top of page

Conservative Party in Canada Wants Guns on Canadian Boats Heading to the Arctic

The Conservative party in Canada, the Tories, wants to arm Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers in order to strengthen Arctic sovereignty.    The government is also seeking to extend mandatory registration of foreign vessels, which currently only applies to large freights and deploy veterans from Afghanistan for military training in the Arctic.    Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia expert on international law, said the “quiet authority of a deck-mounted gun” is a reasonable show of force in the Arctic, and does not constitute a provocation to foreign countries or “preparing for war with the Russians.” He said “multi-purpose vessels” that not only perform navigational assistance, conduct scientific research and provide search-and-rescue services, but also bring both the symbolic and practical might of a “light machine-gun” to the job of enforcing Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic.  The Prime Minster of Canada, Stephen Harper, has recently stated his intentions to bolster Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

Image available from

With the opening of sea lanes due to global warming in the Arctic and further scientific findings of petroleum reserves, the claims to Arctic Ocean and expressions of sovereignty in the Arctic are becoming more prevalent.  Under Articles 76 and 77 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a state can claim sovereignty to sea beds if they are linked to the continental shelf.    A State is usually limited to claiming an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles from its baselines, but can extend it up to 350 nautical miles based on the continental shelf.  Russia has made a claim to the Arctic and the sea bed in 2001 and made the symbolic gesture of planting a flag under the North Pole by submarine in 2007.   Since Canada ratified the UNCLOS in 2003 they have until 2013 to file a claim to a portion of the Arctic Ocean.  The United States, which also seeks to make a claim to a portion of the Arctic, has not ratified the UNCLOS.  Norway is the only country besides Russia to file a claim to the Arctic Ocean thus far.

For its part, Russia recently deployed a 2010 shelf expedition that finished in mid-October.   “The step we have taken may lead to very serious consequences for all of our neighbors,” said Alexander Shemetov, acting head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Department of Navigation and Oceanography.  “The step that Russia took will give rise to healthy competition . . . and then our neighbors will start to work more zealously to assert their interests in the Arctic.”  Russia hopes its scientific discoveries will lead to greater recognition of Russia’s continental shelf claims and ownership of the Arctic Ocean.

While there will not be an armed conflict anytime soon over the Arctic Ocean; the actions of Russia and Canada have certainly indicate expressions of sovereignty that have a militaristic tone.  The fact that the Canadian military is training in the Arctic and Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker boats will carry sub-machine guns paints an aggressive picture.  Likewise, Russia’s claims are coming from the Defense Ministry Department and it was a Russian war ship that planted a flag in 2007.  To be fair to both countries, even peaceful displays of sovereignty are typically carried out by Navies or other military entities in international law.   Also, acquiesce to the Russia’s claim can easily forfeit Canada’s claim to the Arctic Ocean, and vice versa.   One can only hope that any dispute in the coming decades will be solved through negotiation or submission to an international arbitration tribunal.


bottom of page