Dissecting sovereignty and the Northwest Passage
By Chad Ingram
The Northwest Passage – the stretch of Arctic Ocean connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans along Canada’s northern coast – has become part of the Canadian identity.
Just the words Northwest Passage, “really seem to speak of something that is in our mythology,” says David Newland. “I wanted to give them meaning.”
Newland, a writer, musician and currently, host, performer and Zodiac driver for Adventure Canada tours along the famed seaway, is speaking to an enraptured crowd at the Haliburton fish hatchery.
The Northwest Passage is often associated with the ill-fated expedition of Captain John Franklin, who left England in 1845 and never returned.
The location of the shipwreck of the HMS Erebus remained a mystery until it was discovered by the Canadian government in 2014, a discovery that was much celebrated since the Franklin expedition, for some, is regarded as part of laying the groundwork for Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.
“But let’s take a little look,” Newland says. “It happens in 1845, to a British guy, who doesn’t find the Northwest Passage, who doesn’t come back.”
The Canadian government insists the Northwest Passage in an internal, Canadian seaway, but the Americans and the Russians consider it international waters and will sometimes run ships through the area when it is passable.
However, as Newland points out, there is a third perspective.
“For the Inuit, there’s a third option,” he says. “This is our territory. It’s like land.”
For millennia, the Inuit have lived and hunted in the vast geographic space that includes part of what is now the Canadian Arctic, northern Russia, Greenland and parts of Scandinavia.
For most of time, for most of the year, the area has been solid, Inuit passing over the frozen ice.
In the 19th century, when the RCMP started stationing officers in the area, Newland says they were essentially establishing Canada’s sovereignty against Inuit who had left the Canadian Arctic and were coming back down traditional migrational waters.
“No, you guys are Danish now,” he says.
It’s clear Newland has great knowledge of, and great respect for, the indigenous cultures of the Arctic.
Western culture was heaped upon the Inuit by the trinity of the church, the RCMP and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As Newland explains the 26 small communities that now exist in the area were essentially formed around where there were churches, or HBC trading posts.
Culture change is something the Inuit have become extremely familiar with.
“The Inuit will tell you they’ve gone from igloos to iPads in a generation,” Newland says, explaining the people in Inuit communities are watching the same television shows as other Canadians and using social media.
At the same time, they are also connected to their indigenous culture, with customs such as tattooing, once practically outlawed by mitigating Western forces, now resurfacing.
“There’s stuff that’s coming back and it’s powerful and it’s rich,” Newland says.
He adds any notion that with warming weather patterns the Northwest Passage is going to become a well-used shipping route is unfounded.
“Importantly, there’s no port,” Newland says. “There are no ports in the Canadian Arctic.”
There’s nowhere for ships to dock. When Newland and his colleagues take people on tours, they must travel to land by Zodiac.
Meanwhile the Northeast Passage, which runs along the Russian Coast, has long been developed by Russia.
“We’re not even in the game,” Newland says.
Besides, with the effects of climate change, there could soon be a third option, a more direct one. Called the “transpolar route,” it would cross areas that have never before been open water, a straighter route down towards Iceland requiring less circumnavigation. According to research from the American Navy, Newland says by 2025, there could be as much as two weeks of open water to allow ships passage.
In 14 years, he says, there may be no more permanent sea ice at the North Pole.
Newland was at the hatchery March 31 as part of a speakers’ series hosted by Yours Outdoors.