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Putin’s illegal and immoral attack on the sovereign nation of Ukraine has led to condemnation and outrage from Canadians. Despite a lack of direct military action from the West, what this war has laid bare is that Canada needs to take seriously the risks and vulnerabilities of our North and Canada’s inadequate military preparedness.
While any credible case for the protection of sovereignty in the North includes both hard and soft power, two things have become clear: Canada needs military power; and we do not have the capacity to defend our interests in the North.
It is a truism that Canada relies inordinately on the United States for protection. While this served us well enough throughout the 20th century, the Trump presidency made it clear that this level of support cannot be taken for granted.
It is hardly a leap to wonder if the indiscriminate aggression that Putin has shown in Ukraine could find its way into the Arctic. Russia has long made grandiose claims in the Arctic and has often tested the limits of Canada’s air and marine responses. Considering what is happening in Ukraine, the planting of the Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole years ago now seems much more foreboding. In addition to investments in the people, civilian infrastructure, and scientific research, Canada must also make investments in the military power necessary to protect the North. We cannot continue to assume that Americans will do this for us.
Secondly, Canada must begin short and longer-term improvements to our military presence in the North. In the same way that bases like Gagetown and Esquimalt are hubs of military and economic activity in their respective regions, similar bases are needed across the North. Joint Task Force North in Yellowknife is undersized, and Yukon’s lone base is laughably derelict.
A fully built-out northern Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) base is needed. Infrastructure conditions, logistics and access to the Arctic Ocean via the Dempster Highway make Yukon the most logical location. A northern base would serve as a vital training centre for the CAF, ensuring that we are always prepared to defend our exposed northern lands.
In the offshore, Canada needs to cut the Gordian knot of military procurement and speed up the construction of the Canadian Coast Guard’s heavy icebreakers. The Harper government announced that the first Polar Class 2 vessel, the CCSG John G. Diefenbaker, in 2008. But as the years have dragged on and the vessel’s construction has been further delayed, excitement has been replaced with frustration and resignation.
As international attention focuses on the Northwest Passage, Canada’s diminished icebreaking capability and overall naval capacity in the Arctic is as embarrassing as it is dangerous. The fact remains that there is no deep-water port anywhere near the western entrance of the Northwest Passage, despite the growing importance of Arctic navigation
As the Nanisivik Naval Port nears completion in the east, it is time for Canada to begin planning for a complementary port in the west. The only feasible location for a deep-water port at the western end of the Northwest Passage is at King Point on the Yukon’s North Slope. The location is consistent with the Inuvialuit Final Agreement and should present a tremendous opportunity for the Inuvialuit people. This is clearly a longer-term investment, but Canada should initiate discussions immediately with the Inuvialuit to begin planning so that a potential port could be constructed and operated in a way that creates benefits and true engagement with the people who live there.
Finally, a modernized North Warning System that is designed to deal with the threat posed by current missile technology is needed. The current array of sites, including those in Yukon, need to be replaced or upgraded.
While Ukraine seems far away, Canadians cannot forget that Russia is our neighbour as well. Putin may become aggressive in the Arctic as he has shown himself to be everywhere else. Canada has relied on soft power for generations, including in the North, but we desperately need to renew our attention to hard power and to provide an appropriate level of military support for the Canadian North.
Leader of the Yukon Party Official Opposition
(This letter first appeared on the Ottawa Citizen website on April 5, 2022. You can also read it here.)