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Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores II: Canada Part 1

Part 2: The Cold Dilemmas of the Maple Leaf

2.1: Problems in the North

A cold wind, the wind of times, blows on a place; a small northern island partially covered by snow. A maple leaf is carried on the wind, undecided as to where on the island it should land.

The melting ice on the far Northern Seas is posing more challenges than opportunities to the Northern nation of Canada. So much so that it has begun to consider the Arctic as a serious issue, although it is not yet listed under the list of priorities despite the fact that the resources and the potential new maritime routes will be more than enough of a reason for Ottawa to pay more attention to the area. And all of this taking into account that Canada has a good portion of territory in the area, both land and sea. In short, just like the maple leaf floating on the arctic winds, it seems that Canada does not yet know in which part of the island it should land.

The answers, both proposed and assumed diverge a lot in what comes about prevision and current implementations. Harper (2013) points out that despite the fact that the Canadian government already has a policy and a strategy for the Arctic, little has been done on it what it has proposed. Moreover, he suggests that there has been little interest in the area and that some of the main points of the strategy and policies have not been so well received by the targeted communities (namely, the Aboriginal peoples living in the Northern Areas of the country). Even worse, the military aspect which is essential for the protection of Canada and its Arctic territory against any intrusion, have seen no significant advance[1].

One of the proposed approaches made by Griffiths in a retroactive analysis (2009) establishes that Canada should have a focus on cooperation along with stewardship and enhancing sovereignty[2]. All of the previous having collaboration as the very north of every policy and strategy that was to be formulated by the time. Additionally, Griffiths (2009) proposes as objectives the political elevation of Arctic issues, mainly through the Arctic Council and other international organizations; the engagement of both US and Russia with Canada on a cooperative stewardship; and the reinvigoration of the mentioned Council.

In the case of the first objective, the idea is to give a political elevation of any issue concerning the Canadian Arctic to both the ‘Arctics’ (The countries that are members of the Arctic Council) and the non – Arctics, or those with interests in the area.

The second objective is developed by Griffiths (2009) as the essential engagement of the United States and Russia, in which the latter can provide a sub–regional approach when it comes to dealing with some of the concerns and issues ongoing in the Arctic[3].

The last objective, in a deeper sense, aims at the reinvigoration of the Council by coordinating any action or initiative within and among the members, providing more funds to the institution and its members for special projects, and reach regulations on tourism, fisheries, and find answers to climate change[4].

Where Griffiths (2009) places the ideas on a more multilateral approach, Huebert (2009) places more a Sovereignty and Security approach on his proposed focus for an Arctic policy and strategy. In an even more direct statement, Huebert (2009) states that the Canadian Prime Minister should be the head of a special committee focusing on the Arctic, along with the improvement on the controlling the other’s activities. A common idea with Griffiths (2009) is the cooperation with the US and Russia, and with the Arctics as well, having a similar focus on the same proposed areas. In any case, the special word made by Huebert (2009) is the control of the Arctic areas by the Canadian government; a control in which the whole government, from the Prime Minister to the single head of any native community, must take part, and a control in which the rules and laws of the country should be enforced. Diplomatic and military means are also much needed and the military aspect would have cooperation as a framework too, with the Canadian Forces cooperating with the Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The factors behind the two selected recommendations – which are by themselves challenges and problems – and the following Arctic Strategy made in 2009, are very complex in their nature; they are interrelated and may explain why the response given by the Canadian Government is apparently not so solid, although there is a recognition that the frozen north is a vital area for the country’s future.

Griffiths (2009) takes account of the retreating ice and the opening of new routes and notes that most of the new potential routes, including the Northwest Passage, will happen to cross Canadian territory. Huebert (2009) also accounts that challenge and furthers on its implications. Every resource or trade will rely more on maritime transportation which in turn will be benefited by a more accessible area; area that Canada is seeking to transform into a zone under its control as internal waters but over which it is facing the strong opposition from the US, the EU and – as it was reviewed in the previous article – China.

The problem lies not only in the accessibility, but also in the fact that the labelling of those passages, especially that of the Northwest Passage, would imply that potentially dangerous ships ranging from those used by organized crime and terrorists to any hostile vessels belonging to a certain navy would not be controlled or stopped, and that even the air space over those areas would be free. And since Russia is resuming the patrols with nuclear bombers, those nuclear bombers can go deep into the North American airspace[5]. Griffiths (2009) adds that in a case of conflict in the area, Canada would be the country that would suffer the most.

Similarly in regards to the security aspect, Huebert (2009) mentions the different boundary disputes that Canada has with its Arctic neighbours, the fact that crime and terrorism in the area can take advantage of the low presence of Canadian authorities to penetrate North America, and the fact that many of the Arctic countries are renovating their military and coast guard capabilities in the area[6].

