OTTAWA— The presence of top Canadian and NATO officials in Nunavut on Thursday is a sign Canada is renewing its focus on Arctic security and its place in the 30-member military alliance, experts say.
As climate change thaws pathways into the Far North, Russia expands its military footprint in the Arctic and China sets its sights on the region, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg toured Cambridge Bay to kick off a flurry of meetings on defence and security.
Trudeau and Stoltenberg visited the region’s North Warning System site, which is part of a series of radar stations jointly operated by the United States and Canada. The sites help detect airborne threats as part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NOR).
The pair was joined by Defence Minister Anita Anand, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, and later visited the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, attended a briefing with the Canadian Armed Forces and spoke to local community members.
But behind the jam-packed display is likely a reprimand from NATO, Arctic security expert Rob Huebert says, for Canada’s failure to move on some of its foreign defence promises.
“It’s abundantly clear that the northern NATO members, primarily the Nordic countries — along with the expected entry of the Finns and Swedes — have actively been re-engaging on developing their Arctic security capabilities and policies since about 2017,” Huebert said.
“On the maritime side, Canada is the only member of the so-called sort of northern tier that really hasn’t done anything.”
Huebert pointed to Canada’s pledge to modernize NOR, including an overhaul of the North Warning System, as one such example.
In June, Anand announced what she called an “unprecedented” investment of $4.9 billion over six years to update Canada’s continental defences, as part of an overall package of $40 billion in investments over the next 20 years.
The government has yet to make clear how all of that money will be spent and how much of it is new, Huebert said.
“I suspect that the secretary general is here to remind Canada that it is expected that when you are a NATO ally, facing the renewed aggression of Russia, that you need to step up your game,” the University of Calgary professor said.
For Canada, stepping up that game means to stop “dithering” on replacing fighter aircraft, improving infrastructure for air capabilities on the country’s forward operating bases and ensuring Ottawa has the ability to stay apprised of possible Russian undersea threats.
Nevertheless, Stoltenberg’s visit still communicates “solidarity” among NATO allies, particularly against Russia, says the University of Manitoba’s Andrea Charron.
Part of that work is ensuring allies are better at sharing information — something the defence policy expert said is illustrated in Stoltenberg’s visit to a NOR station.
“We used to think … what NOR does is completely separate and apart from what NATO does, and we’re starting to realize, well, that actually creates a seam that Russia and China and others can exploit.”
Charron has written about Canada’s previous attempts to discourage NATO involvement in the North American Arctic, in part to avoid irritating Russia. She said that means it’s critical allies recognize this country’s expertise lies in the Arctic.
Stoltenberg’s trip, which will also take him to the 4 Wing Cold Lake fighter base in Alberta, is also a sign Ottawa is paying attention to its territorial premiers, says Trent University professor and Canada research chair Whitney Lackenbauer.
During the Council of the Federation’s summer meeting in July, the premiers of the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut urged the federal government to look beyond Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and support the resiliency of northern communities.
“Smart military investments are part of the solution, but a lot of other broader security issues in the Arctic actually are requiring investments in communities and investments in infrastructure,” Lackenbauer said. “So it’s about striking this right balance between military and civilian.”
Because NATO is a political alliance as well as a military one, Lackenbauer said ensuring the north is secure and healthy dovetails with the group’s wider goals. Such priorities should include better disaster preparedness, improving broadband and connectivity, increased access to health care and better port and airfield infrastructure.
“It’s really significant that the NATO secretary general will see the Canadian North and understand that the Canadian Arctic poses very different operational challenges than the European Arctic,” Lackenbauer said.
“Our physical geography is very different, and in many ways our human geography is also different. Him having a chance to meet with some Nunavummiut in Cambridge Bay is also a great chance to at least heighten the awareness of what some of the priorities are on the ground in the communities.”
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