The Northwest Passage Dispute – Canada (Map with Exclusive Economic Zones)

The Northwest Passage is a set of possible sea routes that runs along the northern coast of North America amidst the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.  It connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with one another.


Recently, the Arctic pack ice that has been occupying the above shown Northwest Passage routes has been reduced (seasonally) to a point where the Northwest Passage has become navigable.   This is due to the global climate change phenomenon.  In this navigability lies great value, as the use of this passage would reduce trade/shipment costs among other things.

From the image on the right, one can easily see how the use of the Northwest Passage (red) would present an ideal alternative route to the current Panama Canal Route (black).  Per unit transport costs stand to decrease as less fuel would be required to connect the Pacific and Atlantic/Arctic Oceans.  A reduction in CO2 would also be an added benefit.


  • The Canadian government currently holds that the waters, amongst these Northwest Passage routes, are internal to Canada.  This yields Canada’s right to bar any transit through this passage.
  • Other entities such as the United States, and the European Union consider the waters, amongst these Northwest Passage routes, fall under the definition of an international strait.  If this is the case, any international vessel has the right to navigate these passage routes, which was the case in 1985 when an American icebreaker passed through the passage from Greenland to Alaska.

According to the Law of the Sea, foreign vessels have the right of ‘transit passage’.  Assuming that the Northwest Passage fell under the category of ‘International Strait’, Canada would still has the right to maintain fishing and environmental regulations, along with those related to security (smuggling, drugs, and etc..).  Canada would not, however, have the right to close the passage.


In 1986, the Government of Canada issued a declaration that reaffirmed Canada’s rights to the waters.  The United States refused to recognize this declaration.

In 1988, the United States along with Canada signed an agreement that essentially resolved the issue to the point where it was now clear that foreign vessels engaged in research would not be permitted any right of passage without permission from the Government of Canada.  Under the Law of the Sea, ‘ships engaged in transit passage are not permitted to engage in research’.

To this day, it is unclear as to whether the world will forever acknowledge the Northwest Passage as internal to Canada, or as an international strait.


If Canada wishes to have the United States, among other key nations, accept their position that the Northwest Passage is internal to Canada, it must seek to achieve this goal sooner rather than later.  The volume of ice that covers this passage has been decreasing year over year.  In pure economic terms, the passage will become more valuable with each passing year from the perspective of foreign entities that have an incentive to seek better transit routes.  With each passing year it will thus become even more difficult to fight for Canada’s position with regards to the Northwest Passage as foreign corporate entities that seek to achieve low average costs of transportation will indeed have the incentive to lobby American officials in the opposite direction.

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