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Connor Oke: Canada must do more to protect its sovereignty in the Arctic

Commentary

The science is clear: climate change is happening. As it accelerates, melting Arctic ice is giving way to vast stores of resources and newly accessible shipping routes in Canada’s North.

Russia and China are investing heavily in visions of regional dominance and, with Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last week, it’s clear that we are in a new world, with new dangers for the West.

Canada must be ready to protect the 40 percent of its national territory in the Arctic from illegal fishing, resource extraction, and unwanted shipping traffic.

But without the ability to project its sovereignty to the country’s northernmost regions, the Canadian government risks, for all practical purposes, forfeiting it there. Policymakers are only just beginning to take note.

For instance, the Royal Canadian Navy has recently sailed a new Arctic patrol ship through the Northwest Passage for the first time in almost 60 years, re-entering a region long considered a domain of the Coast Guard.

There is some other good news. This ship is one of six nimble vessels now built or planned to bolster the RCN’s ability to operate in the North. Newly acquired unmanned drones and soon-to-be-purchased fighter jets will undoubtedly find use as northern surveillance tools. And the Coast Guard also plans to add two new heavy icebreakers to its fleet.

The bad news is that an evaluation of Canada’s plans reveals several outstanding capability weaknesses that do not seem to be urgent priorities to fix.

First, Canada is only starting to look below the Arctic waters. Its existing fleet of diesel-powered submarines will need to be decommissioned between 2036 and 2042. The Department of National Defence has started a project to look at a replacement, but they do not know what shape it will take or how much it will cost.

This delay is concerning, as major Canadian military acquisition projects take 15 years to complete on average. Moreover, without submarines that can travel under Arctic ice, Canada loses much of its ability to surveil and respond to threats quickly.

Second, Canada’s main eyes in the Arctic sky are set to come offline relatively soon. The military uses the Canada Space Agency’s RADARSAT satellite system to monitor ship activity in the North and assert Canadian sovereignty. However, this system will come offline in 2026 and a replacement will not be launched until 2033.

That leaves a seven-year information gap at a time when interest in the Arctic is on the rise.

And finally, NORAD’s North Warning System, operated by a partnership between Canada and the United States, will be obsolete by 2025. This system detects Russian bombers and ICBMs that may fly over the poles, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

With estimates as high as $11 billion and the extended time it will take to design and install a replacement, conversations on modernizing the system are coming far too late.

Compare this to the investments of Canada’s Arctic competitors. Russia, for one, is building new military bases, flying planes with increased vigour, and engaging in a shipbuilding frenzy. In addition, it recently made news with a notable show of northern strength, smashing three of its nuclear submarines through the Arctic ice at the same time while fighter jets flew overhead.

China, meanwhile, is deploying icebreakers and increasing security research projects in the north. The east-Asian power has, questionably, branded itself as a “near-Arctic” state.

Let’s be clear again about what is at stake in the north. Canada will not face the same time of aggressive interference faced by Russia’s and China’s neighbours in Ukraine or Taiwan. Instead, the threat comes from unwanted, foreign-supported advances into its national waters for exploitative purposes.

As such, Canada must take care not to overmilitarize its Arctic—a northern arms race would benefit nobody. Indeed, the Arctic Council, on which both Canada and Russia sit, is founded on the principle that cooperation among nations in the northern region is key to the region’s future.

But Canada must still have the ability to readily exert its legal authority in the far north. This is particularly true as the United States, whom Canada may have otherwise been able to turn to for support, disputes Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.

Canada can start by immediately working to plug the holes in its northern presence, particularly as it relates to its ability to gather information.

Ultimately, Canada’s slowness to take its armed presence in the Arctic seriously is indicative of a more significant trend of regional neglect. Its claim to sovereignty over the far north rests on the long, historical presence of Inuit communities in the area. Yet, Canada has failed to invest in the economies and infrastructure of these communities.

Take housing as just one example. Nunavut has a housing shortage of about 3,000 units (a substantial amount for a territory of about 37,000 people). Moreover, existing units are often mouldy and run-down.

The nation has not meaningfully worked to do right by the Indigenous communities it relies on for its claims of northern sovereignty. It does not even have the room to house the servicepeople it will need to protect its northern sovereignty in the years to come.

Nor is Canada’s port infrastructure in the north sufficient to manage increased shipping traffic, search and rescue missions, or security response missions. Its primary investment—the Nanisivik Naval Station—is not yet built despite an original opening target for 2013 and a significantly scaled-back port design.

Clearly, Canada is failing to plan for the future of the Arctic from a military, economic, and infrastructure standpoint.

