Canada's increasingly worried about Arctic vulnerabilities

melting. If we’re going to be serious players in the Arctic, we’ve got to get out of this minor-league mentality. Climate change isn’t going to reverse itself. The Russians aren’t just playing around, and the American oil companies wouldn’t be spending all that money if they didn’t think that this was the place to do business.”

Twice, the Canadian government has tried to allay public concern about the country’s ability to protect its Arctic sovereignty by proposing to build nuclear-powered icebreakers. Both times, it backed out because of the high costs, and because public interest in the issue waned. Now Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proposing to construct five to eight Arctic naval patrol vessels, refurbish a seaport at Nanisivik in the Northwest Passage, and set up a military training base at Resolute.Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, applauds the idea of the port and training center. As is the case with many others, however, he is critical of the plan to spend $3.1 billion on navy patrol boats that have only a very limited capability for traveling through the ice-infested waters of the Arctic. The Canadian government would be wiser, he says, to use that money to build two world-class icebreakers for the Coast Guard. “Unlike the five to eight ice-strengthened patrol ships, these ships “could go anywhere, anytime,” says Byers. “We’re not going to get into a gunfight if the Russians sail into our waters. What we need in the North is a civilian force like the Coast Guard, which did very well in August working with the RCMP to intercept those Norwegian cowboys who tried to sail through the Passage with two people undercover.” Unlike the Navy, which has almost no experience in the Arctic, the Coast Guard has a long history in the North. Huebert is all for reinvesting in the Coast Guard but says there will be more than enough work for both Navy patrol boats and Coast Guard icebreakers in the future. “Climate change, rising resource prices, international politics and the development of new technologies are making it easier and more attractive to exploit the Arctic. Samsung Industries of South Korea is currently building several 120,000-ton vessels that are designed to carry oil and gas from the Russian Arctic. There’s no reason to think that other countries couldn’t build or use these ships to carry oil and gas from northern Canada and Alaska.”

Which brings us back to the now-retired Leblanc. He agrees that having both Coast Guard icebreakers and Navy patrol ships would be ideal. If cost becomes an issue, as he suspects it might, he believes the resources should go to a Coast Guard Service that not only has powerful new icebreakers but also the firepower to enforce a new mandate that includes sovereignty and security. He says Canada also needs an Arctic undersea surveillance system that can detect submarines. Leblanc warns that the Canadian government no longer has the luxury of time to sit back and consider its options. “Consider the latest report which shows that ice coverage in the Arctic this summer is now at the lowest point in recent history. The possibility of an oil spill or a terrorist or a drug smuggler exploiting our back door is no longer theoretical. It is a real threat. Canada needs to be prepared.”