Collusion and Contention Over the Arctic

Trudeau Government Moves to Militarize the Arctic

Since NATO was founded 70 years ago, successive Canadian 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 2,000 personnel.

Nonetheless, even though Canada has by far the most extensive polar territory of all 29 NATO countries, large-scale NATO exercises have never taken place in the Canadian Arctic.[1] Wikileaks 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."[2]

Harper further stated that "some non-Arctic members favoured 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 recedes.

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 claim 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 well.

Indeed, the current bi-lateral arrangement between the U.S. 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 the 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 it 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."[3]

Following up on the policy, the House of Commons Committee on 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."[4] 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 Committee 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 various fronts.


1. "List of NATO exercises," Wikipedia, accessed March 18, 2019.

2. "Canada PM and NATO S-G discuss Afghanistan, the Strategic Concept, and the Arctic." Wikileaks, January 20, 2010.

3. "Strong, Secure, Engaged: Canada's Defence Policy," Department of National Defence, 2017.

4. "Canada and NATO: An alliance forged in strength and reliability." Report of the Standing Committee on National Defence. House of Commons. Canada. June 2018.

This article was published in

Volume 49 Number 12 - April 6, 2019

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Collusion and Contention Over the Arctic: Trudeau Government Moves to Militarize the Arctic - Peter Ewart


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