December 14, 2009 / 11:03 PM / 8 years ago

Canada urged to arm its Arctic icebreakers

<p>An artist rendition of the new Polar class Arctic Icebreaker for the Canadian north to be named after former Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, that was announced by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, August 28, 2008. REUTERS/Department of Fisheries and Oceans/Handout</p>

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada should arm its icebreakers with deckguns to improve security when unauthorized foreign vessels enter the Northwest Passage, a committee of the Canadian Senate recommended on Monday.

Canada must also resolve lingering disputes over its sovereignty in the fabled Arctic waterway, which is expected to see increased vessel traffic as global warming melts the ocean ice, the Senate’s fisheries and oceans committee said.

Canada is planning to build six new Navy patrol craft for use in the Arctic, but the first of the ships is not expected to be delivered until 2014.

Until then, Canada’s aging icebreakers should be armed with weapons “capable of giving firm notice, if necessary, to unauthorized foreign vessels for use in the Northwest Passage,” the committee wrote.

The ships should also have somebody on board with the legal authority to enforce Canada’s domestic laws with a firearm, the committee said.

Canada’s icebreakers now work in the Arctic waters from June to early November to assist shipping, deliver cargo to isolated communities and help with scientific research in the region.

Canada could also strengthen its sovereignty claims by making even small foreign pleasure craft report themselves when entering its waters in the Far North, the report said. Only larger ships are now required to notify Canadian authorities.

The senators cited an 2007 incident in which a Norwegian boat sailed undetected into the Northwest Passage and docked at an isolated community after its crew had already been refused entry on Canada’s Atlantic Coast because criminal records.

“The Berserk II was a small vessel, but it raises a large question: how well does Canada control its Arctic waters?” committee members wrote in the report

Canada considers the Northwest Passage - the sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific through Canada’s Arctic archipelago - to be an internal waterway under its jurisdiction.

But the United States and some European countries consider the passage an international waterway, and the committee’s report said that poses a challenge to Canada’s right to control shipping through it.

“The committee recommends that the government of Canada proactively engage the United States in bilateral discussions to resolve their dispute over the Northwest Passage,” the senators wrote.

The senators also said steps must be taken to help residents deal with the increased environmental threats that development and more ship traffic will bring.

Reporting by Allan Dowd, editing by Peter Galloway

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