Collusion and Contention Over the Arctic
Trudeau Government Moves to Militarize the Arctic
Since NATO was founded 70 years ago, successive
governments have had a policy of not allowing NATO-led activity
to take place in the Canadian Arctic. Despite this, Canadian
governments have invited certain NATO countries to participate in
Canadian-led military exercises such as Operation Nanook held
annually or the controversial low-flying exercises over Labrador
and northern Quebec back in the 1980s and 90s. And, of course,
being under the U.S. dominated NORAD and NORTHCOM military
structures, Canada has been involved in numerous joint activities
of a bi-lateral nature with the U.S. in the Arctic. In addition,
over the years, Canada has participated in collective NATO
activities in Norway, the most recent being the massive "Trident
Juncture 18" exercises last Fall to which Canada contributed
Nonetheless, even though
Canada has by far the most
polar territory of all 29 NATO countries, large-scale NATO
exercises have never taken place in the Canadian
provided a window into the rationale of previous Canadian
governments by releasing a number of confidential U.S. cables in
2011. In one cable, U.S. officials related that Harper had told
NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen that Canada opposed "a NATO
role in the Arctic" and that Canada had "a good working
relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic, and a NATO
presence could backfire by exacerbating tensions."
Harper further stated that "some non-Arctic members
a NATO role in the Arctic because it would afford them influence
in an area where 'they don't belong.'" In that regard, Harper was
probably referring to "non-Arctic" European Union (EU) countries
like Germany, France and the UK which have expressed great
interest in eventually utilizing Canada's Northwest Passage as
well as gaining access to the abundant natural resources that
will open up in the Arctic as global temperatures rise and ice
The Northwest Passage winds through Canada's northern
archipelago. However, the EU countries do not recognize Canada's
claim that the sea lane lies within Canada's internal waters.
Having U.S.-led NATO activities in the Canadian Arctic would
fortify the EU's position that the Northwest Passage is situated
in international waters. As a result, Canada's claim to the
waters could become null and void.
For its part, the U.S. also does not recognize Canada's
over the Passage. NATO activity in the Canadian Arctic could
strengthen its case also. But there is also a downside for the
U.S. Currently, the U.S. militarily has Canada under its thumb
through NORAD and NORTHCOM. Inviting other European countries
into the North American Arctic through U.S.-led NATO operations,
especially competitors such as Germany, Britain and France, could
be counter-productive in the long run for U.S. interests as
Indeed, the current bi-lateral arrangement between the
and Canada is very much to the American advantage, and fits in
well with the Trump administration's preference for establishing
bi-lateral rather than multi-lateral deals with other countries.
It also fits in with the aim of consolidating a "fortress North
America" of monopolies and oligopolies.
However, while it is clear
that Canadian governments of
past, both Liberal and Conservative, have opposed or discouraged
NATO involvement in the Canadian Arctic, the Trudeau government
appears to be throwing this longstanding position overboard.
For example, in 2017, the government put forward what
termed a new National Defence policy under the title "Strong,
Secure, Engaged." This policy states that "Acknowledging rising
international interest in the Arctic, Canada must enhance its
ability to operate in the North and work closely with allies and
partners." It further proposes a "new initiative" to "conduct
joint exercises with Arctic allies and partners and support the
strengthening of situational awareness and information sharing in
the Arctic, including with NATO."
Following up on the policy,
the House of Commons
National Defence, which was chaired by Liberal MP Stephen Fuhr,
issued a report in June 2018 titled "Canada and NATO: An alliance
forged in strength and reliability."
The tone of the report and many of the witness
submissions suggests a much closer involvement with NATO in the
Arctic is on the agenda.
In its final recommendations, the House of Commons
states "that the government of Canada take a leading role within
NATO to specialize in Arctic defence and security doctrine and
capabilities, and enhance NATO's situational awareness in the
Arctic, including joint training and military exercises for NATO
members in the Canadian Arctic."
As the language suggests, the new policy could lead to
increased NATO and even U.S.-led NATO military activity in
Canada's Arctic. If so, the Trudeau government risks losing
Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, alienating
Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples who are opposed to
militarization of the region, as well as further ramping up
tensions with Russia which sees itself being encircled by NATO on
1. "List of
exercises," Wikipedia, accessed March 18, 2019.
PM and NATO S-G discuss Afghanistan, the Strategic
Concept, and the Arctic." Wikileaks, January 20, 2010.
Policy," Department of
National Defence, 2017.
reliability." Report of the Standing
Committee on National Defence. House of Commons. Canada. June
This article was published in
Volume 49 Number 12 - April 6, 2019
Collusion and Contention Over the Arctic: Trudeau Government Moves to Militarize the Arctic - Peter Ewart