Consider the significant and rapid changes to the Arctic and the impacts on original inhabitants

Special Senate Committee on the Arctic
feat. Adam Lajeunesse
April 1, 2019


Opening Statement

Thank you, and good afternoon. It is my pleasure to be here and offer some comments on Canada’s Arctic and the circumpolar North more generally. In particular, I would like to focus on the question of defence and security, since these issues have been making headlines lately and I think remain very relevant to how the Government of Canada frames its approach to the North.

Over the past several years we have seen the Russian Federation undertake a significant military build-up in its northern regions. This includes new and refurbished bases, new ground forces, and the development of a sophisticated system of area-access and denial. The recent deployment of 10,000 spetsnaz special forces soldiers for “search and rescue” frames up what the Russians are doing very well. The United States, the UK, and NATO nations have responded with a new focus on the region that was demonstrated last year by Trident Juncture, a large-scale exercise in Norway that saw the return of a US Carrier Group north of the Arctic Circle for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

On the other hand, we look to Canada where the Canadian Army’s official operating concept sees no need to prepare for combat operations in the North and where the Royal Canadian Navy’s newest class of Arctic capable vessels (the AOPV) are – at best – only lightly armed. In my experience, many audiences both abroad and here in Canada find this dichotomy hard to understand and chalk it up to extreme Canadian naivety at best, or negligence at worst.

The reality, however, is that many fail to realize that the Arctic is not one region with common security concerns. It is a series of different and very distinct regions. As such, there are no universal Arctic defence and security issues. While great power conflict seems to be reemerging in the European Arctic, this has not extended into the Canadian North and, to its credit, the Canadian Armed Forces have recognized that. Efforts here at home have therefore been focused on unconventional security concerns – search and rescue, disaster response, constabulary duties, and support to the civilian power.

It was these unconventional threats that the Harper government wisely focused on, despite its sometimes bellicose rhetoric, and there was little change to that focus with Strong, Secure, Engaged and the current government. Canada has done a good job focusing on those current and realistic future threats to our Arctic – while simultaneously engaging with our NATO allies to prepare for a very different set of challenges in the European Arctic.

It’s important to note as well the root cause of the militarization of the Eurasian Arctic stems not from changes to the Arctic itself, as is sometimes assumed, but from broader geopolitical change. The development of Arctic shipping lanes and new oil and gas fields in the region are not causing the Russian government to deploy those assets I mentioned, rather, disputes and tensions created outside the Arctic are spilling over into the Arctic. With this in mind I would caution the committee not to directly correlate resource development or increased shipping activity in the circumpolar North with increased inter-state competition and conflict.

Along these lines, China has also been increasing its presence in the North. Though, again, it’s important to separate out the different Norths. Chinese investment and shipping activity has been in the Russian Arctic – with relatively little attention paid to the Canada’s northern territories. This activity also does not necessarily translate into a security threat, as is sometimes assumed. China’s interests are primarily economic and it’s hard to see what the Chinese could hope to accomplish strategically by deploying military assets into or anywhere near the Canadian Arctic.

The one exception I would put on the government’s radar might be something which Dr. Rebecca Pincus (US Navy War College) mentioned last week, and that was the potential for a Chinese submarine voyage through the Arctic Ocean. We should remember that US submarine voyages in the Arctic began, in part, as a demonstration of American technological prowess and, given China’s clear desire to be seen as a global power with first rate naval capabilities, an Arctic voyage would be a logical way to demonstrate that growing reach and capabilities. Such a voyage may change the equation for continental defence planners, but it should be kept in perspective. An operational submarine capability took the US decades to acquire.

Here at home, Canada has made good progress in preparing for a more open and active Arctic – though these are complex problems and progress is always slow in the North. New assets like the Arctic Offshore and Patrol Vessels and the Nanisivik Naval base are important tools for enhancing Canada’s ability to exercise control in the region and respond quickly and effectively to emerging, unconventional security threats.

Today, and in the foreseeable future, there is no need for an expansion of Canada’s military presence or conventional military capabilities in the North. Instead, the government should focus its energy and resources into continuing to prepare for a more open Arctic with a focus on unconventional security scenarios and the surveillance capabilities, ships, and marine infrastructure needed to respond.

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