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Canadian Sovereignty


Photo aur_164b by Jan Curtis from www.geo.mtu.edu

Northern lights. 

Canadian Arctic Maritime Security: The Return to Canada’s Third Ocean

by Doctor Rob Huebert

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The Canadian Navy has one of the greatest reaches in the world. Deployments conducted since the end of the Second World War have demonstrated that it can do so to almost any portion of the world’s oceans, and this is a capability possessed by very few navies. The irony is that the one ocean to which it has the greatest difficulty sailing is the Arctic Ocean. While it can deploy and maintain almost all its ships off the coast of Afghanistan for extended periods of time, it has almost no ability to maintain a presence in Canada’s third ocean. Throughout most of the Cold War, Canada left the protection of the Arctic Ocean to its allies. Once the Cold War ended, Canada’s limited interest in the Arctic became even more diminished. By 1990, it had ceased all efforts to even send a token presence to Canadian Arctic waters. However, during the past three years, there have been signs that this abdication of responsibility may be changing. Since 2002, the Canadian Navy has “rediscovered” that Canada does indeed have a third ocean, and it has begun to take initial steps to commence new operations in those waters. Perhaps even more promising is a demonstrated willingness to consider acquiring new ships that can operate in at least some ice conditions. This means that in the future, Canada may possess a navy with a fleet-wide capability to operate in the Arctic for a longer portion of the year than is the case at present.

However, the current situation begs a number of questions. Why is the navy now returning to the Arctic after having ignored it for so long? Is this renewed interest sustainable, or is it merely the result of the periodic fixation that Canada has with its Arctic? Are Canadian policymakers finally willing to provide the Canadian Navy with the tools to sail into Canadian northern waters for at least part of the year, or will this current interest simply fade, much the same way that happened in past flirtations with the Arctic?

What now complicates the challenges facing the Canadian Navy is its inexperience in Arctic operations. It has not yet been required to consider the Arctic a core security area of interest. Even at the height of the Cold War, when the Arctic Ocean was a key strategic transit point for Soviet and American nuclear powered submarines, the Canadian Navy did not play any role of significance.

Now that the Cold War is over, and almost all of the former Soviet submarines are literally rusting away in various northern harbours, the question arises as to why the Canadian Navy is now attempting to gain the skills and capabilities to operate in the north. What will be required to operate in the Arctic, and what is the best means of meeting the concomitant challenges? Ultimately, the core question is: “What does the term Canadian sea power mean when it is applied to its northern waters?


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The sheer Size of Canada’s north is readily apparent in the Central Europe overlay. 

The Changing Canadian Arctic Oceans

There are two main reasons why the current interest in Canadian Arctic waters is going to be sustained – climate change and resource development. These two factors are driving a vast transformation of the Canadian Arctic. Even if Canadian political leaders wanted to ignore the Arctic, they would not be able to do so. Ultimately, both these issues will require Canadian efforts both to defend its claims to its northern waters, and to enforce Canadian laws and regulations. Thus, the key roles for the navy in the region will be both diplomatic and constabulatory.

Climate Change – The polar regions are in a period of substantial transformation, due to warming temperatures. Both western science and the traditional knowledge of the native Inuit peoples indicate a marked warming trend for the entire Arctic region.1 While some local regions have experienced a certain amount of cooling, the overall impact is that both the snow and ice cover of the Arctic region is diminishing, and it will continue to do so. The ultimate impact facing the Canadian Navy will be an Arctic that is becoming more ice free, and hence, more accessible to maritime traffic.

Complicating the challenge for Canada in general, and the navy in particular, is the fact that as the Arctic warms overall, there are areas of the Canadian north that are getting colder in the short term. This means that in some areas, such as the northwestern edge of the Arctic Archipelago, there may be more ice, not less ice, as climate change alters the entire Arctic region.2 Nevertheless, in the longer term, the Canadian Arctic will experience longer periods of ice-free conditions.3

Resource Development – Even if the majority of scientific evidence is somehow incorrect, and that is highly unlikely, and the current warming trends in the Arctic are only a temporary “blip” upon the longterm climatic conditions of the north, the existence of large quantities of resources in the north is now leading to increased commercial activity, including more maritime shipping.4 In particular, this is due to the oil and gas reserves that are found in the Mackenzie River region and in the Beaufort Sea. However, there is also some speculation that there may be oil and gas deposits in the high Arctic, including a second source of tar sands on Melville Island.

