Vision for the Arctic

Mar 15, 2011

“There is a new world emerging above the Arctic Circle. It is this world, a new world for all the peoples of the Arctic regions that we in Canada are working to build”
– Stephen Harper, August 2008, Inuvik, NWT

Visionary words from Canada’s Prime Minister, and probably not unlike those passed to Martin Frobisher in 1576, before his ill-fated quest for the Northwest passage to the treasures of the Far East.

The Arctic poses challenges to passage and survival which, for centuries, only the native peoples would brave. The cost – time, treasury, life and effort – did not seem worth the investment.

It was not until 1903 that Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, travelled the entire length in a 21-metre fishing boat, drawing attention to its limited but new possibilities. From 1940 to 1942, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner St. Roch navigated the ­passage from west to east, and back, as a show of Canadian ­sovereignty over the North. Even during the Cold War against our common neighbour Russia, the U.S./Canadian defence of this northern border was largely limited to early warning radar and NORAD aircraft interception, an anti-ballistic missile deterrent, anti-submarine surveillance and native ranger patrols. “Let them come” said the strategists, we will meet them when they’re frozen.

Of course there was much scientific and aboriginal activity, and some commercial endeavours, but the area remained shiveringly arid in the minds of most. It was not until the ice began melting, increasing the feasibility of extracting new sources of natural resources, that it gained its new strategic impact. The potential for shorter passage to and from Far East markets (see artist’s depiction above), and the enticing fact that the region holds 20% of the world’s undiscovered, yet recoverable, oil and natural gas, and rich potential fishing, mining and other resources, have improved the attractiveness of the Arctic to all major states. This is that “new world.”

A Canadian Arctic Strategy to Meet the Pace of Change
Change in the North has accelerated since 1996 and the creation of the Arctic Council, which Canada chaired until 1998. Bordering states of the Arctic – Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States of America – all form the council “member states.” The Arctic Council also includes the category of ­Permanent Participants, which is open equally to organizations of Indigenous peoples with a majority of Arctic Indigenous constituency. As the Government of Canada states in its Way Forward portion of its new Arctic Strategy (delivered in August 2010 and updated in Jan 2011):” The Arctic Council is the leading multilateral forum through which we advance our Arctic foreign policy and promote ­Canadian Northern interests.” Canada has chair of the Arctic Council (1996-98) and will be chairing the Council again starting in 2013.

The government then defines its four pillars of change for the Arctic as: “exercising sovereignty; promoting economic and social development; protecting our environmental heritage; and improving and devolving Northern governance.” It further states that its international efforts will focus on the ­following areas:

  • engaging with neighbours to seek to resolve boundary issues;
  • securing international recognition for the full extent of our extended continental shelf;
  • addressing Arctic governance and related emerging issues, such as public safety;
  • creating the appropriate international conditions for sustainable development;
  • seeking trade and investment opportunities that benefit Northerners and all Canadians;
  • encouraging a greater understanding of the human dimension of the Arctic;
  • promoting an ecosystem-based management approach with Arctic neighbours and others;
  • contributing to and supporting international efforts to address climate change in the Arctic;
  • enhancing our efforts on other pressing environmental issues;
  • strengthening Arctic science and the legacy of International Polar Year;
  • engaging Northerners on Canada’s Arctic foreign policy;
  • supporting Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations; and
  • providing Canadian youth with opportunities to participate in the circumpolar dialogue.

Security: Arctic protection & Controls
From a security perspective, the government policy was spelled out in Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy (April 2004):

“[The National Security Policy] sets out a strategic framework and action plan designed to ensure that the Government of Canada can prepare for and respond to a range of security threats, including terrorist attacks, outbreaks of infectious diseases, natural disasters, cyber attacks on critical infrastructure and domestic extremism.

The Policy focuses on three core national security interests:
– Protecting Canada and the safety and security of Canadians at home and abroad
– Ensuring Canada is not a base for threats to our allies
– Contributing to international security

The National Security Policy focuses attention and actions on building a more integrated security system and sets out specific actions in six key areas: intelligence, emergency planning and management, public health emergencies, transportation security, border security, and international security.”

Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans
In pursuing the first priority of “sovereignty” and the responsibility it would entail, the government announced on 22 June 2010, that beginning July 1, it would require all vessels (domestic and foreign) of a certain size to report to the Canadian Coast Guard if travelling through Canada’s Arctic waters. This new mandatory requirement is intended to ensure vessels report information such as identity, position and destination to the Canadian Coast Guard. The announcement follows June 2009 legislation that expanded the area over which the government could enforce its pollution regulations, from 100 nautical miles from shore to 200 nm. The announcement complements the Government of Canada’s Northern Strategy, focused on strengthening Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, protecting the fragile northern environment, and promoting economic and social development while giving northerners more control over their economic and political destiny.

The area depicted is vast, and one wonders about the concept of joint use of various other agencies, Coast Guard, RCMP, Border Services and National Defence transport and other aircraft to make the implementation easier.

