Russia’s assault on Ukraine: MLA in Canada’s Northwest Territories asks for assurances about Arctic security

‘I recognize that the GNWT does not manage Canada’s Arctic border security or the national defence, but the GNWT does have a responsibility to liaise with the federal government and convey information to the public,’ said Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler on Thursday. (CBC)

Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA says Russia has long expressed interest in Arctic waters

As Russia intensifies its assault on Ukraine, the MLA for one of the Northwest Territories’ northernmost ridings wants to know what’s being done to safeguard Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

“We all know we share Arctic waters with Russia. They are our circumpolar neighbours,” Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler said in the Legislature on Thursday. “I recognise that the [Government of the Northwest Territories] does not manage Canada’s Arctic border security or the national defence, but the GNWT does have a responsibility to liaise with the federal government and convey information to the public.”

Premier Caroline Cochrane assured the Legislative Assembly that Ottawa says “there’s no clear threat” from Russia.

At the same time, she said, territorial governments are “watching closely” and “working closely with the federal government to make sure that we protect our Arctic.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the specter of a foreign intrusion into Canada’s far North. While elected officials like Yukon MP Brendan Hanley say they don’t see an immediate threat to Northern security, some experts warn that Canada hasn’t put enough emphasis on its Arctic sovereignty.

Premier Caroline Cochrane said territorial premiers recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for a meeting to discuss Arctic security. (CBC)

‘Russia has always pushed that limit’

On Thursday, Semmler said “recently, news articles have shown Russian interest in Canadian jurisdiction,” but didn’t specify her sources.

When CBC later asked her to elaborate, Semmler said the word “recently,” was added in error, and that sometimes it’s difficult to make statements clearly in the short window MLAs have to speak in the House.

She said what she was trying to say is that Russia has long expressed interest in Arctic waters. She pointed to a 2007 CBC story about a Russian submarine that dropped a flag to the ocean floor near the North Pole.

“There’s always that fight. How far is our jurisdiction into those Arctic waters,” she said, and how far is Russia’s?

“Russia has always pushed that limit.”

“Are we in imminent danger right now? No. But what do we have in place?” she continued.

“If we’re putting all this pressure and sanctions on [Russia], we don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Northern premiers asked for meeting with PM

In the Legislature, Semmler said Inuvik has the most northern military base in the Northwest Territories. She asked if the premier expects an increased military presence in the N.W.T., especially around the coast near Inuvik.

Cochrane didn’t directly answer the question, but said Arctic waters are opening up and that “we’re watching it.”

“Canada does acknowledge that the Arctic is becoming an international interest,” she said.  

Cochrane said territorial premiers have concerns related to Arctic security, and recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for a meeting.

“We’ve also requested that Arctic sovereignty be included in our next Council of Federation meeting, which happens this summer,” she said.

“It needs to be a priority for all jurisdictions across Canada.”

Cochrane reminded the House that the federal government is in charge of national defence.

The N.W.T., she said, participates in the Arctic Security Working Group, in which federal and territorial governments and agencies, academics, the private sector and non-governmental organizations share information in an effort to strengthen Canadian Arctic security.

Cochrane also urged people to refrain from villainizing Russian citizens for the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The civilians of Russia are not the threat, so people need to realize that,” said Cochrane.

“Many Russian people are also not liking what’s going on in the Ukraine, so don’t blame all people.”

The Yellowknife Airport. A plane carrying Russian passengers en route to the High Arctic was grounded there on Tuesday, March 1, according to N.W.T. Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie. (Jennifer Geens/CBC)

Grounded plane update

Also on Thursday, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson asked for an update on the chartered airplane carrying Russian nationals that was grounded this week at Yellowknife’s airport.

Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie said the plane is registered to a company in Austria, and that the flight departed from Geneva, Switzerland.

“Until the Canadian Border Service met the plane here in Yellowknife and determined that the passengers were Russian nationals, there were no flags raised,” she said.

When asked about the current status of the aircraft and its passengers, Archie said the federal government is holding the plane while it carries out its investigation.

As for the people who were on board, “Canada continues to gather the facts required to be able to make a determination on the next steps,” she said.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Russian representatives slated to talk Arctic Council at Toronto conference off program, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Finland’s NATO membership decision needs more time, says PM, Yle News

Norway:  Norwegian Oil and Gas Association kicks out Russian members, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia’s Arctic LNG project might come to halt, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedish customs hand inspecting goods destined for Russia amidst sanctions, Radio Sweden 

Sidney Cohen, CBC News

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