Are We Losing the North? Canadian Arctic Security and Sovereignty
Note: This Article is the opinion of the Author only, and not the opinion of any group or media outlet

Due to its increasing accessibility resulting from climate change, the Arctic may become a contested and militarized arena where states within the region and beyond attempt to secure access to lucrative shipping routes and resources. Such an eventuality poses particular challenges to Canada, raising the spectre that Canadian sovereignty in the North could be irrevocably compromised. Canada’s legal title to its Arctic territories is well established, however given the increased interest and anticipated activity in the Arctic, Canada will need to increase its presence in the region. Along with an enhanced presence, it is also imperative that Canada has the ability to survey, and be aware, of what transpires on, underneath and above its Arctic domain.

Over the years, the United States has questioned Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage. This was illustrated by the voyage of Polar Sea, a US Coast Guard icebreaker, that transited the Northwest Passage in 1985. The United States made a point of not requesting permission from Canada to transit these waters, thus upholding the American position that the passage constituted an International Strait.

But it is not the United States that is the biggest concern for Canada in the Arctic. Russia occupies over 50 per cent of the land-mass bordering on the Arctic Ocean and it regards that part of its territory as having a special strategic importance. Despite the interests that should be shared by Canada and Russia, which together occupy more than four-fifths of the Arctic land mass, it has taken a long time to work out mutually acceptable arrangements. However Russian actions in the Ukraine, and its increased capability and activity in the Arctic have been read as a sign of aggressive and threatening behaviour in a conflictual geopolitical situation.

Some Canadians have growing concern about the security of Canada’s Arctic territories that are being affected by aggressive new Russian developments. Recent Russian submarine fleet excursions into both the Arctic and North Atlantic, and increased Russian activities in the air and at sea, have given the NATO alliance concern about the security of the region. NATO aspires to have control of the North Atlantic and Arctic by establishing a new Joint Force Command with Canada as a major player in this organization.

The flurry of recent Russian military projects in the Arctic, including icebreaker construction and the re-activation of air and army bases on their northern islands are, in part, aimed at establishing unquestioned control of the Northern Sea Route, and perhaps indicating the Russian belief that the Arctic Archipelago waters constitute an international strait. This is not to suggest that developing a war-fighting capacity in the Arctic is an objective of Russia. However, domestic political calculations and constabulary requirements have heavily shaped the makeup and operational nature of military developments thus far in the region. Some military developments in the Arctic, furthermore, are based on larger, extra-regional factors. Modernization of the Russian Northern Fleet, for instance, is designed to upgrade their nuclear submarine deterrent and for global operations. Similarly, the US ground-based interceptors in Alaska are meant to counter a missile attack from a rogue state, specifically North Korea.

While sea ice has historically prevented a naval surface threat to the Canadian Arctic, new technologies are causing a subsurface threat posed by Russian submarines to develop rapidly. One-half of the Russian submarine fleet is based in Murmansk, and Russian submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) are now deployed in Russia’s Arctic basin, where they enjoy a large measure of immunity from any measurable Canadian response to counter this looming threat. In dealing with this rising submarine threat, if Canada wanted action taken against intruders for any reason, it would have to call on US submarines.

The waters of the Canadian Arctic now offer a free transit route for Russian submarines to pass from the Arctic Ocean into the Atlantic Ocean and channels where they could intercept Allied submarines. Canada still lacks the capability to properly monitor the vast subsurface area of the Arctic. Canada must be able to determine what is happening under the ice in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and to deter hostile or potentially hostile intrusions. TheVictoria class submarines Canada possesses just do not have the under-ice endurance to accomplish this task. It is time for Canada to consider more capable submarines, that can safely travel under the ice in the Arctic. Nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) are uniquely capable anti-submarine platforms, well-suited to do exactly that. Through their mere presence, nuclear-powered submarine can deny an opponent the use of sea areas. They are the only proven vehicle today or for the foreseeable future, capable of sustained operation under the ice, and would complement aerial reconnaissance, the Arctic Off-shore Patrol Ships (AOPS) and Canadian Surface Combatants (CSC) frigates in a vivid demonstration of Canadian determination to meet challenges in all three of its oceans.

