The MV Nunavik, a strengthened cargo vessel, sailed through the passage without an icebreaker escort, carrying 23,000 tons of nickel from a Canadian mine to Bayuquan in China, according to the Nunavik’s owner, Fednav.
Fednav believes the Northwest Passage route to be 40 per cent faster than the Panama Canal. Previous journeys through the passage needed an escort from Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers, but ice melt due to climate change has now reached the point where navigation can happen. As a result, the Canadian Coast Guard is having to change its patrol routes to prepare for new shipping lanes.
Shipping traffic in the passage also opens up sovereignty questions, with the US, Canada, Denmark and Russia all having a stake in the region. On top of that, Canada’s Inuit population has always hunted and travelled over the area.
During WWII, the Canadian government created the Canadian Rangers, a sort of Inuit Home Guard. Armed with old rifles and distinctive red hoodies, this volunteer organisation served the community with search-and-rescue operations. With the changes in the Northwest Passage, the Rangers now have a new role.
‘It has been said that if Canadian sovereignty had a brand it is the Ranger’s red hoody,’ says Whitney Lackenbauer, a researcher at St Jerome's University, Ontario who has lived and patrolled with Rangers as far as the North Magnetic Pole.
‘In the last ten years, they have been asked to take part in what are called sovereignty patrols,’ says Lackenbauer. ‘Canada already has sovereignty in the region so this doesn’t improve that, but it’s about going out and showing the flag. About demonstrating Canada’s ability to operate in the really remote parts of the Arctic archipelago.’
The Rangers operate snow machines in temperatures below minus 40 degrees and keep things working and moving, only stopping for frozen caribou and tea. ‘The first few times you see the elders running around chasing each other and kicking with their boots you think it’s silly, but you realise in that level of cold you need someone to take the initiative to keep the blood moving,’ Lackenbauer says.
Some Russians have pointed to the Rangers as being a militarisation of Arctic issues, but Lackenbauer feels this is a distortion of reality: ‘This is a success story where Canada and other communities have got it right. The Rangers allow these people to serve the state and community simultaneously.’
This story was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine
Correction: The original version of this article in the February issue of Geographical incorrectly quoted Queen’s University researcher Mitchell Patterson instead of Whitney Lackenbauer. Our apologies for the confusion.