OTTAWA — The presence of senior Canadian and NATO officials in Nunavut on Thursday is a sign that Canada is renewing its focus on Arctic security and its place in the 30-member military alliance, experts say.
As climate change thaws the pathways to the High North, Russia expands its military footprint in the Arctic and China targets the region, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have visited Cambridge Bay to launch a series of meetings on Defense and Security.
Trudeau and Stoltenberg visited the site of the region’s North Warning System, which is one of a series of radar stations jointly operated by the United States and Canada. The sites help detect airborne threats as part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
The duo were joined by Minister of Defense Anita Anand, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly and Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal, and then visited the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, attended a briefing with the Canadian Armed Forces and talking to members of the local community.
But behind the crowded display is likely a rebuke from NATO, according to Arctic security expert Rob Huebert, for Canada’s failure to deliver on some of its overseas defense promises.
“It is abundantly clear that the northern members of NATO, primarily the Nordic countries – together with the expected entry of the Finns and Swedes – have actively re-engaged in the development of their security capabilities and policies in the ‘Arctic since about 2017,” Huebert said.
“On the maritime side, Canada is the only member of the so-called northern tier that has really done nothing.
Huebert cited Canada’s commitment to modernizing NORAD, including an overhaul of the North Warning System, as an example.
In June, Anand announced what she called an “unprecedented” investment of $4.9 billion over six years to update Canada’s continental defenses, part of an overall $40 billion package. dollars of investments over the next 20 years.
The government has yet to clarify how all that money will be spent and how much is new, Huebert said.
“I suspect the Secretary General is here to remind Canada that when you are a NATO ally, in the face of renewed Russian aggression, you are expected to step up your game,” said the professor from the University of Calgary.
For Canada, stepping up this game means quitting the “quibble” about replacing fighter jets, improving air capability infrastructure at forward operating bases across the country, and ensuring Ottawa has the ability to aware of possible Russian submarine threats.
Nevertheless, Stoltenberg’s visit still communicates “solidarity” among NATO allies, especially against Russia, says Andrea Charron of the University of Manitoba.
Part of that job is to make sure allies are better able to share information – what the defense policy expert said is exemplified by Stoltenberg’s visit to a NORAD station.
“We used to think…what NORAD does is completely separate and separate from what NATO does, and we’re starting to realize, well, it’s actually creating a vein that Russia, China and other countries are doing. ‘others can exploit.’
Charron wrote about Canada’s previous attempts to discourage NATO involvement in the North American Arctic, in part to avoid angering Russia. She said that means her key allies recognize that this country’s expertise lies in the Arctic.
Stoltenberg’s trip, which will also take him to 4 Wing Cold Lake fighter base in Alberta, is also a sign that Ottawa is paying attention to its territorial premiers, said Whitney Lackenbauer, a professor at Trent University and holder of the Canada Research Chair.
At the summer Council of the Federation meeting in July, the premiers of the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut urged the federal government to look beyond the Russian invasion of Ukraine and support the resilience of northern communities.
“Smart military investments are part of the solution, but many other broader Arctic security issues actually require investments in communities and investments in infrastructure,” Lackenbauer said. “So it’s about finding that right balance between military and civilian.”
Because NATO is a political as well as a military alliance, Lackenbauer said ensuring the north is safe and healthy aligns with the group’s larger goals. These priorities should include better disaster preparedness, improved broadband and connectivity, increased access to healthcare, and better port and airfield infrastructure.
“It’s really important for the NATO Secretary General to see the Canadian North and understand that the Canadian Arctic poses very different operational challenges than the European Arctic,” Lackenbauer said.
“Our physical geography is very different, and in many ways our human geography is also different. The fact that he has the chance to meet Nunavummiut in Cambridge Bay is also a great opportunity to at least sensitize the communities to some of the priorities on the ground.
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