Northern premiers say Canada can’t have Arctic security without infrastructure

Left to right: P.J. Akeeagok, Premier of Nunavut, Ranj Pillai, Premier of Yukon, Caroline Cochrane, Premier of the Northwest Territories (Photo credits: Government of Nunavut, Government of Yukon, Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories)

Arctic security is under renewed focus as Russia and China eye the region, but leaders in the North say Canada won’t be able to exert sovereignty if their communities aren’t built up properly.

The premiers from all three Northern territories say the federal government, while mindful of the need to strengthen Arctic security, has lacked a cohesive infrastructure plan to construct the foundation required to reach that goal.

Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane said in an interview that while policymakers have increased talks of building up the North, few concrete plans for key infrastructure such as hospitals, telecommunications, airports and road systems have emerged.

Without those plans and proper funding, Cochrane said it would be difficult for the federal government to achieve its goal of stronger Arctic security.

“Without all-season roads, people don’t have access to labour markets and cost-effective food,” she said. “You need communications so that when you send up whatever they’re going to do to secure the Arctic, you have the infrastructure to communicate.”

She added that “everything starts with health care ? I hope no one gets really sick because our capacity is very limited.”

In June, the Senate released a report that said “more must be done” by the federal government in the North given “an ever-changing geopolitical context, rising interest and activity in the Arctic,” as well as climate change.

Meanwhile, the United States last year updated its Arctic strategy in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a plan that included increased U.S. military presence in the Far North.

Even before its war with Ukraine, Russia put forward an ambitious program to reaffirm its presence and stake its claim in the Arctic, including efforts to build ports and other infrastructure, and expand its icebreaker fleet.

Meanwhile, China has called for the development of a “Polar Silk Road” as part of an initiative to take advantage of possible trade routes opening in the Arctic due to climate change.

In February, an apparent Chinese spy balloon drifted through Canadian and U.S. airspace before being downed by a U.S. jet, while another object of unconfirmed origin was also spotted over central Yukon around the same time.

Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai said in an interview that event was a turning point in the conversation about building out the North, with many policymakers re-engaging the territories about infrastructure development.

“When the world really focused on what was happening in the Yukon, when you had all those media outlets come and you had the federal government on site, I think that was a chance for people to really see where the gaps are in place. And then it led to a bigger conversation.”

But given the urgency of the need for housing and other fundamentals, Pillai said the federal government needs to move faster.

“When you take in consideration how long it takes in our country to build a very substantial project like a port in Nunavut or a port in the Northwest Territories or the Yukon, and you think about all the steps it has to take and the time, we’re behind already,” Pillai said separately at last week’s recent Western Premiers’ Conference in Whistler, B.C.

For University of Calgary Research Associate and Canadian Northern Corridor Program researcher Katharina Koch, Cochrane and Pillai’s criticisms of Ottawa’s handling of building up the North is neither surprising nor unwarranted.

Koch said the criticisms echoed what many Northern community residents have told her, and Canada has a distinct lack of an integrated Arctic strategy compared with other G7 nations.

“This topic of security and safeguarding Canada’s sovereignty, it ties into so many different other issues,” Koch said. “One element or aspect to start with is actually to make sure that Northern residents have access to basic services. It means education, health care and clean drinking water.”

“This will ultimately support Canada’s goal of establishing security and projecting outward Canadian sovereignty in terms of the Arctic.”

Improvement to broadband internet access is desperately needed, said Koch. She said the “digital divide” severely limits growth potential and economic viability in the North.

There has been movement on those fronts.

Construction of the Dempster Fibre Line, an 800-kilometre fibre-optic cable, is underway in Yukon and Northwest Territories. Federal Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal meanwhile announced last November $7 million in support for the construction of the Kivalliq Hydro-Fibre Link, a multi-purpose connection to deliver renewable energy and high-speed internet to communities in Nunavut through Manitoba.

Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok said the project represents welcome progress, but additional investment is still needed to address energy security and climate change in the Arctic.

“I think the conversation has shifted, but we haven’t yet seen any investment of that to the magnitude that we need to see from the lens of nation-building,” he said at the Western Premiers’ Conference.

Cochrane said a key missing link is local engagement, with Ottawa often not knowing what Northern communities need, and not consulting residents to find out.

“I’ve seen too many people come from the south and come up to the north and think they know what they’re getting into and come out with frostbite, vehicles sunk in the ice, being lost, having to get rescued,” she said.

“So I think the big thing is that, if we are talking about Arctic safety and Arctic sovereignty, it’s important that Canada talk with us that they actually consult with us, not just listen, but actually hear us.”

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