It’s been a busy year for the Canadian Arctic. Not just for the people of Iqaluit, who are currently facing a drinking water contamination crisis so severe that the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have been mobilized to deliver potable water to the Nunavut capital. Not just for the region’s climate watchers at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), who saw over 135 daily maximum temperature records broken throughout October— 5 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than usual throughout most of Nunavut. Not even for the Arctic communities who will be earmarked for $18 billion in infrastructure spending over the next 5 years, to address what Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) terms “critical infrastructure gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous communities” in the region. Not even for the residents of Churchill, Manitoba, home of Canada’s only Arctic deep-water shipping port, who will see the port closed for the next two years as melting permafrost endangers its rail infrastructure. These are all events that highlight the nature of Canada’s Arctic relative to the rest of the country – a massive but forbiddingly isolated part of the country, characterized by shortages, historic inequalities, and broadly at risk from climate change. Despite the very real impact of these issues and the importance of addressing them to Canadian domestic policy, they do not tell the whole story.
The Canadian Arctic has an international dimension which seems starkly at odds with the regional events sketched above. In March 2021, Canada’s Arctic governance was on the radar of state-owned media in China, which reported that a Chinese sailor on a non-stop circumnavigation of the region was “illegally stopped” by Canadian authorities from crossing the Northwest Passage. This incident hinges on whether or not the Northwest Passage is Canadian internal waters or a freely-navigated international strait, a subject which Canada and maritime powers like the United States (and now, China) are divided on. In a follow-up article in the China Global Television (CGTN) network, Chinese law professor Dr. Wang Zelin declared that Canada’s position on controlling the Passage was illegal, and that the Passage should be open to all shipping. This aligns closely with China’s own Arctic policy published in 2018, in which the Northwest Passage is heavily emphasized as a future commercial shipping route to be developed going forward. As a warming climate decreases the amount of ice in the Passage and major powers like China seek ways to use the new route to drastically cut down on international shipping times, Canada’s handling of maritime law will have major implications for whether or not it can control what (or who) goes through its Arctic waters.
China is not the only powerful state taking a keen interest in what goes on in Canada’s Arctic. Where the picture becomes even more concerning is how deeply issues of competition, militarization, and national security are becoming interwoven with a rapidly opening region. A training pact between the Canadian and United Kingdom’s militaries signed in October 2021 will see British Royal Navy personnel training aboard Canada’s fleet of 20 icebreakers, a first step towards closer collaboration between Canada and a post-Brexit Britain turning its strategic gaze towards the High North. Besides Britain, a communication by the European Commission of the EU released this October pledges to work more closely with Canada and NATO in “enhancing strategic foresight” in the region in regards to challenging a Russian military buildup. For its own part, Russia submitted a new claim in April to the UN to dramatically extend the amount of Arctic seabed it can mine for hydrocarbons and other resources, overlapping existing claims of both Canada and Denmark.
Aside from the formal interests of states, international business has also been making moves towards the Canadian Arctic. In line with the critical infrastructure gaps described above, global telecommunications firms have also begun to seek a toehold in Canada’s Arctic networks, with the promise of a first-mover advantage to the firm which can connect a region which only saw its first superfast high-speed broadband in 2019. High-tech companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are eyeing the region as a future source of revenue by addressing longstanding telecommunications gaps, and trying to forge ties with the Canadian and American militaries to do so. Even the Canadian branch of embattled Chinese multinational Huawei has a foot in the door, with a commitment to connect 20 Canadian Arctic communities to reliable broadband internet by 2025 and to fly future Arctic telecommunications professionals into China for further training.
In 2021 Canada’s Arctic has become firmly fixed in the sights of international business, the security strategies of foreign states, and the shipping calculations of the world’s great maritime powers. As we move into 2022 and Arctic sea ice continues to retreat, the Canadian government has a critical task ahead of it: how to assist an economically-underdeveloped and ecologically-vulnerable region on the one hand, and how to navigate the immense international financial and security pressures building on the other. What will happen when the two meet?
Mischa Longman is an Associate Editor at iAffairs Canada. He is a current MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in security and defence policy. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science at the University of Calgary, where he researched interstate competition in the Arctic in both the military and economic fields. His research focus is Canada’s relationships with larger powers, especially as they relate to security concerns. He is also a public servant, working as an analyst for the Government of Canada.