Canada needs a ‘more consistent’ presence in North to bolster security, Inuit leader says

A Canadian Armed Forces member is pictured on a reconnaissance flight during a training exercise at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, in March. (Corporal Angela Gore/Canadian Armed Forces)

A prominent Inuvialuit leader said Canada must build up a more consistent presence in the Arctic if the country is going to protect its sovereignty in the region.

Duane Smith, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation — which represents the interests of Inuit in the western Arctic — said the region is the “backdoor into Canada” and his community has been on the “front lines” of Canadian sovereignty.

In an interview with CBC’s The House that aired Saturday, Smith said he had told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that communities in his region were seeing increased presence of research vessels from other countries. He also highlighted instances in which it was Indigenous communities that alerted the government to the presence of foreigners.

“A lot of Canadians might say, ‘that place is so far and or more remote, what’s the purpose of having security and sovereignty in such an area?'” Smith told The House host Chris Hall.

The answer, he said, was honouring the modern treaty and the protection of a substantial part of Canadian territory and its resources.

“So, that’s why I suggest that there needs to be some kind of more consistent longer-term strategy of the federal government in regards to having a presence visibly and conducting more consistent activities and committing infrastructure to the region — to show that this is Canada.”

Co-operation boosts security, feds argue

The Arctic has become a growing focus for countries like Russia and China, which have invested in northern military bases and assets like icebreakers.

The federal government, meanwhile, says it is committed to ensuring its sovereignty in Canada’s Arctic through investments in new patrol vessels and modernizing North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).

Ottawa committed an initial $252 million to modernizing NORAD in 2021, while its devoted around $6 billion in this year’s budget to defence priorities, which include continental defence.

But the government has not detailed the specific breakdown of how those billions will be spent, with the announcement slated to come “this spring,” according to a statement from Defence Minister Anita Anand’s office.

The federal government has also made a shift in traditional Canadian northern defence thinking, which has previously focused on military infrastructure and training exercises. Trudeau, meanwhile, has framed close co-operation with and investment in northern Indigenous communities as key to security in the region.

“What this policy, and quite frankly, the relationship that we’ve built over the past number of years in the Crown-Inuit partnership [shows] is [that] sovereignty in the North passes through the people who live there and who have lived there for millennia,” Trudeau said last month.

Russian paratroopers are pictured during a high Arctic military exercise in April 2020. (Russian Defence Ministry)

Conservatives have accused the federal government of not going far enough in committing resources to securing the North.

“Our Arctic sovereignty and security cannot be protected by more Liberal empty promises,” Conservative critic Bob Zimmer said in the House of Commons this week.

Smith said his community was interested in working with the government on things like housing but also on additional infrastructure projects, such as the Inuvik airstrip expansion — a Department of National Defence project.

Smith said that costs for the Inuvik airstrip expansion were expected to go up because of things like the cost of fuel.

“But that should not be a reason to continuously delay a project that is significantly important to Canada’s security and sovereignty,” he said.

As far as a more robust military presence in the region, Smith said he was not opposed to that more traditional approach.

“We even have suggested that a small military base would still be of benefit from an optics perspective,” Smith said. It might not be economical to keep a large force in the region, he said, but it would send a message about Canada’s commitment.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Will Canada’s federal budget deliver for NORAD?, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: US military refuelling plane flies over Finland day after NATO announcement, The Independent Barents Observer

Norway: Defence minister says Norway must get stronger in the North, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Arctic Council chairman warns against Nordic NATO expansion, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Seeking NATO membership is historic shift for Sweden, says PM, says expert, Radio Sweden

United States: U.S. Army poised to revamp Alaska forces to prep for Arctic fight, The Associated Press

Christian Paas-Lang, CBC Radio

Christian Paas-Lang is an Associate Producer with The House and digital writer with CBC Politics.

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