The net effect of these two factors is that the Canadian north can expect more maritime activity in the region. This increased level of activity will require greater naval attention for two reasons. First, Canada’s northern neighbours do not universally accept the nation’s maritime legal claims to the Canadian Arctic.5 If Canada is serious about upholding and protecting its sovereignty over its Arctic waters, it will need to show that it has the capability to enforce Canadian claims. Second, as the reality and perception of a more accessible Canadian Arctic gain international awareness, there will be a need to increase the Canadian ability to monitor and police its northern waters. Thus, the twin issues of Canadian Arctic sovereignty and security are combining to require a Canadian presence.

The Challenges to Canadian Arctic Sovereignty

There is a general misconception that equates challenges to Canadian Arctic sovereignty as being applicable to the entire Canadian north. With the exception of the dispute with Denmark over the ownership of Hans Island, all the international challenges to Canadian Arctic sovereignty are maritime. There are two current disputes – the international legal status of the Northwest Passage, and the boundary delimitation of the Beaufort Sea – that involve challenges from the United States. There are also three other potential conflicts involving the determination of the outer limits of the polar continental shelf that are still percolating, and they may or may not develop into diplomatic disputes.6 But, given the existing inability of Canada and its northern neighbours to resolve their other disagreements, the probability of a quick resolution seems unlikely.

Shipping in Canadian Arctic Waters

Canada can also expect an increase in maritime activity in its northern waters. There are nine main types of shipping, where the practitioners of which may decide, and, in some instances, have already decided to take advantage of the improving ice conditions: 1) “ecotourist” cruise ships; 2) shipping associated with resource development; 3) shipping destined for Canadian northern ports, such as in Hudson Bay; 4) icebreakers; 5) research vessels; 6) naval vessels, both surface and sub-surface); 7) adventure shipping; 8) fishing vessels; and 9) transpolar shipping, such as cargo container ships and tankers.

The Return of the Canadian Navy to the Arctic

The Canadian Forces understands that there is a need to re-examine its commitment to the security of the north. There has been significant discussion and study of the twin issues of Arctic sovereignty and security.7 The emerging consensus is that there is a need to improve both surveillance and enforcement capabilities for northern operations. There is also agreement that the Canadian Forces in general and the navy specifically need to relearn how to have a greater significance in the Arctic. However, there is a debate emerging as to how best this can be achieved. The core of the debate is beginning to focus on the type of equipment that is needed, and how much of existing Canadian capabilities need to be surrendered to free resources for operation in the north.


Photo RE-2007-056-001 by Corporal Evan Kuelz

An Aurora aircraft sits on the tarmac at the Iqaluit International Airport waiting to be called into service during Operation Nanook. Frobisher Bay can be seen in the background. Operation Nanook 07 was a Canada Command sovereignty operation that took place in the Baffin Island Coastal and the Hudson Strait areas from 7 to 17 August 2007. 

Northern Operations

The navy’s last northern operations before the current resumption of activity occurred in 1989. Known as NorPloys, these exercises involved sailings by Canadian warships in eastern Arctic waters. The 1989 voyages were conducted by HMCS Quest and HMCS Cormorant, both diving and research vessels, along the eastern coast of Baffin Island. The last visit of a regular warship to Arctic waters was conducted by HMCS Saguenay in 1982, and the last Canadian naval vessel to visit Hudson Bay did so in 1975, when HMCS Protecteur made a northern deployment to both Hudson Bay and the Eastern Arctic.

