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True north strong?

Is Canada doing enough to protect its Arctic?

The Arctic is becoming more important each day. The ice is melting at a faster rate and by the mid-2030s, Canada’s narrow Northwest Passage will scarcely be used if the ocean is ice free. This means that ship traffic, already substantial, will likely increase dramatically, and vessels from China are almost certain to be the biggest users.

Always wary of China, Russia might not be pleased by this at the best of times. But with the ongoing war in Ukraine and Moscow’s increasing dependence on Beijing for political and military support, there’s little chance Russia seriously objects. Plus, China already gets Russian natural gas from Arctic ports.

Beijing is certainly showing growing interest in the region despite having no nearby territory. It already has observer status in the intergovernmental Arctic Council—which has not met since the Russian invasion of Ukraine—and is building a heavy icebreaker (its third), which will have deep-diving submersibles capable of cutting pipelines and cables. China has also planted listening devices in Arctic waters that can track American and British submarines. (Canada has no such capabilities and so will be unable to monitor the underwater activities of friend or foe.) And warships in Beijing’s rapidly expanding navy will surely follow its cargo vessels.

At the same time, Russia is moving quickly to rebuild its military presence in the Arctic, placing missiles, nuclear submarines and warships, troops, aircraft, radar installations and longer-range drones there and improving infrastructure.

For obvious reasons, this Russian and Chinese activity concerns the Pentagon, which is once again turning a focus on the Arctic. The U.S. is increasing its military strength in Alaska and advancing its co-ordination with NATO allies, particularly new member Finland and prospective member Sweden. Nordic allies are also combining their air forces.

Where does this leave Canada? To put it bluntly: out of it. Canada is increasingly not thought of as a reliable partner in North American defence—or defence generally. As Christopher Sands, an expert on Canadian affairs at the Wilson Institute think-tank in Washington, recently put it: “Call us when you have some money on the table because otherwise, we don’t want to hear what you think.”

Of course, Canada has agreed to upgrade its Norad defences and is purchasing F-35 fighter jets that will be able to operate in the North. These investments, however, will take years to materialize. Canada has also commissioned three new Arctic offshore patrol ships and will eventually have eight in total (six in the Royal Canadian Navy and two in the Coast Guard). But these lightly armed vessels with limited capacity to move through ice aren’t warships.

And the RCN’s four submarines weren’t designed with under-ice capabilities. The admirals are pressing for new subs, but they’re unlikely to arrive soon. And they likely won’t be nuclear-powered, a critical characteristic for operating under ice.

No polar icebreaker has been built in Canada for five decades and, while one has been contracted and a second might be, it will be years before these ships are in the water. Meanwhile, in 2007, the federal government announced it would build a naval facility at Nanisivik on Nunavut’s Baffin Island, but its completion has been repeatedly delayed—under both Conservative and Liberal governments—and it’s not expected to be fully operational now until 2025. The base will also only operate in summer.

For the moment, then, Canada’s Arctic capabilities are limited. The Canadian Rangers, largely comprised of about 5,000 Indigenous reservists, conduct some 100 patrols in the vast North each year; the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 40-year-old
interceptor aircraft are increasingly out-of-date; and the regular force’s “Team North” includes only some 300 military and civilian personnel based out of Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit.

“We say nice things but do not invest,” one former defence official told Reuters this past summer about Canada’s Arctic security commitments. And the country’s allies say: “Show us the money.”

Indeed, it’s no longer just the U.S. who are unhappy with Ottawa. NATO increasingly worries about the Russians and the Chinese, and as Sands noted, “there’s the Canadian Arctic, which I think most in NATO recognize as the weakest link in our front.

“And Canada’s domain awareness,” he continued, “let alone ability to respond if there were a threat, is so low.”

Why does this matter? It means Canada’s international credibility is limited, not helped at all by media reports that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau privately told NATO that the country will never meet the organization’s defence-spending target of two per cent of gross domestic product. Ottawa’s bromides that Canada is pulling its weight in the alliance by helping Ukraine and in defending Latvia when it can supply only a handful of tanks for the former and can’t contribute more troops for the latter—or aircraft for NATO air exercises—don’t fly either. And if Canada loses credibility on defence, it carries over into foreign policy in general.

Canada has gone backward and matters little to its allies—and even less with its foes

Starting in 1945, Canada was proud to be classed as a middle power, not as prominent as the U.S. or U.K., but still influential in peacekeeping and mediation. It had some clout and mattered in Korea, with NATO, at Suez, with the United Nations and in various multilateral councils of the world. Then about a decade ago, the newly elected Trudeau told Canadians this: “Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years. Well, I have a simple message: we’re back.”

Instead, Canada has gone backward and matters little to its allies—and even less to its foes.

An August 2023 Ipsos poll conducted for Global News indicated that Canadians are fretting about the state of Canada’s military—half said it isn’t adequately funded. And more than two-thirds of Canadians reported that China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had them concerned about the military’s readiness.

The country’s leaders, though, hardly seem to care. This neglect can’t continue.


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