A Canadian legal expert is urging the federal government to work with the new administration in the United States on resolving long-standing disputes over the Northwest Passage and other Arctic areas.
The U.S. is expected to send two nuclear-powered submarines through the Northwest Passage sometime this month, en route to a military exercise in Alaska, said Michael Byers, the Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.
What matters about that submarine mission is whether the U.S. is asking Canada for permission to travel through the passage, Byers told CBC News.
"They are international voyages through the Northwest Passage, and so the question in terms of Canadian sovereignty becomes, does the Canadian government know that they're going through the Passage? And if so, has it given its consent?" he said Monday.
The U.S. and Canada have long disagreed on the status of the Northwest Passage, with Canada maintaining that it has sovereign claim over it.
Bush's Arctic policy
Earlier this year, then-U.S. president George W. Bush released a new Arctic policy, reiterating that nation's position that the Northwest Passage is a "strait used for international navigation."
"We have to be asked for our permission, and we have to give our permission," Byers said.
"If neither of those things happen, it is either an illegal transit, or one that actually builds the U.S. claim that the Northwest Passage is in fact not Canadian internal waters, but is instead an international strait open to foreign vessels largely without constraint."
On top of the Northwest Passage dispute, the two countries have also long disputed the boundary in an area of the Beaufort Sea between the Yukon and Alaska.
Byers said now is the time for the Canadian and U.S. governments to work towards an agreement on both disputes, including an agreement on the Northwest Passage that recognizes Canadian sovereignty.
Byers added that both nations should resolve their differences before either one can claim an extension of their sovereign rights to Arctic areas under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
As part of the international treaty, five coastal Arctic countries, including Canada and the U.S., are hoping to assert their sovereignty on northern coastal areas beyond the 200 nautical-mile economic zones they already claim.
In order to claim areas of the seabed — which could be rich in resources such as oil and gas — each nation must gather extensive scientific mapping data on the sea floor.
Canada signed UNCLOS in 2003, and has been working with the U.S. and Denmark to map parts of the Arctic seabed.
The United States has not ratified the treaty to date. But that may change soon under current President Barack Obama's administration, said Betsy Baker, an associate professor with the Vermont Law School.
"With the new administration, and also with the melting ice and the interest in reaching the hydrocarbon resources up there, we think that that might be yet another factor that will move in favor of ratification," Baker said.