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The Polar Sea controversy

The Story

A storm of controversy is brewing in the Northwest Passage. An American ship called the Polar Sea is preparing to embark on a trip across the passage. This in itself isn't a problem for Canada. The problem is "that they have ignored our sovereignty claims and have not asked our permission," explains CBC journalist Whit Fraser in this 1985 TV clip. The U.S. says it doesn't need permission because the Northwest Passage is an international waterway. Canada disagrees, and the voyage is quickly on its way to becoming "an emotional, nationalistic issue." 

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: July 29, 1985
Guest(s): Peter Burnet, David Crombie, Donat Pharand
Reporter: Whit Fraser
Duration: 2:39

Did You know?

• The Polar Sea did end up sailing across the passage without ever asking Canada's permission.
• Franklyn Griffiths' 1987 book Politics of the Northwest Passage offers a philosophical view on why Canadians feel so strongly the sovereignty issue: "The outpouring of public concern over the Manhattan voyages of 1967-70, and over the transit of Polar Sea in 1985… suggests that latent attachments to the Passage and to the Arctic Spaces it represents are lodged deep in Canadians' conceptions of themselves as a people."

• As a result of the 1985 controversy, in 1988 Canada and the U.S. signed the Arctic Co-operation Agreement. This essentially said the U.S. would seek Canada's consent before sending ships across the passage, and Canada would always grant consent. The U.S. still maintained, however, that the Northwest Passage is an international waterway.


Breaking the Ice: Canada and the Northwest Passage more