Canada’s Window to Defend the Arctic is Closing
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NATO head Jens Stoltenberg toured Canada’s Arctic. While he was careful not to criticize Canada, the message from Stoltenberg was clear: Canada needs to meet its NATO commitments, especially in the far North.
The Trudeau Liberals have been in power for seven years, but they have yet to table an official policy on defending Canada’s Arctic.
This apathy, along with increased Russian aggression and the recent pledges from Sweden and Norway to join NATO, means the Arctic could quickly become the next ground-zero for military conflict.
Canada shares stewardship of the Arctic with seven other nations (the Arctic Council): Norway, Denmark (via Greenland), Iceland, Sweden, Finland, The United States, and Russia.
The value of untapped Arctic resources has been estimated at $30 trillion. As sea ice melts, countries are positioning for a race among nations for oil, fish, diamonds and shipping routes, and Canada is being left behind.
Russia has been making strategic military and economic moves to secure their position in the Arctic.
Russia has been steadily increasing their military presence in the region, rejuvenating hundreds of Cold War-era bases, adding a new Arctic Command, four new Arctic brigade combat teams, 14 operational airfields, 16 deep water ports and 40 new icebreakers. The Russians have also moved both ballistic and low-altitude cruise missiles into the region.
Russian bomber patrols have been steady in the region, and it was announced in 2019 that, for the first time in 30 years, the Russian Air Force would resume fighter patrols to the North Pole.
Speaking at a defense conference in Ottawa in February of 2019, U.S. NORAD Commander General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, checked off an alarming list of recent aggressive military actions by Russia in the region and stated: “We haven’t seen this sort of systematic and methodical increase in threats since the height of the cold war…We face a more competitive and dangerous international security environment today than we have in generations.” And this was before Russia invaded Ukraine.
My colleague, Liberal MP John McKay, Canadian Co-Chair for the Permanent Joint Board on Defense with the U.S. has also expressed his fears.
“We are not very well prepared…The window of opportunity is closing quickly, and I’m not sure Canadians are actually aware how quickly it is closing.”
Russian commercial infrastructure has kept pace as well. A vast new gas field has been opened on the Yamal Peninsula on the central Russian coast. The Russian government has prioritized the development of the Northern Sea Route—Russia’s Northwest Passage—and cargo volume through the region is expected to more than quadruple.
Stoltenberg also cautioned that China—quickly becoming a strategic ally with Russia against the West—is also positioning for a piece of the Arctic pie. Declaring themselves “near arctic” they have petitioned for membership in the Arctic Council. They are also in the process of building the world’s biggest ice breaker and they too are investing billions in research and energy infrastructure in the far north.
Canada has little to compare.
A road has finally been completed to the Arctic coast in the Northwest Territories and work on a northern port in Nunavut is underway but overall the state of our northern infrastructure remains dire.
Canada’s military assets in the region amount to a small signals intelligence facility on Ellesmere Island, a naval refueling station on Baffin Island, and a small Joint Task Force North headquarters in Yellowknife (all with less than 100 personnel). Satellite surveillance of the region has been enhanced in recent years and defensive aircraft do cycle through, but our only permanent RCAF assets are four, forty-year-old, non-combat, transport planes. The closest thing to a permanent ground force in the region are the Canadian Rangers: roughly 1800 reservists who still carry WWII-era rifles. We have one Arctic patrol vessel.
Unlike our NATO allies, the Trudeau Government refuses to allow mass NATO military exercises in the region—a move many experts agree would send a strong signal to Russia (and others) that Canada is not about to cede Arctic sovereignty.
Moreover, in recent years, even our closest allies have contested Canada’s ownership of the Northwest passage.
“The Northwest passage is Canadian waters, period,” stated Prime Minister Trudeau on Friday.
I agree and commend the Prime Minster for his stance. That said, his own apathy on Arctic defense may soon see Canada lose those waters to competing—hungrier—nations.
Canada’s window to defend the Arctic is closing. As time goes on, and other nations position to stake their claim on the Arctic and its all-important resources, Canada must act to protect our own interests and sovereignty if we are to remain the true north strong and free.