Defence, Transport, Fisheries and Environment, she found that “long-standing issues include incomplete surveillance, insufficient data about vessel traffic in Canada’s Arctic waters, poor means of sharing information on maritime traffic, and outdated equipment. The renewal of vessels, aircraft, satellites, and infrastructure that support monitoring maritime traffic and responding to safety and security incidents has fallen behind to the point where some will likely cease to operate before they can be replaced.”

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo. Shipping traffic density: Marinetraffic,, downloaded May 4, 2023. CC By-SA 4.0
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Another day, another long Arctic channel named after a British grandee who never once ventured this way in person. As Margaret Brooke pushes west through Lancaster Sound, she leaves icebergs like mountainous molars in her wake. Gulls buzz the ship’s bow, and pairs of dovekies report for escort duty. Closer to the coastline, seals looking rubbery as wetsuits surface to cast a quizzical eye. One afternoon, the ship turns into Croker Bay, where the 12,000-square-kilometre colossus that is the Devon Ice Cap lolls a massive tongue into the ocean. If outward signs of the crisis it’s in aren’t immediately apparent to first-time sightseers, details of its ominous, ongoing loss of mass are easy to access online through the World Glacier Monitoring Service. (Executive summary: not good.) 

Margaret Brooke lingers offshore. A sovereignty patrol can look like this. Contemporary National Defence literature is filled with phrases delineating Operation Nanook’s designs and directives — what the ship is doing here — and they include domain awareness, greater interoperability, overall readiness, information-sharing initiatives. On the water, in the moment, there is often an air of the improvisational, a sense that as much as Margaret Brooke is in trial mode, with her crew discovering her capabilities and quirks as she went, so too is the navy in reaching once again to re-establish an Arctic presence and re-learn (as a 2022 Canadian Military Journal feature puts it) “basic environmental skill sets to operate there.” 

Some days on patrol involve a certain sightseerly idleness. Off Devon Island, it is a perfect, apparently uncalamitous, afternoon. The water, the sky, the ice, the baked-brown Precambrian heights of Devon Island: the view doesn’t take my breath so much as make me feel I am breathing easier than I had previously, on a warship, in a fraught time. The scene is exhilarating and almost too much — too vast, too austerely beautiful, too historical — to trust mere sentences to try to contain.

Bessie Pihuak Omilgoetok of Iqaluktuuttiaq speaks with members of the Canadian Armed Forces attending a qulliq ceremony. (Photo: Cpl. Parker Salustro/Canadian Armed Forces)
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In Croker Bay, a nearby cruise ship, National Geographic’s Endurance, radios over to share polar bear sightings. Overhead, a battle-green RCAF Aurora, on a patrol of its own, takes a thunderous turn to pay its respects. In sunny warmth on the wing-decks flanking Margaret Brooke’s bridge, sailors crowd the rails readying iPhones for selfies with the glacier.

These ships aren’t in the North to fight any battles. “There’s no pretense that a DeWolf-class will ever go up against a Russian naval vessel,” as Michael Byers puts it. “It’s not designed for that. It’s not equipped for that.”

Byers, Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, doesn’t doubt that it’s meet and right for the Canadian government to be strongly present in the Arctic. “We need ships in the Arctic,” he says. But as long as the government is fulfilling the roles of search-and-rescue and policing, he wonders whether there’s a more cost-effective answer. “You could argue that we also need to show that we have a military presence in the Arctic,” he says. “But red-and-white Coast Guard icebreakers are just as much of a demonstration of Canadian sovereignty as a grey Arctic patrol ship.”

As it is, the Arctic offshore patrol ships are fulfilling an essential role, according to Adam Lajeunesse, associate professor in public policy at St. Francis Xavier University.

“You’ve got a lot more activity which needs to be policed, environmental pollution prevention regulations that need to be enforced,” Lajeunesse says. “Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and RCMP and Transport Canada and Canadian Border Service Agency, they all need to be there. And what the AOPS [Arctic and offshore patrol ships] do is they offer all of these other government departments a platform [they] can use to project force and to fulfill their mandates.” 

When it comes to protecting Canadian sovereignty, Lajeunesse would, perhaps, adjust the lens.

“A single [foreign] ship or a dozen ships being present in the Northwest Passage does not affect Canadian sovereignty, per se: there’s not a direct line from presence to sovereignty. What is important — and what the AOPS are there for — is probably better described as control or stewardship than sovereignty.”

I get versions of this from several officers aboard the ship: seeing and being seen, they tell me, is what this summer’s foray was largely about. “We want Canadians to know that we’re here,” Gillis says, “and we want people that are not Canadian to know that we’re here as well.”

For all the friendly hospitality I’m shown as a visitor aboard Margaret Brooke, with all the freedom I have to roam the ship, there are limits, understandably, on what the navy is willing to share. The ship’s ample operations room, the brain of the ship, just aft of the bridge, is a no-go: a few fleeting glimpses of the blinking synapses of its screens through a closing door.

We want Canadians to know that we’re here. And we want people that are not Canadian to know that we’re here.