The capacity to defend Canada’s sovereignty should be at the heart of the government’s efforts to rebuild the Canadian Forces, and reinvest in military capabilities with a strong stance on sovereignty and send a clear message to the world: Canada is back as a credible player on the international stage. Defending sovereignty in the North also demands that Canada has the capacity to act. The new AOPS, CSC frigates along with an expanded aerial/satellite surveillance will help guard Canada’s Far North and the Northwest Passage. As well, the size and capabilities of the Arctic Rangers must be expanded to better patrol the vast Arctic territory.

In Canada’s 2017 new defence policy – Strong, Secure, Engaged – the government placed focus on Arctic sovereignty. In order to address some of the issues arising in the North, the policy stresses coordinating information from drones, submarines, local people and satellites, in order to get the fullest possible picture of the area. To this end, the policy plans to expand training for the Canadian Rangers to improve their ability to support the Canadian Armed Forces. Canada’s Defence Minister, Harjit S. Sajjan has said that “As an Arctic nation, Canada’s presence and ability to operate in the North is key to meeting current and future security and defence needs. Through our defence policy we are ensuring Canadian Armed Forces members have the facilities they need to effectively work and train as they serve alongside our most remote communities well into the future.” (DND News Release-Defence Minister wraps-up trip to Canada’s Arctic, August 16 2018)

However, the Russia-related alarms raised by officials, analysts, and Parliamentarians through the Senate and House of Commons reports have not been carried over into the government’s new defence policy. Strong, Secure, Engaged notes a NATO concern that Russia is once again expanding its capacity to project force from the Arctic into the North Atlantic. The statement does not treat Russia as benign. It points to the “illegal annexation of Crimea,” notes Russia’s “willingness to test the international security environment,” and acknowledges the return of “a degree of major power competition… to the international system” (The Simons Foundation, Arctic Security and The Canadian Defence Policy Statement, Pg 3, 31 August 2017). But concern about Russia’s actions in the North has not made a significant appearance in the policy.


The Arctic is increasingly significant to the long-term interests of all Canadians: economic, political, social, and environmental. This huge part of Canadian territory is no longer out of the limelight in the way it was decades ago. As a result, Canadians are having to reconsider the possible effects of foreign missile attacks on this country, with renewed attention to proposals for counter-measures in the form of new defensive systems and vehicles for Canadian territories, and generally re-think strategic developments in the Arctic. The increasing strategic importance of the North, and the need for Canada to exercise effective control over its Arctic lands, air space and waters will result in a greater military presence in that area. This will mean increased security for all Canadians and substantial economic benefits for Northerners.

In order to enhance the sovereignty and security of our Arctic Archipelago, Canada must step up to the plate, and produce a more cohesive Arctic Defence Policy with a much greater Canadian presence by establishing these four overarching objectives:

• Enhance the security and prosperity of northern Canadians, especially Aboriginal peoples;

• Assert and ensure the preservation of Canada’s security and sovereignty in the Arctic region by substantially increasing surface, sub-surface and aerial presence in the Arctic Region with the procurement of a credible modern submarine fleet (either non-nuclear-powered ice-capable submarines, or nuclear-powered submarines), better aerial surveillance (including the procurement of High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones), better satellite surveillance and a strategic sealift capability;

• Establish the Circumpolar region as a vibrant geopolitical entity integrated into a rules-based international system; and

• Promote the human security of northerners and the sustainable development of the Arctic.

There is no denying current Defence Department fiscal constraints, but there is also no denying that Canada’s current submarine capability does not allow Canada to protect its sovereignty under the sea in the North. Russia will continue to utilize the Arctic Ocean for its purposes, as will the United States – and now China is working to become a player in the Arctic. Now is the time to begin the process of replacing the Victoria-class with a modern, credible, nuclear or non-nuclear powered submarine that is capable of operating under ice in the Arctic Ocean. However, to accomplish this under current fiscal constraints, would be difficult at best. The Victoria-class fleet will have to be utilized for several years longer, past 2030 – well beyond their shelf-life – before modern submarines can be secured, unless there is an increase in defence spending very soon.

The Arctic is fundamental to Canada’s national identity. Canada must exercise its sovereignty over the North, and well as the rest of Canada. In order to be able to deal effectively with emerging challenges, it is important that Canada has in place the capabilities to operate in the Arctic, and an integrated Arctic strategy with a clear decision structure that includes the participation of relevant stakeholders, especially those who have long inhabited the region.
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