Russian invasion of Ukraine puts ‘more attention onto the needs of the Arctic’

Larry Audlaluk in a photo from 2019. The elder and historian was moved forcibly to Grise Fiord, Nunavut, in 1953 at age two in the name of Arctic sovereignty and says Canada should do more to exert its influence in the area, particularly by investing in its residents. (High Arctic Haulers/CBC)

A man whose life was upended in the name of Arctic sovereignty says Canada now needs to do more to keep his and other remote Arctic communities safe.

Larry Audlaluk is an elder and historian who lives in Canada’s northernmost community, Grise Fiord, Nunavut. He was moved there forcibly in 1953 at age two from northern Quebec, when the federal government decided to plant a group of Inuit in the High Arctic as a way to exert sovereignty.

Audlaluk still lives there with his family and says watching Russia — an Arctic neighbour with ambition — invade Ukraine has been “unnerving.”

“We’re not too far from the North Pole,” he told CBC Nunavut’s Qulliq morning radio show. “Within Canada, I felt rather close to the other side.”

The community of about 130 people lies just 1,500 kilometres from the North Pole, and roughly 3,400 kilometres from Ottawa.

“I felt I’m too close for comfort really.”

Two small groups of Inuit were deposited in Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay in the 1950s. They remain Canada’s two northernmost communities, lying closer to the North Pole than Ottawa. (CBC)

Audlaluk is not the only northern leader keeping a close eye on the situation as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second month.

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane said Russia’s aggressive actions should serve as a wake-up call to shore up safety and resiliency in the North.

“Now with Russia invading Ukraine, it does show that we are vulnerable,” she said. “We need to make sure that we have the structures, the infrastructure in place, the services in place so that our people can not only thrive but that we can maintain Arctic sovereignty.”

‘They’ve always had ambitions in the Arctic’

Clarence Wood is the mayor of Inuvik, a town located about 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in the N.W.T.

He says he’s not worried for the safety of people living in Inuvik right now, but he also thinks locals would be “foolish not to be worried” about Arctic sovereignty, in light of current events.

“Russia has ambitions,” he said. “They’ve always had ambitions in the Arctic, and with the expansion of their military to their Arctic regions, it puts us even closer. So, yeah, I’d say we have concerns. We have a very limited military presence. I don’t think it would take the Russians very long to go through here if they put their mind to it.”

He says there used to be a “fairly big military presence in the area” until the 1980s, when the Canadian Navy moved most of its personnel away.

Now, military planes do some exercises at the airport, but to a much lesser extent.

But Wood would like to see the Canadian military increase its presence in Inuvik again, especially while Russia is on the offensive.

“It could be a serious situation very fast,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think we’re ready for it.”

Arctic Canada rich in natural resources

Other northern N.W.T. communities are thinking through similar issues.

Erwin Elias is the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet on the shore of the Arctic Ocean and “just over 2,000 kilometres … to Russia.”

Erwin Elias, mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, says that while he isn’t worried about a direct threat to Tuktoyaktuk right now, he is mindful of the wealth of natural resources in the area and what that might mean for the future. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC )

Elias also isn’t worried about a direct threat to Tuktoyaktuk right now, but is mindful of the wealth of natural resources in the area and what that might mean for the future.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a concern right now, but there is potential because of the oil and gas that surrounds us in the Arctic here,” he said.

So Elias says “of course” this would be a good moment for the federal government to support far northern communities like his.

“Maybe this is the time for the government to come up here and look at investing in the North again,” he said.

More than military might, says premier

Cochrane and the other territorial premiers have been in discussion with the prime minister and other members of the federal government to discuss their urgent concerns.

And while Cochrane says Russia’s invasion has put “more attention onto the needs of the Arctic,” she adds that sovereignty means more than building up a military presence and defence structures in the territory. It also means building roads and ports, as well as better medical and telecommunications infrastructure.

“A lot of the things that we need in the North are things that people in the South take for granted,” she said. “We’re not asking for things that are unusual. We’re asking to be at the same standard of people in the South.”

Audaluk agrees.

A formal apology was issued to the High Arctic Exiles in 2010.

“We have been given the recognition,” Audlaluk said. “But now what’s lacking is a lot of infrastructure needs.”

For example, he’d like to see better aircraft service. Right now, the community of about 130 people is accessible only by charter flight to nearby Resolute Bay, the other High Arctic Exile community. A round-trip flight from Grise Fiord to Ottawa costs $4,500.

“I know it’s a lot of politics involved,” Audlaluk said, “but still we’re still … in my opinion, the centre of attention when it comes to the North Pole region.”

With files from Salome Awa, Meagan Deuling and Valérie Gamache

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Canada looks to reinforce Arctic sovereignty through diplomacy, military, says minister, CBC News

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

Norway: Nordic countries halt all regional cooperation with Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: A wave of war propaganda is gushing over Russian youth, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Finland and Sweden to “strengthen interaction with NATO”, Radio Sweden 

United States: U.S. Army unveils Arctic strategy as relations with Russia plunge into deep freeze, Radio Canada International

Julia Peterson, CBC News

Julia Peterson is a CBC journalist with a passion for arts journalism, science reporting, and social justice movements. Story ideas? Email julia.peterson@cbc.ca.

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