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Arctic Security Awakening – A Wake-Up Call for Canada?

In the aftermath of an international conference organized by the Wilson Center and the Max Bell School of Public Policy (MBSPP) at McGill University, Canada Institute Director Christopher Sands and MBSPP Visiting Professor Vincent Rigby reflect on the need for heightened Canadian engagement in the Arctic.

Geopolitics have shifted the Canadian Arctic from the margins of strategic thinking to the front lines of great power rivalry. The United States is moving quickly to adapt to this new reality and inviting allies and other partners to do likewise. Will Ottawa lead, follow, or get out of the way?

On June 12, 2023, the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars collaborated on an international conference on the current and future state of security cooperation between Canada and the United States in the Arctic.

The event was sponsored by the Slater Family Foundation whose patriarch, Kenneth Slater, is an American graduate of McGill. There were thought-provoking presentations by government, military, civil society, and Arctic indigenous community speakers. Four key takeaways underscore the urgency for Canada to rethink and re-energize its own Arctic policy commitments.

New Threats

Russia was a threat to US and Canadian Arctic interests throughout the Cold War, prompting, among other things, the creation of NORAD in 1957. In recent years, this threat has resurfaced as Russia has significantly expanded its military capabilities and infrastructure in the region, including the construction or refurbishing of major ports and bases. 

The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has only deepened Western fears of possible Russian moves in the Arctic. Although President Vladimir Putin has pulled some of Russia’s military resources away from the Siberian north, he retains the ability to take major strategic initiatives that could put the North American Arctic at risk over the longer term. 

China, meanwhile, has declared itself to be a near-Arctic state and increased its scientific, economic and military activities in the region.

This has involved working with Russia in many areas, including joint naval patrols, as we saw off the coast of Alaska, and developing the North Sea route to link China to Europe. China’s technological and military prowess could be a game changer in the Arctic over time, whether in partnership with Russia or on its own. 

Add to these shifts the growing impacts of climate change which are altering the navigability of the Arctic Ocean and degrading existing Arctic infrastructure at an alarming rate.

As air, land, and sea traffic increases in the Artic region, so too do the risks of fuel or cargo spills, including toxic amounts of certain critical minerals. Yet the search, rescue, and recovery capabilities of the United States and Canada are already inadequate and, as with everything in the Arctic, it will be expensive to build out emergency response capabilities.

Allied Response

The United States views the Arctic as an important theater of military operations and has embarked on a major upgrade to its capabilities and forward positioned equipment, personnel, and infrastructure.

The critical minerals and rare earths necessary to support the technologies vital to countering military threats and climate change combined with the vulnerability of all western economies to China’s dominance of the processing of these minerals is fueling a global race to find and extract them in the Arctic and elsewhere.

This will require new infrastructure that benefits military and civilian users but at an eyewatering cost. US leadership on the development of critical minerals extraction and processing and of military capabilities in the Arctic has placed these challenges on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) strategic agenda.

Norway and Denmark (still responsible for security in Greenland) have led the way in examining the alliance’s strategic posture in the Arctic, and with new NATO members Finland and Sweden, the Arctic is now effectively divided between Russian and NATO zones of influence. 

On NATO’s new Arctic front, the Canadian Arctic is the weakest link. From the Arctic Archipelago to the continental mainland, domain awareness is inadequate. The emergence of hypersonic weapons makes the time from threat detection to response extraordinarily brief, which has prompted NORAD modernization (after considerable foot-dragging by the Canadians).

But Russian grey zone warfare raises the potential for threats on the ground down the road. Although unlikely in the short term, how long would it be before we knew about a Russian action?

Needs of the North

The stark vision of rising risks and inadequate responses is a call for action, yet the people and communities of the North American Arctic have been calling for such action for decades. The effects of climate change have been a longstanding concern for the regions’ residents.

In the Canadian Arctic, demands for broadband connectivity, affordable and sustainable transportation and energy solutions, and access to education and health care have prompted discussions with Ottawa, but too little has been done despite grand pronouncements.

The sudden interest from the southern half of North America for geopolitical reasons has been met with a cautious, weary pessimism by many northerners.  And yet, what if the United States is serious about strengthening its strategic position in the Arctic?

And what if Canada’s NATO allies – a growing number of which are meeting the Wales Commitment to spend two percent of GDP on defense – insist on efforts to upgrade and reinforce NATO’s Arctic front?

Inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic know that infrastructure built for military use can be used for civilian purposes, too, as was the case when the original Distant Early Waring (DEW) line stations were built in the 1950s. They can see that people in Alaska and northern Norway have better services and connections to the world than they do, so if the United States and Canada’s European NATO allies are determined to act, their track records give ground to cautious optimism that they may succeed.

Canada’s Wake Up Call

The Arctic security risks are growing, and they present an opportunity for Canada to redress its chronic underspending on its own defense. Doing nothing is still a possibility for Ottawa, but the United States and Canada’s NATO allies are resolved to act.

Canadians living in the Arctic will welcome allied security investments for their dual-use benefits. If the Canadian government tries to block allied efforts to secure the Arctic, it will be forced to answer politically at home and abroad.

Most Canadian politicians, at least on the government side, have responded indifferently to US and other allies’ allegations of “free riding” on defense expenditures. Romantic invocations of the Arctic and its role in Canadian identity made in the House of Commons and elsewhere have rung hollow when followed by persistent neglect of the needs of Arctic residents and the security concerns of allies.

Will the world’s reawakening to strategic threats and opportunities in the Arctic lead to a change in Canadian defense? The long-awaited Canadian defense update could answer this question, but with a change in Defense Ministers, we should not hold our breath.

At McGill in June, it was the responses of the graduate students and young professionals in attendance that gave us hope that change is possible when informed Canadians wake up to today’s national security and economic development requirements in the Canadian Arctic. We hope that we do not have to wait until the first Max Bell School graduate becomes prime minister of Canada for this change to come. 

Christopher Sands – Director, Canada Institute
Vincent Rigby – Former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada; McConnell Visiting Professor for 2022-2023, Max Bell School of Public Policy


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