Hot issue breaks the ice in a `land that never melts'

`POSSESSION is nine-tenths of the law,'' says Chief Officer Paul Drouin. ``If you aren't able to show you possess any part of the land, I imagine it can't be shown you own it. In that sense, showing the Canadian flag in the North is part of our mandate.'' It's summer and two degrees above freezing. Under an orange sky, the red bow of the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Des Groseillers knifes through the ice pack close to Baffin Island. Ice thick as an arm's length covers the sea to the far horizon.

Native Inuit (Eskimos) call it ``the land that never melts.'' At first sight, the far north seems so immense and desolate that one wonders who would want it - especially since navigating in heavy ice close to the Arctic Circle is far from straightforward.

``If you pass too close to an iceberg,'' adds Chief Officer Drouin (on his third northern voyage), ``it could put a nice gash in the side of your ship, the way a knife would in butter.''

The four-year-old, 8,550-ton Des Groseillers is an unarmed vessel, operated by the civilian branch of the Canadian government. The ship's job is to open up tracks in the ice, and escort commercial ships to and from remote mines and native villages. But as the red maple leaves (symbols of Canada) painted on the hull testify, an important task for the vessel is to show the flag in the north.

Ever since the 1985 voyage through the Northwest Passage by the United States icebreaker Polar Sea, Arctic sovereignty has become a potent issue and priority for Ottawa. The US vessel's presence in the passage, a series of channels and straits that Canada claims as its own, underlined the fact Washington contests the claim. The dispute over jurisdiction is currently before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. (See related story below.)

The voyage of the Polar Sea, ``was a shock to all Canadians,'' said Joe Clark, the Secretary of State for External Affairs, last April. This, he said, is ``not because the transit occurred, but because we had so few means to assert our claim of control. Sovereign claims you can't defend gradually disappear.''

Canada is sensitive about its sovereignty claims, particularly because there are oil and gas fields at the sea bottom in the north, and because of recent developments in military technology that make northern Canada more vulnerable.

No Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker is able to navigate ice-choked Arctic waters between November and May. This means that Canada lags behind other polar nations, such as the US (in Alaska) and the Soviet Union, in its ability to patrol its Arctic region year round. In August 1977, for example, the Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika thundered through the ice pack straight to the North Pole.

To catch up, the Canadian government has virtually completed negotiations for the construction of the world's largest icebreaker. The C$320-million Polar 8 is expected to be ready for service in 1992, and although conventionally-powered, will be able to winter in the region. The unarmed ship is expected to be able to break eight solid feet (2.5 meters) of ice without reversing engines, at a constant speed of three knots.

This, combined with Canada's plans to buy between 10 and 12 armed nuclear-powered submarines, marks a break from Canada's traditional low-profile naval policy. It is meant to counter the threat of Soviet nuclear submarines in particular, some of which may move undetected beneath thick ice ridges.

The Des Groseillers and other icebreakers spend several months in the Arctic each year, standing by to escort ships, tend beacons and navigation aids, and enforce antipollution regulations. They also undertake search and rescue operations.

``Search and rescue is present 24 hours a day,'' says Andr'e Van Damm, Chief Engineer, and veteran of 15 Arctic voyages. ``You're like a fireman, you know, in a fire truck. You can have good times for so long, and then that's it.''

There are 14 women officers and crew members on board, besides 48 men. One of them, a nurse named Louise Rioux, has discovered the poetry of the pack: ``The icebreaker thrusts blocks of ice to the side, it tumbles the blocks over. We open a slit like a zipper, and the edges fold over the ice alongside. We slip through the opening, with ice slamming into us forward and aft. And astern, I can see the blocks bounding up to the surface again, closing the wound we have cut open. ...''

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