|Arctic security a key government priority|
May 5, 2010
"There is a new imagination now. The Arctic."
The Arctic has always figured large in the Canadian identity. The late prime minister Diefenbaker talked about a nation that reached from sea to sea to Arctic sea!
Throughout the Cold War, we were focussed on the top of the world because it was the obvious and shortest route for deadly Soviet bombers and missiles. Fearing nuclear Armageddon, Canada and the United States militarized the North with the Distant Early Warning radar sites and bases-the DEW line, as it was known. Everyone was on high alert. But as the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet threat receded, and so did the Cold War paranoia.
Today, the Canadian government is again turning its attention to the securityand defence of the North. Just last month,the Canadian Forces carried out Operation Nunalivut as a significant "demonstration" of our military capabilities in the High Arctic.
In recent years, there has been a new and significant uptick in Russian military activity, with bombers repeatedly penetrating the joint Canadian-American Air Identification Zones that provide a continental security buffer.
We all also remember the stunt that grabbed the world's attention in 2007 when Russian explorers, in mini-submarines, planted the Russian flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole.
"This isn't the 15th century," said Peter MacKay, at the time Canada's foreign minister. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We're claiming this territory.'"
But while the Russians continue to provoke, other potential threats have emerged, largely because more of the Arctic Ocean is soon likely to be ice-free, and for longer periods each year. Among the concerns are increased military and commercial traffic by other nations in our backyard; disputes over territory, resources and right-of-passage; resource development; and the potential environmental harm to the Arctic.
And in the post-9/11 world, there is the ever-present worry about terrorism.
The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence is currently holding hearings on Canadian Arctic security and sovereignty. Dr. Rob Huebert, with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, recently testified that he's worried about the military posturing of Arctic states over everything from fisheries to an expanded role for NATO in the North. "What we see is countries hardening their position. There are points of tension that can escalate if they are mismanaged."
But others challenge much of the conventional wisdom about the Arctic. Alan Kessel, legal adviser in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, was unequivocal in refuting any doubts about Canadian sovereignty. "There is a tendency to talk about [us] claiming sovereignty in our North. This is a misnomer; you do not claim something that you own."
Stephen Carmel, senior vice-president with Maersk Line, a leading world shipping company, said that "in the end, the battle for the Arctic will be fought by scientists and lawyers, the weapons will be information and scientific data, and the battleground will be conference rooms and courtrooms."
The federal government has already taken significant steps in its Integrated Northern Strategy, whose four pillars are sovereignty, environment, development and governance.
On the matter of sovereignty protection alone, the government intends to build a Polar icebreaker, six to eight Arctic offshore patrol ships, establish an army training centre at Resolute Bay, and a deep-water berthing and fuelling facility for DND and other ships at Nanisivik, Nunavut. The legendary, mostly Aboriginal Canadian Rangers (reservists within Canadian Forces Northern Command) will be expanded and modernized as they are a key military asset. There is also much discussion about the need for more maritime surveillance and an extended ability for search and rescue as the level of human activity there continues to grow.
And during a recent visit to Elmendorf Air Force Base, home to the Alaska NORAD Region, it was good to see that Canadians are the backbone of the AWACS crews-the huge Airborne Warning and Control Systems planes that keep watch in the sky and the Russians in their place.
In the meantime, comprehensive mapping of Canada's Arctic and Atlantic sea bed is underway as we prepare to submit our claim to the UN for an extended continental shelf. In fact, all Arctic nations are busy mapping the rich resources, mounting often overlapping claims to the seabed.
Some believe the fabled Northwest Passage through Canada's Arctic archipelago could become navigable and so there is disagreement over Canada's position that these are internal waters. There is also the disputed Canada-US border in the Beaufort Sea-which takes in nearly 22,000 square kilometres of resource-rich ocean floor.
And even non-Arctic nations such as China want to be in on the talks about the Arctic's future as they plan to exploit any resource boom and potential new shipping lanes.
The main challenges facing the Arctic are not of the traditional military type. Our presence in the North will be reinforced through stable governance, constructive and smarter resource development, an adherence to international law and a change in our own attitudes.
"If you have a house and someone runs through your backyard, you do not lose the sovereignty of your house. You still own it," said Alan Kessel.
That's not to say we shouldn't look into whether our house is secure enough. The Arctic is no longer some far away frontier; it is simply another border in a three-ocean nation. And it is still very much a part of the Canadian imagination.
Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin is chair of the Senate Committee on Security and National Defence.