When the United States' Sixth Fleet crossed Libya's ``line of death'' across the Gulf of Sidra in March to demonstrate that these were international waters, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi sent small ships to the attack. Two Libyan vessels were sunk. When the US Coast Guard sent its icebreaker, the Polar Sea, through the Northwest Passage last summer, the Royal Canadian Air Force certainly didn't respond in the same way to what Canada considers a trespass on its inland waters.
``Canada ain't Libya,'' says L. H. Legault, a legal adviser in the External Affairs Department here. ``There is not the remotest of similarities.''
``We are friends, and allies, and good neighbors,'' says Harriet Critchley, director of the Strategic Studies Program at the University of Calgary.
Nonetheless, the voyage of the Polar Sea through the waters of Arctic archipelago prompted a dramatic reaction in Canada.
Canada drew up formal boundaries -- ``straight base lines'' -- around the vast northern territory. This was announced in September and came into effect under Canadian law on Jan. 1 of this year.
The government announced it would build a $450 million Polar Class 8 icebreaker, that is, a ship capable of plowing through eight-foot-thick ice and thus of conducting year-round patrols in the Arctic.
Minister of Justice John Crosbie introduced legislation in Parliament April 19 to extend Canadian criminal and civil laws to the offshore waters -- including those of the Arctic. The law, says Mr. Legault, will make it ``very clear'' that these are Canadian waters.
Canada's unified military is flying unarmed aircraft on a few more surveillance patrols over the Arctic. Canadian fighter aircrafts have insufficient range for such activities. The military will step up naval activities in Arctic waters and conduct a minimum of six company-level exercises in the north this year.
However, Canada has only weak defense capabilities in the far north. Dr. Critchley says half seriously that the only way Canada could try stopping a US icebreaker would be to ``send a Mountie out on a [snowmobile].''
Only a small minority of Canadians has visited Canada's mainland north, let alone the islands of the Arctic Ocean. Nonetheless, they take great pride in those areas of permafrost, tundra, rock, and stark beauty. Thus the question of sovereignty over the north -- a land and fresh-water area greater in size than all of NATO's European members combined -- is highly sensitive politically.
Beside the sovereignty question, Canada is concerned with the possibility of an oil spill or other pollution in a region of the world considered environmentally fragile.
When the Polar Sea crossed from Thule, Greenland to the Chukchi Sea off Alaska for survey work, the US said the passage would take place without prejudice to the question of whether the waters are international or internal. But worried about setting a precedent that might affect other international waters, the US did not ask permission of Canada to make the voyage.
Mr. Legault from External Affairs makes several arguments in favor of Canadian sovereignty over the northern waters between the islands.
First, he points out that of the 44 passages through the waters, 28 of them were by Canadian vessels. In all of these cases, the ships have had to force their way through some ice, even in summer.
This means, he says, ``there is not even a weak case for international navigation'' in those waters. ``It continues to represent a concept, not a reality.''
Dr. Critchley agrees. She adds that the Northwest Passage actually consists of some five routes through the islands. These passages emerge both east and west in the Arctic Ocean, which she does not regard as the ``high seas,'' since it is basically unused for international commerce. By definition, an international waterway must link two parts of the ``high seas'' and be used for commercial traffic. The traffic in the Arctic archipelago has been largely exploratory, scientific, or adventure-oriented.
Second, the native people of the north, the Inuits (Eskimos) use the ice much in the same way as land, sometimes living on the ice and certainly hunting for polar bear or seals from the ice.
Third, the longest boundary, or ``base line,'' across a strait is some 99 miles, compared to about 350 miles for Libya's Gulf of Sidra.
Should the waters become international in character, it would open the way for free passage by ships of any nation. ``Why is it in anybody's interest to make these waters absolutely and unconditionally available to the Navy of the Soviet Union?'' asks Legault. The Soviets are believed to already have had their submarines deployed under the Arctic ice pack.
Canadian officials have been talking to their counterparts in Washington ``to see if we can work out some form of cooperation with them that would be respectful of Canadian sovereignty,'' says Legault. ``We are not interested in drawing barriers across these waters and keeping people out.''
Indeed, the government says it wants to encourage development of navigation in Canada's Arctic waters.
Legault added that Canada would defend its claim of sovereignty over the Arctic waters ``by whatever means are necessary,'' including possible resort to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.