The nation faces a choice: will Canada continue to neglect the tools it needs to guard its national sovereignty in the north, or will it finally take its status as a major Arctic nation seriously? Climate change is already upon us. Canada’s rivals realize it.

Let’s hope the Great White North realizes it too.

Sean Speer: The brave resistance of ordinary Ukrainians should rouse the privileged West

Commentary

At a dinner event marking the thirtieth anniversary of National Review on January 1, 1986, the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., told the story of how he ultimately persuaded Whittaker Chambers, the communist-spy-turned-conservative-intellectual, to join the fledgling enterprise.

Chambers, who was known for his dark, obtruding pessimism, was initially unmoved by Buckley’s case for a journal of ideas dedicated to the defence of democracy, capitalism, and the virtues of a free society. He was convinced that the West was already doomed in its ideological struggle against communism and so any effort to save it was necessarily doomed to failure as well.

Yet as Buckley recounted in his remarks:

“…that night, challenged by his pessimism, I said to him that if it were so that Providence had rung up our license on liberty, stamping it as expired, the Republic deserved a journal that would argue the historical and moral case that we ought to have survived: that, weighing the alternative, the culture of liberty deserves to survive. So that even if the worst were to happen, the journal in which I hoped he would collaborate might serve, so to speak, as the diaries of Anne Frank had served, as absolute, dispositive proof that she should have survived, in place of her tormentors — who ultimately perished. In due course that argument prevailed, and Chambers joined the staff.”

I’ve thought about this story in recent days as we’ve witnessed the powerful images and videos of Ukrainian politicians and ordinary citizens expressing brave defiance in the face of Russian aggression.

Think of the reports for instance from the Associated Press that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected calls from the American government to evacuate Kyiv and instead is now helping to lead the defence of his country’s capital city.

Or the CNN interview with Zelenskyy’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko who when asked how long Ukrainians would resist Russia’s occupation, answered in one word: forever.

Or the New York Times’ front-line interviews with ordinary Ukrainians who have taken up arms “to fight the Russian invaders” in defence of “everything [they] love.”

Or a story released by the Ukraine military of a young soldier named Yitaliy Volodymyrovych Skakun who courageously blew himself up on a bridge to stop Russian soldiers trying to advance.

Or the viral video of the old Ukraine woman who sought to give a Russian soldier sunflower seeds so that sunflowers (which are the country’s national flower) “will grow when you all lie down here.”

These extraordinary images and videos stand, as Buckley put it, as dispositive proof of the Ukrainians’ courage, grace, and strength in the face of an existential threat. No matter the outcome of Russia’s belligerence, they will provide posterity with overwhelming evidence that Ukrainian independence and self-determination ought to have survived in place of the country’s jackboot tormentors.

In the more immediate term, one gets the sense that these images and videos are having a profound effect on Western populations. A combination of factors – including war fatigue after the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the slow-moving nature of Russia’s aggression, and our own decadence – had contributed to a tragic disconnect between the threat facing Ukraine and the West’s attention and investment. We failed the Ukrainians through a policy of self-absorbed neglect.

Yet the ubiquity of modern media means that we cannot hide from the consequences of such neglect. In a world of 24-hour news cycles and the pervasiveness of amateur journalism, it’s impossible to look away. We have no choice but to reckon with our collective choices.

Canadian public intellectual Marshall McLuhan understood better than anyone and certainly sooner than anyone the power of television and images in shaping our common cultural reference points including with respect to geopolitics and war. As he famously said of the Vietnam War: “Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.”

The opposite may be true in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s hard to think that anyone could observe what we’ve seen in recent days – including images of Russian tanks and troops rolling into Ukraine, the brave resistance of ordinary Ukrainians, or even the extraordinary courage of Russians protesting in Saint Petersburg and Moscow – and not be moved. They’re something like a modern equivalent of Buckley’s persuasive case to Chambers.

On a personal note, I confess that that these images and videos have certainly influenced me. My initial response to Russia’s invasion wasn’t necessarily neo-isolationist but it was circumscribed due in large part to the formative experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while I haven’t “gone full neocon,” I admit to having had a visceral reaction to the stories of extraordinary bravery and courage and the devastating images of kids.

We cannot let our hearts overtake our heads. These are complicated questions that have major geopolitical implications including for the great power competition with China. A forthcoming episode of our Hub Dialogues podcast with U.S. foreign policy expert Elbridge Colby will place our options vis-à-vis the Russia-Ukraine conflict in this broader context.

Yet even if we cannot afford to lose our heads in such a moment, we can still draw on Buckley’s powerful exculpation to Chambers. The culture of liberty deserves to survive and those of us who are marked by real privilege have some responsibility to protect, sustain, and strengthen it. If we fail to do so, posterity will rightly condemn us.