Arctic security must be a top priority for Canada, northern premiers say

VICTORIA — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a wake-up call that security and sovereignty in the Arctic must be a national priority — and that Canada must be better prepared, say the premiers of the three northern territories.

On top of more support for the Canadian Rangers and organizations like the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the federal government needs to bolster northern communities — a sentiment the trio hopes their counterparts at the Council of the Federation meeting here will put their weight behind.

“You can’t have security there if there’s nobody living in the land,” Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane said in an interview.

“You can’t make communities safe without making sure that the communities have the infrastructure and the supports to be able to provide that safety net, and the services that they need for their safety,” she said, citing roads and broadband access as examples.

Concerns about the Arctic touch not only on security, but other urgent matters such as climate change, she added.

“I think every Canadian has concerns about Russia and what’s going on in Ukraine,” she said. “However … I think it’s almost a new way of doing business throughout the world. We’ve been naive, in my opinion, to only focus on Ukraine.”

Canada needs “to be more aware of the vulnerability of the Canadian north in the Arctic. Specifically, our sea is opening up — before we were protected by the ice, and that is now melting,” she said.

“There will be more people looking towards the Arctic because we have a lot of resources up there. And, like I said, if there’s no one living in the communities, then there is a perception in countries that it’s open territory.”

Cochrane, Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok and Yukon Premier Sandy Silver have written to the prime minster, and Cochrane has already met with Defence Minister Anita Anand and other federal officials to press the issue.

“The strategic importance of the Arctic has been increasing, due to climate change and the opening of Arctic waters, as well as the wealth of resources the Arctic holds,” Cochrane said. “This heightened interest is not only from Russia, but other world powers like China, the United States and other Arctic nations. It is paramount northerners are involved in decisions that impact the North.”

In May, the three northern leaders met in Whitehorse to not only call for an end to Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine, but also noted that “for many years, foreign countries have pursued objectives in the Arctic region that run counter to Canadian interests. Northern premiers are committed to working with the federal government and Indigenous partners to strengthen Canada’s position in the region.”

The Canadian Rangers — “the eyes and ears of the North” in the military — not only support security but also provide jobs, especially for youth in the Junior Rangers, but they “stretch themselves more and more thin,” said Silver, adding the leaders are looking to Ottawa for “specific funding for sovereignty.”

In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for Anand said the federal government is “strongly committed to defending Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and security — and we are making the necessary investments to keep Canadians safe,” including an unprecedented $4.9 billion investment over six years, and $40 billion over 20 years, to modernize NORAD.

“Our NORAD modernization plan has five areas — one of which is investment in new infrastructure and support capabilities in Canada’s north” including improvements to Canadian Armed Forces’ facilities, said Daniel Minden, Anand’s senior communications adviser.

“We are making these investments in partnership with Indigenous communities, provinces, territories, and other government departments, so that new infrastructure can meet the needs of our military and local communities by fulfilling a dual purpose wherever possible.”

Akeeagok’s relatives were uprooted along with other Inuit families and forced to relocate to Grise Fiord in the 1950s to help boost Canada’s presence in its northernmost community, and his parents, aunts and uncles still live there. “You are only as strong as your people,” he said.

He urged provincial leaders to approach the issue with a “unified voice. Coming from Canada, from the confederation from coast to coast to coast” will make the difference.

“If we are divided … then Canada is still, in my opinion, vulnerable,” added Cochrane. “What we do to protect the Arctic will impact the whole of Canada, and so it’s important that all premiers recognize that.”


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