It was not until the summer of 2002 that the navy resumed its operations in northern waters. Operation Narwhal 2002 was a joint exercise involving all three branches of the Canadian Forces, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Coast Guard, and Canada Customs. The mission was to “conduct a joint/combined SOVOP [sovereignty operation] to visibly project Canadian sovereignty in a rarely patrolled location of the North.”8 While it had intended to be based upon operation on and around Devon Island, the exercise was conducted ultimately in a more southern and closely deployed location, namely, on and around Resolution Island off the southern tip of Baffin Island. Likewise, it had originally been hoped that a frigate could be employed. However, due to heavy commitments to Operation Apollo, the navy was able to provide only two Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDVs) for Narwhal.

This exercise was kept simple in order to allow the players to re-familiarize themselves with the basic skills needed to operate in the north. In fact, the Canadian Forces learned how difficult it is to provide for the necessary re-supply of any northern operations. It was also discovered that communications were more problematic than is the case in more southern locations. In short, while this operation was an important first step, it certainly underscored the challenges of operating in the Canadian Arctic. Furthermore, the timing of the operation was such that it took place during the most favourable weather and ice conditions of the entire year. Thus, Narwhal clearly illustrated how limited Canadian northern capabilities had become, even under the best of conditions.

Ultimately, it was decided that the exercise had been useful and that the next one would be even larger. Narwhal 2004 once again took place around the southern tip of Baffin Bay, and this time, the navy was able to provide a frigate. The concomitant voyage of the HMCS Montreal marked the first time that a major Canadian warship had visited northern waters since 1982. As was the case during Narwhal 2002, the exercise was both joint and combined, with other government departments participating. The premise of the exercise was more demanding than the earlier one, and it was based upon a reaction by the Canadian Forces to the downing of a nuclear powered satellite. This scenario was an obvious reference to the actual crashing of the Soviet nuclear powered satellite, Cosmos 954, in the Canadian Arctic during the Cold War, on 24 January 1978.

Once again, the “Lessons Learned” post-exercise reports stressed the difficulty of supplying such exercises.9 Also, the informal manner in which decisions are made among commercial suppliers pointed to a different way of “doing business,” to which the Canadian Forces had to adapt. Additionally, it was found that the re-supply of fuel was problematic in that the type of fuel used in the north is of a different standard than that used by the Canadian Forces. This means that the Canadian Forces cannot rely upon existing northern commercial supplies for its vessels and thus must provide for its own re-supply. When there is advanced notice of a deployment, this challenge can be met, but the problem will become greater when there is a need to send vessels north on short notice.

During 2005, there were three maritime operations conducted in the north: Exercise Beaufort Sentinel; Exercise Hudson Sentinel, and the deployment of HMCS Fredericton on a northern fisheries patrol. Beaufort Sentinel was an RCMP deployment of a patrol vessel in the Western Arctic, and navy officials participated in its voyage in a supporting role.

Hudson Sentinel entailed the return of naval vessels to Hudson Bay for the first time in 30 years. The MCDVs HMCS Glace Bay and Shawinigan made a circumnavigation of the entire bay, making goodwill port calls to communities along the entire trip. The mission also included operations conducted with the air force (operating both Aurora and Hercules aircraft), as well as with some land forces, including Ranger patrols.


Photo RE-2007-056-007 by Corporal Evan Kuelz

HMCS Fredericton at anchor in Frobisher Bay near the city of Iqaluit, Nunavut, 9 August 2007. 

As was the case with respect to Operations Narwhal 2002 and Narwhal 2004, both these 2005 exercises were focused upon re-developing the ability of Canadian maritime assets to operate in the Arctic. The second primary objective was to develop the capability to best integrate and cooperate with other government departments and other elements of the Canadian Forces. And consistent with the two previous Narwhal operations, it became clear that operational basics needed to be re-learned.10 There continue to be issues surrounding both re-supply and communications. Since both Sentinels were exercises, the problems that were encountered were not insurmountable. However, if these exercises had been actual operations, the problems encountered could have had ramifications that were more serious. Both exercises also demonstrated the disruptive nature of weather conditions in the Arctic, even during the “best” time of the year. Thus, it certainly reinforced the reality that weather and ice conditions remain very limiting factors to the conduct of northern operations.

In August and September 2005, HMCS Fredericton was deployed to northeastern Arctic waters. While the voyage was certainly a learning experience, it was of a more operational nature than the preceding 2005 exercises. The now-proven ability of the navy to deploy a frigate this long in northern waters indicates that the navy is making important operational progress.

However, it is also clear that before the navy considers itself comfortable in the north on an operational basis, it has a long way to go. The re-supply and communication problems cited in several after-action reports will be overcome with experience. Knowing what equipment is needed and what redundancies currently exist are shortfalls relatively easily remedied over time. However, all operations to date have taken place in August and September, when weather and ice conditions are the most favourable. Furthermore, all the operations, with the exception of Beaufort Sentinel, took place in the southeastern section of the Canadian Arctic. In part, this occurred because it is easier to get vessels from Halifax to this location than it is to send ships from Esquimalt to the Western Arctic.

Fundamental to entering and operating in Arctic waters beyond this short time frame is the acquisition of new vessels that have some capability of operating in ice-covered waters. It is possible to provide naval vessels with some protection against ice, commonly referred to as ice strengthening. This usually involves adding additional steel around the ship’s belt line, and adding reinforcement and protection to its propellers, rudders, and the surrounding areas. The Danes have incorporated these improvements into their newest frigates. The Thesis Class frigate has all the normal capabilities of a frigate, but can operate in ice-covered waters coated by up to one metre of first-year ice. The Norwegians have also constructed their Svalbard Class corvettes to operate to similar standards. Another option would be to build or to purchase icebreakers.


Photo HS2007-G019-026 by Master Corporal Blake Rodgers, Formation Imaging Services Halifax, Nova Scotia

Canadian Coast Guard Ship Martha L. Black alongside HMCS Fredericton conducting a fuel replenishment exercise in Frobisher Bay, Iqaluit, Nunavut, on 11 August 2007.

The Canadian Government is currently studying both options. As the Canadian Forces began to consider the replacement of the navy’s two replenishment vessels, thought was also given to providing the new vessels with the capability to operate in ice conditions up to one metre thickness of new ice, which would provide equivalence to the present aforementioned Danish/ Norwegian capabilities.11 However, given the lack of progress that has been made by the government on this particular program, it is not clear if this capability is to be retained for the replenishment vessels.

The Harper Government has also considered the possibility of acquiring three large icebreakers that would be operated by the navy. During the 2005/06 election campaign, Mr. Harper announced (December 2005) that, if elected, his government would take several steps to improve the protection of Canadian Arctic sovereignty.12 Among several new initiatives, he stated that his Government would build three armed heavy icebreakers for the navy. Since the election, however, there has been no further announcement from the Government with respect to this program, nor were they mentioned in this Government’s first budget. According to some sources, the navy had apparently resisted this initiative in a push for more flexible, less expensive options.13


Photo HS2007-G026-001 by Master Corporal Blake Rodgers, Formation Imaging Services Halifax, Nova Scotia

(L-R) HMCS Frederiction, HMCS Summerside, and HMCS Corner Brook sail past an iceberg in formation during Operation Nanook. 

Indeed, in May 2007, media reports suggested that the Government has decided to acquire up to six ice-strengthened corvette-type Arctic patrol vessels in lieu of the previously-considered icebreakers. There is also speculation that they will be similar to the Royal Norwegian Navy’s 6300 tonne Svalbard Class vessels.14 However, although the Planning and Priorities Committee of the Cabinet has recommended the purchase, and has forwarded the plan to the Prime Minister for approval, Minister of National Defence Gordon O’Connor was quick to add that no final decision had yet been made. Nevertheless, if the Government has indeed made this decision, the new ships will constitute a new capability to sail in first-year ice conditions. However, these ships will still not be capable of operations in multi-year ice. Thus, they will improve Canada’s current capabilities, but will not provide Canada’s navy with the ability to operate year-round in Arctic waters. Furthermore, if the coast guard does not receive new icebreakers, and is forced to retire its existing ships without replacement, Canada’s surface warship capabilities will actually be reduced, even with the addition of the new patrol vessels. However, until an official announcement is made, it is purely speculation as to what the current Government intends to do with respect to this issue.

During the summer of 2007, the navy is planning to send one of its Victoria Class submarines into northeastern Arctic waters. This will be another first for our navy as it further attempts to learn the skills necessary to operate in this region. Canada’s submarines are diesel-electric powered, which means that it is unlikely they will transit under the ice cover. Rather, they will most probably sail to the southern limit of the ice, but then remain in open waters, since they need to be able to surface in order to recharge their batteries. Therefore, their captains will not be willing to risk sailing their submarines under the ice, except under special circumstances, since when under the ice, the uncertainty of finding a location where they can safely surface makes such an action extremely hazardous. Nevertheless, the fact that the navy is sending a submarine into open Arctic waters is extremely important, and it allows the navy to gain experience in operating in these waters. Secondly, in accordance with NATO’s underwater management scheme, a Canadian submarine presence in the region requires Canada’s allies to notify Canada when those allied submarines are entering northern Canadian waters in order to avoid mutual interference. Thus, Canada will be strengthening Canadian claims of sovereignty in the sub-surface as well as the surface environments when, and if, this voyage is undertaken.


Having examined the changing nature of the Canadian north facing the Canadian Navy, this article will conclude with a consideration of what Canadian northern sea power may look like into the next decades. Referring to contemporary maritime strategic thinker Ken Booth’s trilogy of sea power usages, it is clear that Canadian northern sea power will remain focused upon the diplomatic and constabulatory roles. While there will remain a longer term prospect of a renewed Russian/American naval rivalry, and the possible threat of international terrorists attempting entry to North America through the north, it is unlikely that these will occur at any time in the short or medium term. However, such prospects cannot be ruled out totally.

But it is the protection and promotion of Canadian Arctic sovereignty and the enforcement of Canadian laws that will remain the main preoccupation of northern Canadian sea power in both the short term and medium term. Furthermore, in addressing both roles, the Canadian Navy in particular, and the Canadian Forces in general, will only be required to play a support role, and will not be the lead agency. The environment within which the navy will be asked to participate will continue to be difficult, and it will vary dramatically. There will be years in which both ice and weather conditions will make it appear that the Arctic is not warming, and is becoming more accessible. Furthermore, it is very difficult to anticipate what the plans of potential foreign users of Canadian Arctic waters will be. Many of the various types of shipping previously discussed could simply appear in Canadian waters without prior notice.

Thus, the challenges facing the navy in the Arctic are currently nebulous, while the demands for its overseas deployments are certain and well established. It would be entirely understandable if the senior leadership of the Canadian Navy were less than enthusiastic about fully embarking upon the development of a new navy that can engage effectively in Canada’s third ocean. Unfortunately, given the time line of the expected increase of activity, the navy needs to start thinking now about the new equipment that it will need to fulfil a viable Arctic mandate. However, given the traditionally long lead times needed for major military procurements, the planning for the construction of new ice-strengthened vessels and/or icebreakers needs to be started sooner rather than later. Realistically, the new vessels probably will be needed in ten to twenty years, and that will correspond with the time when the Arctic is expected to begin to experience significantly heavier utilization.


Photo HS2007-G025-006 by Master Corporal Blake Rodgers, Formation Imaging Services Halifax, Nova Scotia

HMCS Corner Brook on arctic patrol during Operation Nanook. 

As the navy continues to re-acquire its ability to operate in the north, and as new equipment is developed, it will continue to play a supporting role operationally. It will be up to officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the RCMP, and other departments to actually make the case for the protection of Canadian sovereignty, and the enforcement of Canadian laws and regulations. However, these departments will not be able to do this in a manner that is robust and energetic unless the navy is present in Canadian northern waters. For a respected maritime force that has learned to operate globally in cooperation with the world’s strongest and most advanced navies, the northern deployments may appear anti-climatic. Yet, the tasks generated by northern deployments are as important and difficult as they are for any other blue-water deployment.

The Canadian Navy is beginning the long and difficult return to its Arctic waters. It will require considerable effort to re-learn the skills that were lost at the end of Cold War. Moreover, even as these skills are being re-learned, the navy is only now considering building the capabilities to sail in the Arctic beyond the current open-water period of August and September. Climate change will reduce the ice cover in the long term, but it will not necessarily make the navy’s task easier in the short term and medium term. The shift to acquiring the capability to operate in Canada’s third ocean will not be welcomed by all members of the Canadian Navy. Some will see the cost of achieving this capability as being too high. Yet, the long-term impacts of climate change, and the opportunities generated by the resources of the north, mean that someone will be utilizing the Canadian Arctic. It is in Canada’s interest that that someone is, in part, the Canadian Navy.

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Rob Huebert, a specialist in sovereignty issues, teaches at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.


  1. While there continue to be some who deny the human impact upon the Arctic and the existence of climate change, leading journals that include current and ongoing research, such as Science, Nature, and Bulletin of Geophysical Letters all overwhelmingly present evidence that both events are occurring. The definitive study that examined climate change impact on the Arctic region was published as “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment” in Impacts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). In Canada, all the nation’s leading experts who are conducting active research have taken the unprecedented step of sending a letter to Prime Minister Harper, arguing that the evidence is even stronger that climate change is and will continue to be changing the Canadian environment drastically. See, 90 Climate Science Leaders from academic, public and private sector from across Canada, An Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Canada on Climate Change Science, 18 April 2006, at <http://www.cfcas.org/LettertoPM19apr06e.pdf>.
  2. John Falkingham, “Sea Ice in the Canadian Arctic in the 21st Century” (unpublished paper), (Canadian Ice Services, Environment Canada, September 2000).
  3. CBC.Manitoba, “Arctic could be ice-free in summer in 15 years: conference,” 16 February 2006, at <http://www.cbc.ca/manitoba/ story/mb_arctic-ice-20060215.html>.
  4. For an excellent overview of the resources potential, see Kyle Christensen, Arctic Maritime Security and Defence: Canadian Northern Security Opportunities and Challenges Technical Report TR2005/01 (Ottawa, Defence R&D Canada, Operational Research Division, February 2005), pp. 17-27.
  5. For a discussion of the various problems, see Rob Huebert, “Northern Interests and Canadian Foreign Policy,” Paper prepared for Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, 2003, at <http://www.cdfai.org/ PDF/NORTHERN%20INTERESTS%20AND%20CANADIAN%20 FOREIGN%20POLICY.pdf> .
  6. See Ron Macnab, “Extending Canada’s Arctic Zone,” in Northern Perspectives, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Spring 2002).
  7. For a review of these discussions, see Rob Huebert, “Renaissance in Canadian Arctic Security,” in Canadian Military Journal Vol. 6, No. 4 (Winter 2005- 2006).
  8. Department of National Defence, Canadian Forces Northern Area (CFNA), “Initial Concept and Tasks” SOVOP NARWHAL August 2002, p. 2.
  9. CFNA, “Exercise Narwhal 04 Presentation” (nd).
  10. CFNA, “Post Operation Report – OP Hudson Sentinel 2005,” 3350-1 (J3 Ops), 5 October 2005.
  11. Department of National Defence, “Proposed Ship Capabilities,” Joint Support Ship (JSS) (Ottawa: Assistant Deputy Minister Material, 23 March 2006, at <http://www.forces.gc.ca/admmat/dgmepm/pmojss/ capabilities_e.asp>.
  12. Conservative Party of Canada, “Stephen Harper Stands up for Canada’s Sovereignty in the Arctic,” 22 December 2005, at <http://www.conservative.ca/EN/1738/36554>.
  13. Sharon Hobson, “Canada opts for Arctic patrol vessel purchase,” in Jane’s Defence Weekly, Vol. 44, Issue 21, 23 May 2007, p. 8.
  14. Murray Brewster, “Ottawa to proceed with plan to acquire 6 Arctic patrol vessels,” in Ottawa Citizen, 14 May 2007.


DND photo HS2007-G033-001 by Master Corporal Blake Rodgers, Formation Imaging Services Halifax

HMCS Fredericton at anchor against a very dramatic background in Frobisher Bay.