Andrea Charron: Canada and the Arctic, Part 1

Photo: Janice Lang, DRDC/RDDC – DND/MDN

Regular contributor and CDA Institute Research Fellow Andrea Charron PhD, Director of the Centre for Security, Intelligence and Defence Studies, Carleton University outlines several key and well-grounded considerations concerning Canada and the Arctic as attention swings once again to this important region of our country.



Given a new US President and an aggressive Russia what might these factors portend for Canada and the Arctic especially given geopolitical events elsewhere?  This 2 part blog, for which I am grateful to Heather Exner-Pirot, Jim Fergusson, Ted McDorman, and Joël Plouffe for their invaluable input, will first look at the relationship between the US and Canada and then Russia.

President Trump, in line with his emerging “grand” strategy, arguably wants to ensure US security by spending more on the military. This is all to the potential benefit of Canada (notwithstanding the very real concerns for what his proposed budget changes will do for social and science-based programs).   For many years, Canada had to remind the US that it was an Arctic state and had to encourage it to join the Arctic Council in 1996.  While some Canadians conclude that increased US military spending could mean more attempts to undermine Canadian control of the Canadian North, I argue this is overblown.

Military spending is needed if the binational North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is to modernize (for example, updating/replacing/reconfiguring/reimaging the aged North Warning System and reviewing northern basing requirements) and to evolve North American defence to address the new threats it is facing farther out in time and space from the homeland. Political attention to NORAD has returned; NORAD was even mentioned in the Joint Statement made by US President Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on 13 February 2017. NORAD’s sixtieth anniversary next year coupled with a new study of the evolution of North American Defense (EVONAD) by both militaries in all domains represents opportunities to reconsider what it means to defend Canada.

The most immediate need, however, is more safety and constabulary support in the North.  Both countries, for example, need more icebreakers, although the US need is more acute. The warming Arctic produces more dangerous and often hidden ice hazards that can cripple vessels.  The US Coast Guard (USCG) only operates two icebreakers, the USCGC Healy and the Polar Star which share duties in Antarctica and the Arctic.  Therefore, rumours that the USCG (under Homeland Security but also the fifth branch of the US military) may actually receive a 10 percent budget cut would be disastrous.  It is badly underfunded already risking the protection of 95,000 miles of American coastline, not to mention aid with resupply to Arctic communities and the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica.

Trump, however, is not interested in climate change as was Obama and so Canada-US relations in the Arctic will need to shift away from uniting on issues of climate change. Two options are responsible resource extraction and/or tourism.  Trump is keen to allow oil and gas exploration to proceed in Alaska. Exploration in Canada’s Arctic, however, is unlikely in the near future given a number of factors including: the government’s moratorium on new Arctic oil and gas drilling licenses; Royal Dutch Shell’s transfer of its drilling leases in Canada’s Lancaster Sound to Nature Conservancy of Canada; sluggish oil prices; Canada’s relatively fewer gas and oil deposits compared to elsewhere in the Arctic; and the Trudeau government’s pledge to protect more marine spaces.

This leaves Arctic tourism as a key area of interest convergence for Canada and the US.  The very successful, but government resource-intensive and expensive transit of the luxury cruise liner the Crystal Serenity from Anchorage, Alaska, through the Northwest Passage to Thule, Greenland and then New York last summer, is set to be repeated this summer at an average cost per passenger of over $20,000. This requires very close coordination with coastguards, customs and border personnel, and the militaries (for aerial search and rescue scenarios) of the US, Canada, and Denmark.  A military confrontation between these states is obviously not a concern.  Rather, it is the more mundane issues that demand larger government resources that require more attention.  This includes ensuring adequate navigational aids, more charting, designating a route that limits disruption to migrating marine species, enforcing the now mandatory Polar Code, and even coordinating penalties for marine pollution and dumping between the US, Canada, and Greenland/Denmark, which will help to ensure that the less professional and less adequately prepared companies aren’t encouraged to dump waste and engage in illegal activities in jurisdictions with softer penalties. Finally, there is the issue of protecting the newly found Franklin ships from poachers.  While in Canadian jurisdiction, Greenland and Alaska are common starting points for ecoadventurers. Working with the US and Greenland/Denmark to coordinate future voyages will continue to be an important point of convergence given this popular and increasingly lucrative tourist route.

So where does this leave Canada?

Neither Canada nor the US can operate self-sufficiently in the Arctic should there be a major search and rescue or fuel spill scenario from a crippled ship. The militaries need to work collaboratively via many hundreds of bilateral agreements, including the binational NORAD Agreement and with other government departments (like the US Arctic Research Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Homeland Security, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Transportation Canada, etc.). The OGDs remain the lead departments in the North American Arctic, not the militaries. Both states need to fund their Coast Guards properly and gain greater icebreaking capabilities; despite a warming climate, multi-year and pack ice remain navigational hazards that will damage military and commercial vessels requiring more icebreaking services, not less.  Canada and the US also need the help of allies and partners – in the case of the Arctic, that necessarily means Russia.

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