According to Huebert (2009), two of the ‘Arctics’, Norway and Russia, are currently experiencing a high renewal of their arsenals in the area; the US has little military presence there, at least for the time being. The reasons behind the Norwegian renewal are due to the protection of its Arctic natural resources (oil and gas) and the disputes with Russia over the eastern waters near the Svalbard archipelago. Russia’s increasing presence in the region is undoubtedly the primary reason for Norway’s increased military focus, with Russia deploying two destroyers and other minor units in the area recently along with patrolling Tupolev 95 Nuclear Strategic Bombers near the disputed areas with Norway[7].

Russia seeks to increase its presence over the disputed areas, as well as make its presence more strongly felt in the region, along with the Russian view of the Arctic as being a passage to other Oceans and as a key economic element for the country. In any case, the actions of Norway and Russia alone are more than a reason for Ottawa to feel nervous, since any escalation may end up involving Canada, not to mention the fact that, as Huebert (2009) reminds, new laws under the UNCLOS might allow the Littoral Arctic States (US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Russia) to increase their territorial control via claims. Claims that might overlap and be a source of any potential conflict.

The last factor that should be a cause for concern in Canada is the mere factor of resources; resources that, as  mentioned already, will be more and more exposed to exploitation thanks to the melting ice. The exploitation of the resources that would be discovered within Canadian territory might be a great economic opportunity for the Canadian northern and Native population. And Huebert (2009) states that this might also be a good chance for Canada to exert its sovereignty by protecting not only the territory but also the people and their needs through improving prospects for the young population and the environment[8], providing the country a good way to develop and make its northern areas more active.

But the greater ease of resource exploitation is a double-edged sword in the sense that the receding ice makes them more accessible not just to Canada, but also other states, both Arctics and non – Arctics alike, such as India or China who have particular interest in the potential gas and oil reserves[9]. Of course, the blame does not lie only on the receding ice. The new technologies in Arctic navigation are now available for any nation capable to afford it and, according to Huebert (2009), South Korea is now a leading nation in ice–capable ships that can navigate in both frozen and warm waters, overtaking the Russians and Finnish fleets. Indeed, this factor may increase the disputes over the ships navigating waters that Canada will consider its own. As a result it is increasingly feeling the need to have the ability to control the activities of those ships.

So what answers have Canada given to the question of facing and tackling these problematic and interconnected challenges?

By 2009 the Canadian Government issued Canada’s Northern Strategy, which sets out some general priorities for the region, including: the protection of the population’s welfare; the protection of the environment; an inclusive policy that takes account of and includes every actor, from the Prime Minister to the governments of the local territories and the Natives; and the increased vigilance of Canadian Arctic area at Air, Sea, and Land. Stewardship is also included as another general priority within the document, along with the development of local communities and the labelling of the historical and identity importance of the Arctic for the nation. The strategy defines four main areas which sets out the framework for any future policy aimed at the region: the exercise of sovereignty; the promotion of social and economic development; the protection of the environment; and the improvement and devolving of the Northern governance.

On the chapter of Sovereignty it is states that, according to the strategy, a presence has to be maintained, stewardship should be exerted, and the air, sea and land dimensions are to be protected. For the latter, the strategy mentions: the building of an army training centre at Resolute Bay; the modernization of the Rangers; the building of a fuelling facility at Nanisivik; the introduction of new ice-breakers for the Coast Guard and a new patrol ship capable of operating during the first half of the year when the ice is less thick; the launching of a space-based program with satellites for vigilance; and a collaboration with NORAD for the monitoring and patrols. Stewardship was also mentioned, with the introduction of new water control and regulations recommended along with full environmental control within the EEZ, the mandatory report of any ship to the Canadian Coast Guard, and the securing of the Search and Rescue (SAR) of every local Government and Community. Another important framework within the Sovereignty exertion recommends that Canada defines its domain area through scientific studies and resources recognition, and works towards solving the disputes at Hans Island, Beaufort Sea and Lincoln Bay, and diplomatic management with the US on the Northwest Passage.

In the area of Social and Economic Development Promotion, the Strategy states that environmental protection is important, on a par with supporting the economic development of the Northern Territories. This means that the establishment of institutes and the improvement of environmental regulation is a priority. Additionally, new regulations in the same area are to be introduced.

The support for sustainable development projects with a focus on gas, diamond and pipelines were another of the actions stated in the document. For this, the strategy mentions the creation of geomaps for resource acknowledgements. The promotion of cultural tourism is also set as an action. Infrastructural needs are also to be addressed since infrastructure is viewed as important for moving goods[10], with developments to be made entirely in hand with the local governments. The well-being of local populations was set as another priority to be met through the fund for infrastructural, food and social services, and through investments in supporting programs on the aforementioned areas and with the aim of creating sustainable employments. The support to, and fellowship with, the University of Canada for research programs was also suggested[11].

