CAMBRIDGE BAY, Nunavut –
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in this remote northern community on Thursday to witness Canada’s largest Arctic training exercise, in what many see as a clear signal that the defense of Canada’s North is now a top priority for his government.
Landing under sunny skies in the early afternoon and accompanied by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trudeau headed to a military radar station before departing for Operation Nanook.
The visit marks the first time Trudeau has witnessed Operation Nanook, which has taken place annually since 2007 and involves military aircraft and warships as well as hundreds of Armed Forces members training in the austere environment. arctic of Canada.
The exercise was a staple of Stephen Harper’s traditional visits to the Arctic when he was Prime Minister, during which the Conservative government launched numerous initiatives aimed at strengthening Canada’s military capabilities in the region.
Trudeau broke that tradition in August 2016 after taking office as prime minister the previous fall, opting instead to visit China as his government began shifting Ottawa’s priorities in the Arctic from military concerns to concerns non-military.
“We’ve seen a lot of investment in societal and environmental security, you might say,” said Trent University professor Whitney Lackenbauer, one of Canada’s leading experts on Arctic security.
The Liberals’ focus on climate change and Indigenous relations in the Arctic coincided with the belief of many countries that any disputes between various Arctic countries could be settled through diplomacy and cooperation.
Some Canadian and U.S. military officials had warned against complacency as tensions between China, Russia and the West grew and rapidly rising temperatures made the Arctic more accessible to shipping and mining. resources.
But Russia’s attack on Ukraine ultimately upended those assumptions and forced the Liberal government to recognize the importance of defending the Arctic, said University of Victoria assistant professor Will Greaves.
“This really constructive and positive vision of a non-confrontational and cooperative Arctic is a casualty of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said Greaves, who is also coordinator of the North American and Arctic Defense and security.
“We will now move forward for an indefinite period in a new Arctic context which is almost structurally, much more conflictual, and will have a greater possibility or potentiality of armed conflict.”
Trudeau’s decision to participate in Operation Nanook with Stoltenberg is seen not just as the latest sign that Arctic security is back on Canada’s agenda, but as an important one.
“I think this sends a clear signal not only to Canadians, but also to our allies, that we take Arctic defense and security seriously,” Lackenbauer said. “And that we are prepared to shoulder our share of the burden of collective defense in the Arctic and elsewhere.”
Other indications that the government’s focus is changing include a long-awaited pledge to invest billions with the United States to modernize North America’s early warning system.
Some experts also pointed out that the Commander of the Canadian Armed Forces, General Wayne Eyre, recently hosted counterparts from five other Arctic countries in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the first such meeting since a previous group that included Russia was unofficially suspended in 2014.
The issue of burden sharing is tricky for Canada, which has historically been among the laggards among NATO alliance members when it comes to Γüá defense spending – an issue that Stoltenberg will no doubt raise during his visit with Trudeau.
Details regarding the government’s promise to upgrade the North American Aerospace Defense Command with the United States are also scarce, with uncertainty over when work on the shared defensive system will begin in earnest and what will be the results.
This is despite concerns about the state of the current system, including a series of radar installations dating back to the 1980s in Canada’s far north that are too old to properly detect an impending Russian attack.
There are other needs, said Elinor Sloan, a North American defense and security expert at Carleton University, including modern submarines to monitor and protect Canada’s Arctic sea lanes, new maritime surveillance aircraft and icebreakers.
The Liberals have begun to fill many of these gaps, while quietly continuing most of the initiatives started by the Harper Tories, but Sloan said it will be years before many become reality due to the procurement system. from Canada.
She and others nonetheless expressed confidence that Arctic security will remain a top priority for the government – if only for the reason that it is now a top priority for its closest allies.
“Its allies and friends in NATO are increasingly interested in the policies they are developing and, in some cases, operating in the Arctic,” Sloan said. “What is Canada doing if it’s not up there? So it’s not just pressure from opponents, it’s also pressure from allies.”
While Nanook has often focused on specific scenarios, such as responding to a plane crash or an emergency at sea, military spokesman Captain Jason Rheubottom said this year’s focus was different.
“The mission of this iteration has a broader scope: to project and sustain forces along Canada’s Northwest Passage to demonstrate CAF presence and commitment to the region, and to improve awareness of all CAF domains in the Arctic. »
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 25, 2022.
— With files from Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa