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Book Reviews

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Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North

Reviewed by Andrew C. Young

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by Ken S. Coates, P. Whitney Lackenbauer, William R. Morrison, Greg Poelzer
Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2008
261 pages, $29.95
ISBN –978-0-88762-355-4

Review by Andrew C. Young

Arctic Front is a timely book that the authors state was motivated by the well-worn truism that those who ignore their history are bound to repeat it. The discussion within Canada on sovereignty in the Arctic has spiked repeatedly in the past; during the Klondike gold rush, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the ‘illegal’ transit of the American oil tanker Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. Each time, after the crisis passes, Canadians forget about the challenges that other countries have mounted with respect to our sovereignty in the North, especially in terms of the High Arctic islands, the Northwest Passage, and foreign claims to offshore resources.

The book is unusual in that it is a collaborative effort by four different authors. They have not written different sections of the book. Instead, all four have contributed to the whole content. Ken S. Coates is an expert on the American presence in Canada during the Second World War; P. Whitney Lackenbauer is a historian who writes about sovereignty and security issues in the Arctic; William R. Morrison also writes on Arctic sovereignty issues and the role of the North West Mounted Police in Canada’s North; and Greg Poelzer is a political scientist specializing in circumpolar Arctic affairs.

The authors assert “…[that] everyone knows the main reason for all this activity and concern is global warming. Recent satellite images have shown that the ice is melting faster than even the most pessimistic doomsters predicted, and that quite soon the Northwest Passage will be open for navigation for much of the year.”1 Canada’s claims in the Arctic have remained unresolved since 1880. The fact that the region was icebound meant that the dispute with neighbours like the United States, Russia / USSR, and even Denmark remained quietly ’on the back burner’ for decade after decade. It really did not matter who had sovereignty over the area if no one could gain physical access to the region. Now all this is changing with a rapidity that is startling, and Canada is going to have to face some very real and hard choices over what exactly it is prepared to do to enforce its claims in the Arctic. Forceful words in the House of Commons may not be enough to keep interlopers out of Canada’s coastal regions in the North.

The book correctly states that the United States is unlikely to ever recognize the Northwest Passage as an internal Canadian waterway. To do so would jeopardize the American’s position on free passage through other international waterways around the globe. Russian claims to vast areas of the polar seabed are also likely to come into conflict with Canadian claims in the near future. The ability of the Russians to go over and under the polar ice sheet with submarines and large icebreakers will pose particular challenges to Ottawa in the near future.

The history of the Canadian Government’s presence in the Far North is shown to be entirely ‘reactive’ to outside threats to Canada’s claims in the region. A threat arises, a small force is sent north for a few years, and then withdrawn. The dispatch of the Yukon Field Force during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush is a good example of this pattern of behavior.

There have never been any political risks to Canadian political parties for ignoring the North. The authors point out two factors that have preserved Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic thus far: the almost total inaccessibility of the region to outsiders, and the fact that nobody else seemed to want any of the territory. However, this situation is about to change.

The authors trace the history of the Canadian Government’s benign neglect of the region as a pattern that has been constantly repeated for over 100 years. “Canada has spouted the rhetoric of Arctic engagement in the past and then done nothing.”2 Despite pious claims that Canada is an Arctic nation, the government has not been prepared (historically) to spend the kind of money in the region that would truly integrate the Far North with the rest of Canadian society in the south.

The history of police deployments, and, later, Canadian Forces (CF) forays northward are well laid out in the book. The criticisms the authors have of these operations are well deserved – namely, they were inadequate in terms of numbers of personnel and equipment, they were ad hoc in nature, and they were temporary in scope. Plans to develop a military force that would maintain a permanent Arctic presence have always died during later budget-cutting exercises – witness, for example, the cancelled Canadian nuclear submarine fleet that was supposed to patrol in the Far North.

The authors argue that the Canadian Government should take a pragmatic approach when dealing with the coming increases in foreseen challenges to its sovereignty in the North. While they offer many ideas for positive action, chief amongst their suggestions are the following: a permanent and effective military presence should be established and maintained in the Arctic; government spending in the North should increase to levels that would truly integrate the Arctic peoples into ‘southern’ Canadian society; a deal should be struck with the Americans over joint supervision and control of the soon-to-be-opened Northwest Passage; and Canadians should be encouraged by every conceivable means to travel, work, and live in the Arctic.

The writers note that “… Canadian nation-building is incomplete, with the provincial and territorial North still outside the Canadian family.”3 In the coming decades, Canada’s armed forces will have to respond to the increased presence of foreign vessels, oil and undersea mining ventures, tour boats, and a host of other unwanted visitors to the Far North.

Arctic Front provides a succinct history of Canada’s presence in the Far North and the challenges to Canadian sovereignty that will be faced in the very near future. The book also offers some practical actions that can be taken to meet this increasing threat. A very useful section on suggested readings is included for those who want to study this subject further. The Canadian military presence is bound to increase in the Arctic in the coming decades, and serving members (and the general public) would be well served by informing themselves of Canada’s history in the region. Reading this book would be a good first step.

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Andrew C. Young has a Master of Arts degree in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He is an independent military writer based in Ottawa.


  1. Ken  S. Coates et al, Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North (Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2008), pp.1-2.
  2. Ibid. p.189.
  3. Ibid. p.191.

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