In the words of the great Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin.” Once a mythical door to the east, then an impassable ice channel, the northwest passage is now poised to be the future trade route of global commerce.

Labrador is ideally positioned to either be the Atlantic arctic gateway, or a sidelined recipient of the fallout.

As you read these words, the MV Venta Maersk is completing the first ever solo transit by container ship (without an accompanying icebreaker) through arctic waters. This voyage is the latest in a series of milestones which have very clearly painted the shape of things to come.

Milestone Journeys in the Northwest Passage Since 2008

In 2008, the Canadian Coast Guard ship, Louis St. Laurent, left St. John’s on July 5th for the northwest passage and arrived off Point Barrow, Alaska, on July 30th.

In 2013, an ice-strengthened sea freighter, the Finnish MV Nordic Orion, carrying 15,000 metric tons of coal, became the first bulk carrier to make the traverse. Escorted by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, it heralded a new era of commercial activity in the Arctic. Freed from the restrictions of the Panama canal, the Nordic Orion was able to carry 25% more cargo, cut 4 days off of the travel time and saved approximately $200,000 in operation costs.

In 2014, the first ever solo cargo ship travelled through the northwest passage. The fortified vessel MV Nunavik carried 23,000 tons of nickel ore.

In 2017, the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica set a record for the fastest transit through the northwest passage, making the 10,000 km journey in only 24 days.

Also in 2017, the first Chinese icebreaker, the MV Xue Long “Snow Dragon” made the trip through the northwest passage, and circumnavigated the North Pole. This trip laid the foundation for China to sail cargo ships through the top of Canadian archipelago by mapping the channel to unprecedented accuracy.

Canada demands that all foreign vessels request permission before sailing through the northwest passage, which the Canadian government considers Canadian Internal Waters. Canada granted approval on the basis that China was conducting scientific research.

China, Russia, and America Laying Claims and Interest in the Passage

China’s interest in the Arctic is crystal clear, they are a country who have been called the world’s factory, and 90% of all Chinese exports are by sea.

China’s interest in the Arctic is crystal clear, they are a country who have been called the world’s factory, and 90% of all Chinese exports are by sea. Chinese state media have called the northwest passage a ‘Golden Waterway.’

China and Russia have agreed to explore co-operation on a northern sea route, to build a “silk road on ice,” and Chinese state media have called the northwest passage a “Golden Waterway.”

Both the Panama canal and the Suez charge large vessels $150,000 to $300,000 per toll trip. Nearly 14,000 ships pass through each canal each year representing billions of dollars. Adding that to the fact the northwest passage is shorter and accommodates larger vessels carrying more cargo, and Chinese interest becomes obvious.

Regular traffic will likely be passing through the northwest passage within the next 10 years with some experts estimating that shipping via the Arctic could account for 25% of all cargo traffic between Europe and Asia by 2030.

Cautious scientific projections show a largely ice free northwest passage by 2050, with the passage opening up sooner and for longer each summer.

All of these ships will one day sail down the coast of Labrador. While this would represent a new industry capable of bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars of new money from small tolls and offered services, it could also be a substantial disruption to marine life, northern fisheries, and bring ecological disaster.

We currently have few resources along the Labrador coast to respond to potential disasters, such as oil spills. The arctic lacks infrastructure to adequately dispose of bilge water, sewage, and solid waste. Upgraded harbour facilities at Happy Valley-Goose Bay with advanced deep port shipping and servicing capabilities will be essential. Coast Guard facilities will also be required.

Large scale arctic shipping is 10-20 years away from being a reality, whether we want it or not. The United States government is already arguing that the northwest passage is an international strait which greatly weakens our position on the world stage.

If we do not actively engage in providing services and facilities for this trade we will be locked out and therefore have no voice into how these operations are carried out. We have 10 years to plan and the time to start is now.