Upgrading Basic Arctic Infrastructure and Protecting Canada’s Sovereignty

Canada needs collaboration, strategic investment, learning from past mistakes, says former Iqaluit mayor 
March 17, 2021 Updated: March 19, 2021

Canada is facing greater security threats as interest in the Arctic grows and shipping routes open up. The situation is prompting Canada’s Arctic stakeholders to renew calls for significant infrastructure investments that they say would also go a long way toward protecting the country’s sovereignty in the region.

“We can much better improve the quality of civilian infrastructure and provide options for our military to look at additional strategic asset development in communities throughout the region,” said Ryan Brain, president & CEO of WSP Canada. “[It’s] a great thing to do for our economy, our environment, and our national security.” 

Speaking on March 12 at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute’s three-day Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence, Brain discussed the lack of basic infrastructure in Nunavut, which makes up more than 20 percent of Canada’s land mass but has no highways or rail lines. 

Canada needs to develop its own Arctic strategy, as other nations have already done, said Madeleine Redfern, former mayor of Iqaluit and co-CEO of Toronto-based CanArctic Inuit Networks.

“We need to actually step up and develop our own R&D strategy and ensure that we actually guide these investments so that they are where they need to be made for our northerners’ benefits, for the country’s benefit, and for our allies,” Redfern said at the conference, which covered the Arctic among other topics including space, the Indo-Pacific, artificial intelligence, Norad, and NATO.

Brain noted that Nunavut only has one airport, with a runway half the length of a runway in major Canadian cities, and entirely depends on diesel fuel being brought in to power its communities. 

This dire situation does not include infrastructure deficits in the Yukon or the Northwest Territories.

“A new look at the Arctic, and the investment required to secure this vast region of Canada, will be critical going forward,” deputy minister of defence Jody Thomas said at the conference on March 10.

She alluded to the February bilateral meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau where they agreed to cooperate on defending the Arctic and modernizing Norad. 

The feds’ long-term infrastructure plan has $2 billion earmarked over 10 years for rural and northern communities. This is one of five investment streams under the Investing in Canada plan announced by the Trudeau government in 2016, a 12-year plan that provides over $180 billion of funding in total.

Internet service in Nunavut currently runs entirely via satellite, which is slower and less reliable than fibre-optic technology. Thus Redfern is particularly eager about her company’s $107 million project to build a 2,000 km fibre-optic network that will bring faster, more reliable internet to Iqaluit and surrounding communities by 2022.

Getting Investment Right

Canada may miss out on strategic investments without its own Arctic strategy, and it also needs to be aware of foreign investments compromising regional and national security, Redfern said.

She said an Arctic investment strategy demands collaboration from the military, civilian businesses, and all three levels of government.

“We need to actually sit down together … to deal with bad infrastructure, and who can we attract from within our own private sector to invest, or from our allies that share the same … outcomes in the end, benefits,” she added.

For example, the danger with Chinese state-owned investments in the Arctic is that they would effectively control the economy of a big part of a sub-region, said Arctic expert Adam Lajeunesse in an article on the CDA Institute website.

“This provides a degree of political power. … They then gain the political power to withdraw that investment or to lay people off,” wrote Lajeunesse, Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Canadian Arctic Marine Security Policy and an assistant professor at St. Francis Xavier University.

Lajeunesse said it’s about not allowing Beijing to gain leverage in the North, which is different from the oilsands where many large private companies are already operating.

‘Romanticized View’

Redfern also said Canada has to learn from its history, as it has a legacy of poor planning and inadequate consultation with northerners.

“What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked to date—we must do better,” she said, adding that Canada’s Arctic neighbours are having their militaries work with businesses and northerners and making strategic investments.

“We have a romanticized view of the North … and its ‘unchangingness,’” said a senior analyst from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) who withheld his name at the conference. 

Thomas said the changing sea ice is allowing for more shipping in the Northwest Passage, and given how it is not well charted, there is greater concern for accidents and damage to the environment.

She also reminded conference attendees that the Arctic is the quickest way for China and Russia to get to North America for aggressive action. 

She warned of Russia’s military buildup and said the Arctic is being eyed increasingly for its resources like fisheries, petroleum, and critical minerals.

Furthermore, “China has a voracious appetite and will stop at nothing to feed itself, and the Arctic is one of the last domains,” Thomas said.

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