To the vast majority of Canadians, the north is the Great White Empty, populated by frostbite, polar bears and small, hardy people who eat seal meat. It is a land best left to the native Inuit and the occasional Scandinavian adventurer risking snow blindness. We are an Arctic nation, and we boast about it, but we prefer to huddle close to the American border, watch The Sopranos, and dream of retiring to Florida. The north will always be ours, we think, because, well, who else would want it? Our great historical explorers tamed the forests and mighty rivers, and the swarming mosquitoes of the Hudson's Bay watershed. The search for beaver pelts, gold and free land opened the west, and the railroad pulled the country together. But the forbidding north got little attention. And for that oversight, we are about to pay a price. An environmental report recently warned that the ice cap covering the Arctic Archipelago is disappearing at a rate of 3 per cent per decade. By nature's standards, that is a headlong sprint. At this rate, global warming will open the Northwest Passage to summer shipping by 2050, and the world's trading nations will want unrestricted access for their freighters and supertankers. (An open passage will cut 8,000km from the trade route between Asia and Europe). That would make it an international waterway, and if Canada is not careful, its sovereignty over the north will melt like spring snow. The trouble is that we do not have the muscle to protect the north. Canada's military can barely stand up to Denmark, which has already planted its flag on a small rock near Greenland that Canada claims as its own. A recent Canadian military operation in the north, dubbed Narwhal, almost turned into a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The navy could not break through the ice, helicopter compasses became magnetically dysfunctional, and the fair-weather army almost lost two men on a patrol. And potential territorial 'poachers' are already here. There are reports of submarine movements in the frigid waters, believed to be French and US vessels. The world is casting a greedy eye at the abundance of fish in the Arctic, not to mention the oil and natural-gas reserves on the seabed. 'The World Wants the North. Does Canada?' warned a national magazine in a recent edition. Ironically, it may be the largely ignored Inuit who could make the difference. There are only 27,000 natives spread over two million sq km, but they have occupied the north as long as anyone can remember. And they have not been treated generously by the government. Now, they represent Canada's best claim to sovereignty. And that means they may soon get a lot more respect.