Northern Exposure

by Martin Shadwick

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One of the most enduring traits of Canadian foreign and defence policy has been the appearance, seemingly like clockwork, of an Arctic sovereignty and security crisis every ten-to-fifteen years. During the Second World War, the massive influx of American military personnel associated with the Alaska Highway raised troubling questions about Canadian sovereignty in the far north. So, too, did the commissioning of the US funded and US-operated radar stations of the Distant Early Warning Line in the mid-to-late 1950s. In 1969 and 1970, Canadian and American differences over the international legal status of the Northwest Passage were thrown into sharp relief by the Manhattan affair. Debates of an essentially similar nature – exacerbated by a concurrent controversy over perceived links between North American Air Defence Modernization (NAADM) and the Strategic Defense Initiative – followed the transit of the Northwest Passage by the US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea in 1985. Has the next instalment in this series proved stillborn, or is it merely marking time?

Ottawa has traditionally responded to such crises with a variety of legal and diplomatic instruments (e.g., the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act of 1970, the Canada-US Arctic Cooperation Agreement of 1988), and by bolstering the official Canadian presence – both military and non-military – in the Far North. The Trudeau government, for example, instituted northern surveillance patrols by the Air Force, regular Arctic deployments by land and naval forces, and a northern development plan which included the construction, by military engineers, of civilian airfields and bridges. The Mulroney government's response to the Polar Sea affair included an increase in the number of northern surveillance patrols and the reactivation of northern naval deployments. Also relevant, directly or indirectly, to Arctic sovereignty and security were its plans for a northern training centre, a massive fleet of northern terrain vehicles, and a three-ocean navy replete with nuclear-propelled submarines. It noted, too, that the radar and other elements of NAADM would enhance, rather than diminish, Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

Unfortunately, another enduring trait is the cyclical ‘boom and bust’ nature of Canadian military activity in the Far North. The Arctic surge which characterized the early Trudeau years flickered and then fizzled as higher priorities, such as the 1975 restoration of NATO to its pre-eminent position in Canadian defence policy, intruded. The Mulroney-era meltdown was even more spectacular, as deficit and debt considerations, and then the end of the Cold War, gutted almost all of its northern sovereignty and security initiatives.

With some exceptions – such as an increase in the authorized strength of the indefatigable Canadian Rangers and the transfer north of two Twin Otters (for an eye-watering total of four) – the military's northern profile, and hence its ability to demonstrate presence, has continued to erode during the Chretien era. Budgetary restrictions, a plethora of resource-devouring overseas commitments, and other factors have essentially eliminated naval deployments in the north, reduced the Army to two tiny sovereignty operations per year, and slashed the Air Force's northern surveillance patrols to two per year. The proposed Arctic Sub-Surface Surveillance System was cancelled in 1998. In prospect are a reduced Aurora fleet and the disposal of the still youthful Arcturus Arctic and Maritime Surveillance Aircraft. The Canadian military's corporate knowledge of the Arctic is fading, and with it Canada's claim to an Arctic-capable defence establishment.

It is, in some respects, surprising that a sovereignty and security crisis is overdue. Have specialists not warned that climate change will facilitate dramatically enhanced international commercial and naval access to the Northwest Passage, thereby presenting Canada with new American, European and other challenges to its Arctic sovereignty and a host of new security, human security and environmental security concerns? Do not developments in the US, such as the creation of Northern Command, renewed attention to ballistic missile defence (which may yet have direct territorial implications for Canada) and cruise missile defence, and an understandable preoccupation with homeland defence as a whole, have potential repercussions for Canadian sovereignty and security in the Arctic?

Perhaps climate change in the Arctic is too abstract, or seemingly too distant, to animate Canadians. Perhaps, as Franklyn Griffiths posited in 1999, Canada has outgrown the traditional “national-interests view of the Northwest Passage”. Perhaps a single event, such as a high profile foreign transit, is a necessary catalyst. Perhaps a preoccupation with other issues, such as the broader woes of the Canadian Forces, have diverted the country's attention. Perhaps some recent opportunities to sensitize Canadians to Arctic sovereignty and security have been squandered (e.g., the Liu Centre's sensationalistic report by Michael Byers).

Yet, in the final analysis, Canada must devote additional attention to sovereignty, security and stewardship in the Arctic. The nature of this enhanced profile – which might also provide a measured counterweight to the increasing north-south pull of Canada-US defence relations – could take many forms, but a review might explore additional land, sea and air deployments from southern Canada, improved, multi-agency data sharing and analysis, a modest northern training centre, the retention and upgrading of the Arcturus, a supplement to the Twin Otter, an ice-capable seabed operations vessel, additional northern terrain vehicles, space-based sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, sub-surface surveillance systems, and high frequency surface wave radar.

Previous Canadian governments were essentially reactive in their approaches to Arctic sovereignty and security. The Chretien government has the opportunity – indeed, the obligation – to be proactive, but will it seize the moment?

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Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University.  He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly.