Canada needs to do more to back its claims to Arctic sovereignty

·National Affairs Contributor
A satellite view of Arctic sea ice on March 21, 2014. (NSIDC)

Rapidly chilling relations between Russia and the West are changing the geopolitical picture far outside the current hotspot in Ukraine, reaching all the way to the Canadian Arctic.

Ottawa has always talked a good game when it comes to establishing sovereignty over the Arctic, no less so than the current Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But the apparent shift to a more adversarial relationship with Russia may mean Harper, who makes symbolic annual trips north, will have to put his money where his rhetoric is.

With the U.S. declaring it's boosting its military presence, the trend seems to point to an increasing militarization of the Arctic.

Canada is under pressure from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for a co-ordinated response to Russia's plans to increase its military presence in the region. But Ottawa apparently is reluctant to go along with its NATO allies for fear of conceding any sovereignty over an area made increasingly accessible because of climate change.

Canada's declared foreign policy position on the Arctic, spelled out most recently last year, is of a "stable, rules-based region with clearly defined boundaries, dynamic economic growth and trade, vibrant Northern communities, and healthy and productive ecosystems."

But Canada's Arctic claims, including control of the Northwest Passage, have been contested by its neighbours, including the United States, Denmark and Russia.

President Vladimir Putin this week outlined his country's plans to bolster its northern military presence – including reopening Soviet-era bases and forming new units to surveil the Arctic – as part of his policy to strengthen Russia's influence in the region.

[ Related: Canada falling behind Arctic rival Russia as PM begins northern visit ]

An opinion piece Wednesday in the English-language Moscow Times focused on Russia's historic claims in the Arctic and its dispute with Canada over vast potentially mineral-rich areas. It advanced the Russian position that territorial disputes should be settled at the United Nations.

"A volatile mix of natural resources, ill-defined borders and military posturing make the region a potentially dangerous flashpoint," said the column by historian Laurence Blair.

"With more than two million Russians living north of the Arctic Circle, Moscow has much to gain from leading the way back toward international dialogue."

Retired general Rick Hillier, former chief of the Canadian defence staff, told the National Post this week no one expects Russia to use its military to enforce its Arctic claims. But the increasing armed presence gives Russia important leverage in territorial disputes, including conflicting claims with Canada over who owns the North Pole.

Canada's top soldier suggests Canada should drop its resistance to involving NATO in the Arctic.

“Unless we, the Arctic countries outside Russia, are there in equal strength, we realistically hand much of the Arctic to [Putin]," Hillier told the Post.

Norway, another NATO member with Arctic territory, has pushed to have the alliance discuss the region at its summits but has been consistently opposed by Canada, the Post said. Deteriorating relations with Russia may prompt NATO to revisit the topic.

The Arctic has been a key component of the Harper government's Canada First defence strategy. But promises to bolster Canada's military resources in the North, including a new naval base, have fallen victim to budget constraints.

Canada conducts regular sovereignty patrols from the air and sea but its first line of defence is the Canadian Rangers, roughly 5,000 mostly Inuit residents equipped with Second World War-vintage Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles. Part of Canada's armed forces reserves, their job is to keep an eye peeled for any unusual activities or sightings, which are passed on to the military.

While the Lee-Enfield is a legendary battle rifle that won two world wars, it still uses the obsolete .303-calibre bullet, not the NATO standard 7.62mm. round Canadian forces use. The government has been slow to replace the worn out weapons, which the Inuit also use for hunting.

Hillier told the Post the government is taking the right approach when it comes to watching for potential threats, using satellites, jet fighters, drones and subsea sensors. But it needs an Arctic presence to act on those threats.

“Aircraft, a training site and ships that can move in heavy ice . . . You keep building on all of that, operate from positions of strength and keep making the investments necessary to do it,” he said.

The Conference of Defence Associations Institute, in its most recent strategic outlook for Canada, said the country faces some "fundamental choices" whether or not to invest in military infrastructure and other measures to back up its Arctic sovereignty claims.

[ Related: Canadian Rangers: the thin red line patrolling our harshest terrain ]

If it's not willing to enlist NATO in that effort, it will have to rely on its military ties with the United States, which historically has sheltered Canada under its defence umbrella.

Among other things, the institute recommended Canada sign on to the U.S. ballistic missile defence system and set up a naval version of NORAD that would integrate Canadian navy and coast guard ships with the their U.S. counterparts to patrol the region.

In a column last fall in the Victoria Times Colonist, University of Alberta political scientist Robert W. Murray said the Harper government is far from "walking the talk," when it comes to Arctic sovereignty.

"The notion that Canada was ever going to be capable of defending its own Arctic interests is a fallacy, and though Harper has been quite effective in painting a picture of a Canada that is strong and free in the North, his track record on Arctic sovereignty tells us all we need to know," Murray wrote.

"Canada is barely hobbling its Arctic talk, and the hope of it ever actually walking it seems to be nothing more than increasingly unpersuasive political rhetoric."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting