Arctic security is under renewed focus as Russia and China eye the region, but leaders in the North say Canada will not be able to exercise sovereignty if its communities are not built properly.
The prime ministers of the three northern territories say the federal government, while mindful of the need to strengthen security in the Arctic, has lacked a cohesive infrastructure plan to build the foundation needed to achieve that goal.
Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane said in an interview that while lawmakers have increased talk of building the North, few concrete plans have emerged for key infrastructure such as hospitals, telecommunications, airports and road systems.
Without those plans and adequate funding, Cochrane said it would be difficult for the federal government to achieve its goal of greater Arctic security.
“Without year-round roads, people don’t have access to job markets or profitable food,” he said. “You need communications so that when you send out whatever they’re going to do to secure the Arctic, you have the infrastructure to communicate.”
He added that “it all starts with medical care. I hope no one gets very sick because our capacity is very limited.”
In June, the Senate released a report saying the federal government in the north “must do more” given “an ever-changing geopolitical context, increasing interest and activity in the Arctic,” as well as climate change.
Meanwhile, the United States last year updated its Arctic strategy in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a plan that included a greater US military presence in the far north.
A balloon as ‘tipping point’
Even before its war with Ukraine, Russia laid out an ambitious program to assert its presence and claim its claim in the Arctic, including efforts to build ports and other infrastructure, and expand its fleet of icebreakers.
Meanwhile, China has called for the development of a “Polar Silk Road” as part of an initiative to take advantage of potential trade routes opening up in the Arctic due to climate change.
In February, an apparent Chinese spy balloon drifted through Canadian and US airspace before being shot down by a US plane, while another object of unconfirmed origin was also spotted over central Yukon around the same time.
Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai said in an interview that the event was a turning point in the conversation about building the North, with many lawmakers re-engaging the territories in infrastructure development.
“When the world really focused on what was going on in the Yukon, when all those media outlets came and the federal government was on the scene, I think it was an opportunity for people to really see where the gaps are. And then It led to a bigger conversation.”
But given the urgency of the need for housing and other fundamentals, Pillai said the federal government must act.
“When you take into account how long it takes our country to build a major project like a port in Nunavut or a port in the Northwest Territories or the Yukon, and you think about all the steps you have to take and the time you already are behind,” Pillai said separately at the recent Western Premiers Conference last week in Whistler, BC.
For University of Calgary research associate researcher and Canada Northern Corridor Program researcher Katharina Koch, Cochrane’s and Pillai’s criticisms of Ottawa’s handling of building the North are neither surprising nor unwarranted.
Koch said the criticism echoed what he was told by many residents of the northern community, and Canada has a distinct lack of an integrated Arctic strategy compared to other G7 nations.
“This issue of security and safeguarding Canada’s sovereignty intersects with many other different issues,” Koch said. “One item or aspect to start with is really making sure that residents in the north have access to basic services. This means education, healthcare and clean drinking water.”
“Ultimately, this will support Canada’s goal of establishing security and projecting Canadian sovereignty outward in terms of the Arctic.”
Improved broadband Internet access is desperately needed, Koch said. She said the “digital divide” severely limits growth potential and economic viability in the North.
‘The conversation has changed’
There has been movement on those fronts.
Construction of the Dempster Fiber Line, an 800-kilometre fiber optic cable, is underway in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Meanwhile, federal Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal announced last November $7 million in support for the construction of the Kivalliq Hydro-Fibre Link, a multi-purpose connection to bring renewable energy and high-speed internet to communities in Nunavut. through Manitoba.
Nunavut Premier PJ Akeeagok said the project represents welcome progress, but additional investment is still needed to address energy security and climate change in the Arctic.
“I think the conversation has changed, but we haven’t yet seen any investment of the magnitude that we need to see from the lens of nation-building,” he told the Western Prime Ministers’ Conference.
Cochrane said a key missing link is local engagement, as Ottawa often doesn’t know what northern communities need and doesn’t consult residents to find out.
“I’ve seen too many people come from the south and go up north and think they know what they’re getting into, and come out frozen, vehicles sunk in the ice, lost, having to be rescued.” she said.
“So I think the biggest thing is, if we’re talking about Arctic security and sovereignty, it’s important that Canada talk to us, that they really consult with us, not just listen, but really listen to us.”