There are conversations, too, in which I am politely steered away from sensitive topics. Invited to sit in on Gillis’s nightly command briefing, I follow along as fleet staff and ship’s officers update him on everything from fuel supplies and other logistics to ice behaviour and how the day’s space weather (geomagnetic activity) might impact communications. There is detailed satellite-tracking, too, of shipping traffic across the Arctic that the officers discuss in consultation with Ottawa — including nightly scrutiny of a particular Russian-flagged fishing vessel operating in Baffin Bay. There is no discussion (in my hearing) of interdicting foreign surveillance equipment: it’s news as much to me as it is to the rest of Canadians when, in February 2023, as weather balloons waft over North America (with some shot down), the Globe and Mail reports the Canadian Armed Forces had retrieved Chinese monitoring buoys from Arctic waters. 

China considers itself a “near Arctic state” — according to a 2018 white paper in which the Chinese government lays out its ambitious engagement in all aspects of the North — which it continues to back with an equally ambitious program of building medium-and heavy-duty icebreakers. “A champion for the development of a community with a shared future for mankind,” China’s Arctic policy declared, “China is an active participant, builder, and contributor in Arctic affairs to contribute its wisdom to the development of the Arctic region.” 

Just how that continues to evolve remains to be seen. Last August, as Margaret Brooke cruised down Peel Sound, word of the death of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the age of 91 generated less discussion aboard the ship of his historic 1987 Murmansk Initiative (in which he framed a vision of Arctic demilitarization and international peaceful cooperation) than it did uncertainty (mostly jesting) among some young officers as to whether or not he was a hockey player. By then, six months after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, full and effective interstate cooperation in the North was in limbo on all fronts, with the eight-member Arctic Council having paused its operations until Russia’s position as chair expired in the spring of 2023. 

A CH-146 Griffon helicopter flies over Nunavut during Operation Nanook. (Photo: Cpl. Parker Salustro/Canadian Armed Forces)
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The names of ships navigating the Arctic make a kind of poetry as they appear on the PowerPoint projections at the command briefing one mid-patrol evening: L’Austral, David Thompson, Golden Freeze, Mae West, Pierre Radisson, Ageless Wanderer, Polar Sun, Silver Wind. They also provide something of a core sample of the summer’s maritime traffic across the region, identifying luxuriant cruise ships with 250 passengers in staterooms along with Coast Guard icebreakers, ketches, cutters and lone adventurers in open outboards.

North is the plan for Margaret Brooke, which is to say norther, up Wellington Channel between Devon and Cornwallis islands, in search of the edge of the polar pack. The past, as always, is a presence here, dwindling and reforming as surely as the ice, impossible to ignore: this was Franklin’s route, too, in 1846. Searchers also came this way, and their feelings are immortalized in the names of landmarks appearing on the digital charts on the bridge. I watch the geography line up its warnings, from Fog Bay to Decision Point, Separation Point, Abandon Bay, Disappointment Bay. There’s hope and even encouragement here, too: Cape Rescue, Assistance Islet, Resolute, the promising Helicopter Bay. 

“There is nothing worth living for but to have one’s name inscribed on the Arctic chart,” wrote English poet Alfred Tennyson. If the idea occurred to European interlopers that the landmarks here might already have been interpreted, it didn’t sink in. Inuit names that have long been absent from the charts echo the language of the land: Nanuit Turaagangat, the point where polar bears come and there is always a crack in the ice; Aupajuttuq, the peninsula where blown sand reddens the ice; Aivinnguaq, where the rocks look like walruses.

Searchers investigating these waters for traces of the lost expedition speculated that Franklin and his men could be safe and sound in the High Arctic. The idea of an open polar sea was an old one, reaching back to the 16th century. Somewhere up there at the top of the world, it held, was an ice-free temperate ocean, an Arctic Mediterranean: all a sailor had to do was break through the ice barriers that surrounded it. It was a dream, a chimera. Then.

Past John Barrow Island, Margaret Brooke slows through a coagulation of grease ice, on into heaving nilas, newly frozen sea ice, and slushy, turbulent frazil. Farther north, the ship plows long spreads of old ice that in the fog look like obstinate grey bone. By afternoon, the skies are brilliant blue, peach-smudged here and there by cloud.

Topping Hassel Sound, between islands named for 19th-century beer-brewing Norwegian brothers, Margaret Brooke slows her engines. Ahead, the darkness of open water ends in a line of ice as straight and starkly drawn as the edge of a perfect rink you can’t see the end of. We’ve reached the polar ice pack: ahead, across around 680 nautical miles of frozen Arctic Ocean, lies the North Pole.

The ship doesn’t stay long: after an hour or so, Margaret Brooke will turn for the south again. But Robichaud doesn’t want to leave quite yet. And so, asserting her sovereignty as well as her reinforced hull, Margaret Brooke pushes into the metre-and-a- half-thick ice.

It shivers, buckles, severs, yields: fascinating to watch. Those old Arctic journals are full of the sounds of ice: it rasps, like the noise “of close-grained sugar,” it’s a wild “yet not unmusical chorus,” it cries like a nighthawk. The ice that Margaret Brooke slowly sunders is creaking, crunching stuff, it booms and echoes and whines, as if a skyscraper were trying to squeeze by another sky-scraper and making it, just.

Ahead, the way north is perfectly clear. In a place where everything is in flux, the whiteness reaches to the horizon in the frozen distance. No balmy open polar sea in sight, still — yet.


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This story is from the July/August 2023 Issue

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