Arctic features prominently in mandate letter to Canadian defence minister

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks during an announcement of the purchase of 350 new Light Armoured Vehicles for the Canadian Forces at General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada in London, Ontario, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)
Beefing up Canada’s surveillance, defence and rapid-response capabilities in the Arctic are among the top priorities outlined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the marching orders handed to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan on Friday.

Sajjan’s mandate letter – a set of priorities outlined by the prime minister for each of his cabinet ministers – also instructs Sajjan to work with the U.S. to modernize the binational North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), sign a contract to acquire a fleet of new fighter jets, and revitalize the Royal Canadian Navy.

The mandate letter calls on Sajjan to work in concert with the foreign affairs minister and the northern affairs minister “to strengthen continental defence, protect Canada’s rights and sovereignty and demonstrate international leadership with respect to the navigation of Arctic waters.”

Adam MacDonald, deputy director at the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the mention of “international leadership” in the mandate letter indicates that the Liberal government is interested in more than just building capabilities but also shaping the institutional environment, in maintaining regional “rules-based” order.

Arctic’s geopolitical importance

Just like in the recently released Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, the mandate letter does not overtly mention specific actors, threats, and challenges but points to a growing concern about the region’s geopolitical importance, MacDonald said.

“I think where the word ‘international’ within this statement is important,” MacDonald said.

Canada wants to be involved in formulating maritime rules and regulations in the region but this does not involve change in Ottawa’s position with regard to its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, MacDonald added.

“It would be a reasonable continuation of past attempts at internationalizing Canada’s legally-based strategy on the issue,” said Timothy Choi, a maritime strategy expert at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies. “Good to see it’s not just the material elements at play.”

The mandate letter also calls on Sajjan to work with the minister of public services and procurement “to bring forward analyses and options for the creation of Defence Procurement Canada,” a dedicated defence procurement agency to streamline National Defence and Canadian Coast Guard procurement projects, something that successive governments have tried but failed to do.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian PM stresses relationship with Indigenous peoples in mandate letters to new government ministers, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Political earthquake shakes up Northern Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Moscow’s new energy doctrine warns against green shift, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Local councils more interested in climate change preparedness, Radio Sweden

United States: Why are the US lagging behind in the Arctic? Clues emerge at Washington hearing, Alaska Public Media

Levon Sevunts

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

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