Franklin Expedition

History has not forgotten the famous Franklin expedition of 1845. He was desperately seeking the shortest route between Asia and Europe. Like many explorers, he learned that northern Canada is difficult and risky because of cold and ice, because of risks of accidents, hunger and disease. Franklin died with his men, prisoners of an immense territory covered with ice. If they had survived and succeeded, they would have been the heroes of an era, like many European explorers. The distance between Asia and Europe, via the Arctic, is almost twice as short as that of traditional shipping routes. Can we imagine the potential, Asia is a huge market for traders in Europe and vice versa.

What has happened since Franklin’s expedition

Since this expedition, not much progress has been made. Wreckages of Franklin’s ships were found in depths of the Canadian great North in 2014. Several companies have crossed the passage successfully, but not without difficulties (Amundsen). The ice melting season offers few months during the year, a period of time too narrow for maritime transportation. And also, very cold weather, lack of infrastructure, risk of accidents and delays are reasons why the passage was never really considered a valid alternative to traditional shipping routes, like Panama or the Suez Canal, even if the distance is shorter.


NORTH WEST PASSAGENORTH WEST PASSAGELe passage du Nord-Ouest reliant l’océan Atlantique à l’océan Pacifique en passant

entre les îles arctiques du Grand Nord canadien (Radio-Canada)

A renewed interest: the ice sheet melts

In the early 1980s, scientists sparked renewed interest. The ice cover in the Arctic is melting due to global warming. According to their predictions, the passage will be completely free of ice by 2050, which would allow a regular access to the merchant navigation. Scientists estimate that nearly half of sea level increase will come from the melting of ice sheets, including that of Greenland. While prediction of the average increase in global temperature is + 2ºC within a few decades, temperature increase beyond the Arctic Circle could reach + 6ºC.  Two roads would then become accessible, that of Northwest along Alaska (the one that Franklin was looking for) but also that of the Northeast along Siberia.
In 2050, according to estimates, 15% of world merchandise transportation would pass through these northern highways. Rotterdam and Tokyo would be linked with a distance of 14,000 km, compared to 21,200 km by the Suez Canal or 23,300 km by the Panama Canal.


Obviously, for the foregoing reason, stakes of North have become important for the circumpolar countries (whose territorial limits are close to those of North Pole), but also for the most powerful countries in the world, notably China and the United States. But, Arctic remains geopolitically unstable. Several countries claim sovereignty and rights of way. Where Canada considers Northwest passage being part of its internal waters, United States contends that they constitute an international strait. Russia claims that its territorial boundaries extend under the Arctic Ocean between North America and Eurasia, along the Lomonosov Ridge. This would include a large portion of Arctic, including the North Pole.

China’s Maritime Strategy

Also, China, one of the world’s leading economic power, which paradoxically does not claim territorial rights to the North, could become a very important player in northern development. In June 2017, the Empire of the sun unveiled its maritime strategy, a complementary project to the Belt and Road Action Plan (silk road) already released in 2013. Chinese maritime strategy identifies priority routes in order to join its major consumer markets: India, African continent and the European market. China will favor use of Northeast Passage (see map above), the Siberian alternative to the Northwest Passage of Canada.




in this regard, a partnership has been concluded with Russia. The Chinese route would begin with the Bering Strait and take the Northeast Passage of Russia and then head for Western Europe. The table below shows the distances according to different destinations and routes used. The table indicates mileage according to different routes between three places of origin and three places of destination.


Tableau des routes maritimes


The development of niche markets

By choosing the Eastern alternative, the Chinese strategy is clear. It aims to avoid long conflicts in the Canadian North, where Siberian portion has never really been challenged. On the other hand, Canadian inaction, the lack of infrastructure in Canada’s north and the slower than expected melting of ice would have also favored the Eastern option.
Yet, the Canadian route would address capacity issues related to Pacific Coast ports and to transcontinental rail services. The Canadian option also allows higher draft for larger vessels (over 15,000 TEUs). For its part, that of the East option benefits from the warm currents of the Gulf Stream which make navigation easier. It would also be used for smaller vessels (3,000 TEUs) allowing a niche market.

The cost of competition

But for Canada the cost of competition is enormous. For example, China and Russia plan to operate 40 icebreaker ships to escort container ships. Only ships with reinforced hulls or icebreakers can cross the passage and these types of ships are expensive to build.

Russia also has deep-water ports situated all along the route. Canada, on the other hand, has only 18 icebreakers, 5 of which are capable of operating in Arctic’s water. At a cost of $ 1 billion each, tolls would certainly be very high to provide support services to vessels in a just in time schedule. In addition, the lack of port infrastructure on Canadian territory limits stops and supplies, which poses serious problems. A few deep water commercial port projects are currently under consideration, including those in Iqaluit and Bathurst Inlet in Nunavut. But the Canadian Strategy in the past has focused on defending Arctic sovereignty by investing in surveillance and the military. Very little to facilitate the transport of merchant ships.

Can Canada afford to assume its sovereignty?

Let us mention also that disputes in Canadian North is not about sovereignty of territory of the islands of the archipelago, neither about rights to natural resources. No State, in fact, contests Canadian sovereignty for those aspects. Dispute is about to recognise the northwest passage as international waters witch would give free access to foreign ships.
For its part, the Chinese strategy raises questions about its competitive advantages and about securing global trade. Why would the Eastern option be exclusive to Chinese transport and would it not be so open to other countries? What are the benefits and potentials of either option for both parties? On the other hand, several countries, including United States, in response to the Chinese strategy, could raise national security concerns (which would be justified) by pointing to the risks of a blockade to world trade, following a potential political conflict
3.4 What options for Canada ?

Given this, three scenarios are possible.

The first scenario is the status quo of doing what the federal government has always done; that is to say almost nothing. Canada would strive to have its sovereignty recognized hoping one day to collect rights of way, and by investing a little bit in surveillance, scientific research and the military, but not enough in the infrastructure needed to commercial transport.

On the economic front, this option leads nowhere, because current Canadian investments are largely inadequate. Recognition of our rights will never serve any purpose as long as there is no will to invest for the development of the great North. Few countries are currently interested in the Northwest Passage in its current state.

The second option is to invest enough to make the Northwest Passage competitive to the one of Northeast. But, given high investment level required, there is no guarantee that those investment would be beneficial to Canadian economy. Canada’s Great North is not India neither China, and massive investments can’t be justified only for local communities, except for the exploitation of natural resources (eg, oil and natural gas).

Also, real benefits of the passages, whether from the East or from the West, must be considered from an international perspective. Consumers of the biggest markets, from Asia, America and Europe and much less the local communities, will benefit from it. Why then promote a new project that would compete another and would require huge investments without guarantee of profit.

The third scenario is an alliance with the United States and potentially other partner countries. This would be an answer and an alternative to the Chinese project. It would eliminate the possibility of potential monopoly in the North and a large part of international transport.

Moreover, it would then be possible to negotiate a partnership in exchange for free access to the passage in order to finance necessary infrastructures, alike Russia has done with China. Such negotiation would have been possible in the current NAFTA negotiations. The third scenario seems to be the most advantageous.

Louis Bellemare


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