The Soviet Union maintained a regular presence in Canada's far north for several years in the early 1960s, it has been learned. Soviet field parties either flew to the Arctic islands, which are under Canadian sovereignty, or were deposited there by submarines. It now appears they roamed there at will.
Information about the trespassers from Moscow reached Ottawa after the discovery of winter caches belonging to the Soviets by Calgary geologists.
But it appears the federal government under Lester Pearson chose to hush up the evidence in order to avoid potential political embarrassment.
As a private source put it, Ottawa did not relish the thought of having to admit not knowing about the Soviet forays into the Arctic archipelago. Just as damaging would have been the admission that there was nothing Canada could do to halt the visits.
One tangible result of the private information forwarded to the Liberal Prime Minister by Cam Sproule, regarded as the father of modern petroleum exploration on the top of the world, was the subsequent formation of Panarctic Oils, Ltd., in 1967.
At about the same time, the federal government also moved the Ottawa-based northern administration to Yellowknife, designated as the capital of the 1.4 million square mile Northwest Territories. Dr. Sproule, who died soon afterward , told only a few trusted friends of his startling experiences in the frozen wilderness.
In interviews with this writer, local oilmen recalled having seen "first class" Soviet-made maps of the Arctic islands while on visits to Moscow in the ' 70s.
Surface maps of strategically located Brock, Meighan, Prince Patrick, and other islands on display in the Soviet capital at the time have been described as of the "highest quality" by Charles Hetherington, now president of Panarctic. Other industry experts said the detailed and accurate maps in Soviet hands could only have been prepared "on the spot." Canadian maps, by contrast, at the time tended to be inferior and relied on mostly British and US data obtained earlier. Satellite mapping of remote areas and subterranean features as now used was not available until a decade later.
Dr. Sproule is said to have told Prime Minister Pearson that the seemingly barren waters of the far north, in his professional opinion, contained immense mineral riches.
He has since been proved correct.
Dr. Sproule also stressed that unless Canadian sovereignty was asserted, foreign powers other than the Soviets might also lay claims to the vast region.
Dr. Sproule was especially concerned about American reluctance to acknowledge officially that the Northwest Passage was not an international waterway but part of Canada's own inland waters. He also pressed Ottawa to win agreement from Washington on the "sector" principle used to divide the northern region among various countries with possessions above the Arctic Circle.
The bilateral issues between Canada and the United States regarding possessions and demarcation lines are still outstanding. But in Dr. Sproule's mind, the Soviet presence in Canadian territory constituted by far the single biggest threat to Canadian sovereignty on the top of the world.
Canada at the time relied almost entirely on a United States radar umbrella for the protection of its far northern possessions and air space.
The Canadian armed forces still maintain only what amounts to a token presence north of the 60th parallel, and the occasional air patrols are flown by aged planes from southern bases.
The petroleum industry, by contrast, maintains a much more substantial, albeit private presence there.
In the past decade Panarctic found large amounts of natural gas and, lately, some oil in the Arctic islands. Hardrock minerals also abound. Ottawa now owns 45 percent of Panarctic through Petro-Canada, the federal oil company.
The Soviets are said to have rotated field parties at regular intervals. Some of the Soviet camps floated on the polar icecap eventually entering Canadian territory. Other Soviet field parties took shelter in the coves of the northern islands. It is not known whether Soviet armed personnel had accompanied scientists on their expeditions into Canada at any time.