It's Canada's Northwest Passage, eh?

The renaming of the fabled sea route is an attempt to capitalize on the effects of global warming by changing the map.
The renaming of the fabled sea route is an attempt to capitalize on the effects of global warming by changing the map.

A couple of years ago I was on a ship that docked next to a couple of Canadian Navy vessels in Burrard Inlet in Vancouver and I was told jokingly (I think) that they represented about two-thirds of the entire Canadian fleet. Our neighbors to the north aren't known for their militarism.

But they are territorial, and if you can't launch fighting ships, try the age-old method of claiming rights by redrawing the map. You've heard of the fabled Northwest Passage, the legendary sea route the search for which brought many famous explorers to the Pacific Northwest, including Drake, Cook, and Vancouver. The melting in the Arctic has made the passage, well, passable and thus there's a land rush at the North Pole.

Earlier this month, the Canadians took a step to solidify their claims to the waterway, which they consider inland Canadian waters, but most of the rest of the world considers an international sea route. The Canadian House of Commons has passed a measure to rename it the "Canadian Northwest Passage." The move is a bid to assert sovereignty. The proposal passed almost unanimously.

Two problems with it have been pointed out. The first, and most serious in terms of Canadian toponymy, is that the proposal left out an official Inuit name for the passage. That is being rectified. The name being discussed is Tallurutik, which apparently means "tattoos on the chin of a woman," a reference to a feature on a mountain in the region. Secondly, the name addition strikes some as being an example of Canadian weakness, rather than a bold move. An editorial in the Toronto Globe & Mail put it thusly:

Northwest Passage does nothing to enhance Canada's claim to the fabled waterway, any more than declaring the Strait of Malacca the "Canadian" Strait of Malacca would succeed in extending Canadian sovereignty there. If anything, the gesture — which originated in a private member's bill tabled by the Ontario Conservative MP Daryl Kramp — only serves to underscore for the international community the flaccid nature of Canada's sovereignty measures in the North.

Imperialism is one thing, but flaccid imperialism is inexcusable.

While the new designation "Salish Sea" for the inland waters of the Northwest shared by Washington and British Columbia seems a model of international cooperation and of the ability of nations to transcend arbitrary borders, the move by Canada's lawmakers demonstrates the still-potent symbolism of the right to name the globe. The ice may be melting, but the battle of toponyms is heating up.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.