Defence: Canada First & Arctic Sovereignty
From the Canada First Defence Strategy, unveiled by the Prime Minister on 12 May 2008 in Halifax and recently updated, we find:

“The defence of Canada’s sovereignty and the protection of territorial integrity in the Arctic remains a top priority for the government. This commitment was recently re­affirmed in Budget 2008, which provided funding for a new polar class icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard, and Arctic seabed mapping. The Canada First Defence Strategy is fully in line with the Northern Strategy and will give the CF the tools it needs to defend Canadian sovereignty and provide an increased presence in the Arctic…”

The Future – A Stronger Presence
As part of the Canada First Defence Strategy, the government has announced initiatives that will help the Canadian Forces increase their presence in the region and better respond to incidents and potential challenges to our sovereignty. These include:

  • The acquisition of six to eight Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships to patrol Arctic approaches and provide a Canadian Navy presence in the high-Arctic.
  • The establishment of a deep water docking and refuelling facility in Nanisivik.
  • The expansion of the size and capabilities of the Canadian Rangers to provide a stronger and more effective military presence in the North.
  • The establishment of an Arctic Training Centre to provide Canadian Forces with the training and skills necessary to operate effectively in the North.
  • The CF’s ability to conduct surveillance in the North will be enhanced with the modernization and replacement of the Aurora patrol aircraft, the use of evolving unmanned aerial vehicle technology, and the Polar Epsilon project.

Together, the initiatives are aimed at to bolstering the ­Canadian Forces’ ability to both “respond to contingencies in the region and conduct Arctic surveillance.”

What are others doing?
In a recent presentation given at Carleton University’s Centre for Security and Defence Studies, entitled “The Developing Arctic Security Regime: Cooperation or Conflict?” Dr. Rob Huebert addressed the issue of policy and military activity by not only all members of the Council but, importantly, also among other players such as China. Huebert asked: “Are we witnessing the birth of a new Arctic Arms Race? Or is it a new Co-operative Arctic Regime” Good question… true dilemma! Evidence was, of course, offered for both with new signs of cooperation and the new geopolitics of the North. In examining the varying policies and military and other relevant equipment and training exercises of the member states, he painted a picture of accelerating activity and concern among all members. This leads to the next question: where is this increased pace is leading? Important concern was voiced by some about the potential impact of such accelerated activity. Most Arctic Council members are of course preparing submissions, through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which make claims to what they consider to be their portion of the Arctic seabed. What will be the level of cooperation once some of these conflicting claims have been reviewed?

For instance, the 15 February 2011 NY Times reported: “Russia, where onshore oil reserves are slowly dwindling, last month signed an Arctic exploration deal with the British petroleum giant BP, whose offshore drilling prospects in the United States were dimmed by the Gulf of Mexico disaster last year. Other Western oil companies … are now having similar discussions with Russia …. While the United States and Canada balk, other countries are clearing Arctic space for the industry. Norway, which last year ­settled a territorial dispute with Russia, is preparing to open new Arctic areas for drilling. Last year Greenland, which became semi-autonomous from Denmark in 2009, allowed Cairn Energy to do some preliminary drilling. Cairn, a Scottish company, is planning four more wells this year, while Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Shell are also expected to drill in the area over the next few years… ­Following the template of the BP deal, Rosneft is negotiating joint venture agreements with other major oil companies shut out of North America and intent on exploring the Arctic continental shelf off Russia’s northern coast. That includes Shell, its chief executive said last month.”

As for China and the EU, China continues to be concerned about the long term sustainment of energy and other resource needs for its rapidly growing economy and demanding population. To that end, it is constructing a large (10,000 ton) new research icebreaker, the Xue Long, and establishing two and a half polar bases in Antarctica and one in the Arctic. Both China and the EU are seeking membership in the Arctic Council, though they only have observer status at present.

Some Proposals

  • Sovereignty: Canadians love to flaunt this word as if it is achievable by decree. In fact, it is only achievable if it is secured and respected by others – both physically and legally, as well as internally and externally. University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert said it well: “Sovereignty must be used to provide Security for people and thus allow for the provision and promotion of economic, social, and environmental well-being.”
  • Optimize Resources: There will be an urgency to secure that which we will have won in the international court as soon as we have it. We are in a period of prolonged financial challenge, thus we must ensure the capacity to take action across the whole of government to optimize all resources. For instance, can we have a patrol ship that serves the Coast Guard, the Navy, Border Services and the RCMP if necessary, or do we blend or delegate authorities to achieve the same effect?
  • Enforcement: We have initiated along our Southern Border and in our Great Lakes the “Integrated Border Enforcement Teams” (IBETS). Would it not be in the interest of all members of the Arctic Council to cooperate in some similar fashion to minimize conflict and duplication in various locations along common borders?
  • Exercise: Regular cooperative exercises among all levels in the Arctic would serve to increase trust and reduce the inevitable tensions. For instance, a natural disaster exercise among federal, territorial, and local governments and agencies, and/or among the various Council-member nations, would be useful to all. Initiated during the Cold War, the Major Air Disaster protocol for the Arctic could serve as an effective model for a major sea rescue of multiple ships and major international evacuations.
  • Cooperation: Actively seek and maintain cooperation of Arctic Council members to maintain its relevance and to reduce potential for a major arms or competitive race that would harm the people and/or the environment. Establish joint environmental assessment teams. Encourage other major states to observe Council sessions and contribute to its studies.

Clive Addy is the Executive Editor of FrontLine Security magazine.
© FrontLine Security 2011