In the chapter on environmental protection it was stated that the safeguarding of the Arctic Ecosystem was important, and that science and technology were a key element, funded through research on climate change impact and adaptation, that would also have an active participation with locals and collaboration with other transnational institutions, with the implementation of a research station. Lands and waters are to be protected as well through the creation of National Parks and a national maritime conservation area and the introduction of environmental requirements, to respond to pollution, for any company wishing to develop resources in the area.

Finally, in the chapter on the improvement and devolving of governance, the strategy (2009) mentions the placement of local decisions in the hands of local governments, the implementation of policies and strategies made by local population and encouraging that population to manage locally the lands and the resources, as well as to address the challenges and opportunities they present. Any local governance is to be compatible with the local needs and dynamics, and the close work with local governments and communities, along with the provision of special funds for those governments, are pointed out as tools to fulfil this ideal.

The strategy also included an international dimension for the Arctic, labelling the cooperation with other Arctic neighbours as important along with the engagement of international partners and the advocacy of priorities by the Artic Council and other multilateral instances. On the aspect of partners, cooperation, diplomacy and international law are the main elements that would drive any Canadian action, and embracing the stewardship and the promotion of interests are high on the list. The US, Russia and the Scandinavian – Arctic nations are mentioned as essential partners, as well as the UK. The Council itself was intended by the strategy (2009) to be a scenario for setting a common agenda, to raise Arctic issues and to strengthen the partnership for the sake of those issues[12]. The importance of the Arctic Council for Canada is evidenced by the strategy’s recommendation of strengthening it.

In the strategy it may seem that there have been credible answers given by Canada to address and manage those issues discussed in this article that both Griffiths (2009) and Hebert (2009) have pointed out. But what results, if any, have these answers brought? The questions of how effective these answers have been, and whether or not Canada is doing what is necessary in order to protect its sovereignty, population and territorial claims over the Arctic militarily — whether that wandering Maple leaf floating on the icy gusts of wind from foreign lands will land in the right spot — will be answered in the second part of this review on Canada and the Arctic.

[1] Although Harper (2013) points out that the military aspect seems less relevant than the environmental effects on the area and the need to address them for the sake of the Arctic population.

[2] Stewardship is defined by Griffiths (2009) as a locally informed governance with an environmental respect and care. See p. 3.

[3] With the US in turn, the engagement would have focused on a cooperation between the two coastguards on Search and Rescue, improvement of oil-spill clean up, environmental monitoring, fisheries, protection of species, harmonization on vessels identification, cruisers controls as well as of shipping, and in helping small communities in adapt to the climate change.

[4] One concern identified by Griffith (2009) was the question of opening or not the membership to the Council to non-Arctic nations which could be a strategic benefit for a China that eagerly looks for it.

[5] A dangerous aspect in case of a worsening in the relations of both Canada and the US and Russia due to any clash either in the Arctic any other area or issues. Griffiths (2009) mentions a possible reason for clashes being the Ballistic Missile System and the militarization of the Space.

[6] The disputes that Canada has in the area, besides the one with the US over the Northwest Passage, are: Hans Island and Lincoln Sea with Denmark, and Beaufort Sea with the US.

[7] As a matter of fact, Harper (2009) mentions that Russia is planning to operate at least 6 aircraft carrier combat groups in the Arctic zone and to renew again the presence of its nuclear submarines beneath the North Pole. Norway in the meantime, is increasing its navy with Fridtjof Nansen class Frigates that has Aegis (anti – aircraft) capabilities and plans to acquire the new multirole and Stealth Join Strike Fighter F – 35.

[8] It is important to remark that for Harper (2009) Sovereignty goes beyond the mere securing of the territory by military means but also the securing of the people within the given territory and to fulfil their needs, or to protect, to use the same author’s word.

[9] Other resources are iron ore and – potentially – gas hydrates. The exploitation of these resources might have a strong impact on the environment, whose addressing is another concern for Canada.

[10] The construction of a fishing harbour was contemplated in the strategy.

[11] Research programs with a focus on industrial innovation, health, and socio-economic development.

[12] Those issues were intended to be raised in other international instances, according to the Strategy (2009).


Griffiths, F (June 2009). Towards a Canadian Arctic Strategy. Foreign Policy for Canada’s Tomorrow. No. 1. Canadian International Council.

Harper, S (May 14, 2013). Canada and the Arctic. Frozen Promises. Retrieved from:

Huebert, R (July 2009). Canadian Arctic Sovereignty and Security in a Transforming Circumpolar World. Foreign Policy for Canada’s Tomorrow. No. 4. Canadian International Council.

Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (2009). Canada’s Northern Strategy. Our North, Our Heritage, Our Future. Ottawa: Canada. Author.

*Cover image ‘Quebec City 2013 – Canadian Cost Guarde Icebreaker‘ by Reigh LeBlanc


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