Nunavut’s MP is applauding the federal government’s plan to spend $4.9 billion over the next six years to modernize continental defence. And Lori Idlout says northerners should have some say in how the money is spent.
“It is a good move,” the NDP MP said in response to Defence Minister Anita Anand’s announcement this week.
“It’s very important for Arctic sovereignty, and for northerners to know that there is work to be done to protect the Arctic,” said Idlout.
Anand delivered the long-awaited announcement on upgrades to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) on Monday at the Canadian military’s principal air base at Trenton, Ont. She referred to the investment as the beginning of NORAD’s “next chapter.”
The NORAD overhaul will include the replacement of the North Warning System, a chain of radar stations across the three territories. The North Warning System evolved in the 1980s from the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, originally built in the 1950s to monitor any Soviet missile threat.
Anand said two new radar systems will be developed — at the Canada-U.S. border and in the Arctic archipelago — to “significantly improve our situational knowledge of what enters Canadian airspace from the north.”
She also said the North Warning System — currently managed and operated by the Inuit-owned Nassituq Corp. — will be maintained until the new systems are in place.
Idlout says she’s pleased that part of the federal commitment is to ensure that Indigenous communities benefit from the defence overhaul.
“It sounds like some benefits will include making sure that Inuit businesses are able to carry out some of the work that will be necessary to upgrade the system in in the Arctic,” Idlout said.
Idlout agrees that continental security is important in light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but said other infrastructure is just as vital to northern sovereignty.
“I think that it’s just as important to also invest in the people of the Arctic. I think that investments to housing, as well as making sure that Nunavummiut have adequate health care, is just as important as investing in protecting the Arctic,” she said.
“It’s important that the federal government also consults with northerners in how these funds will be spent.”
‘Devil’s always in the details’
Anand’s announcement did not offer many details on exactly how the $4.9 billion would be spent, or when.
However, Jim Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, expects most of it will be spent in the North.
“People talk about space-based communications for the Arctic, potentially also development of fibre optic lines from north to south, new infrastructure for the forward operating locations. There will also be investment in terms of cleaning up the North Warning System, once it’s dismantled,” Fergusson said.
“So a significant portion of the investment will go into the Arctic. What portion, we don’t know yet.”
Fergusson also agrees that Canada is “on the right track.”
“Again, the devil’s always in the details,” he said.
Rob Huebert, a northern defence analyst at the University of Calgary, points out that Anand explicitly stated that northern and Indigenous communities would be involved from the outset.
“So in other words, that’s very much top of mind,” he said.
Huebert said a promised over-the-horizon polar radar system will rely on some of Canada’s northernmost communities, to store equipment or serve as a “jumping-off point,” meaning infrastructure would need to be upgraded.
The problem, he said, is that it’s not clear when any of this work might begin.
“Are they going to follow through with quick action or are we going to be seeing more delays as, say, in the case of the building of the deep water refueling site at Nanisivik?” Huebert said.
“And so hopefully, given the dangerous nature of the threat, we will be moving fast, which means, therefore, that the local communities and northern Indigenous peoples have to be brought in very quickly.
“But once again, the track record isn’t great on that.”