Canada can reach its 2-per-cent NATO spending target by investing in the Arctic
Harry Flaherty is chair of the Inuit Development Corporation Association.
Included in a cache of recently leaked, classified Pentagon documents was a memo containing an unflattering assessment of Canada’s military preparedness and commitment to defence spending. Purportedly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had privately informed NATO officials that Canada would not meet its 2-per-cent-of-GDP defence-spending target – an objective mutually agreed upon by NATO members at the alliance’s 2006 summit in Riga. Currently, Canada’s defence spending is estimated at 1.29 per cent of its GDP, solidifying the country’s status as a laggard among our NATO allies.
Canada’s national defence relies on the efficacy of our own security institutions, but also those of our NATO, NORAD and Five Eyes allies, with whom we have made collective defence agreements. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, pressure has been mounting from all directions for Ottawa to up its defence game. Questions over Canada’s defence priorities have been raised by senior U.S. representatives, NATO’s Secretary-General, and even our own defence establishment, as articulated in a recent open letter signed by more than 60 former top Canadian security officials, military commanders and politicians.
Assuming that the federal government eventually succumbs to this reasonable pressure, what form should Canada’s increased defence and security spending take? Where can it have the most impact?
One of the answers to this question lies in the North, in Inuit Nunangat – the Inuit homeland. Historically, NATO has not paid much attention to the Arctic, but that is now changing because of Russian aggression, the addition of Finland to the alliance, and the potential admission of Sweden as well. For its part, Russia has remilitarized its own northern territories with the opening of dozens of new and Soviet-era Arctic military sites, including airfields and deep-water ports. Russia’s opportunistic collaborator, China, is building a fleet of icebreakers and investing massively in extracting Russia’s abundant northern natural resources. The combination of Russian resources and Chinese capital is a force that will shake the world.
The presence of the Canadian Armed Forces in the Arctic is much smaller in comparison to Russia’s polar military efforts. That said, the North is stirring, and change is coming, albeit slowly. One sign of this came in the form of Defence Minister Anita Anand recently unveiling the DND’s new Indigenous Reconciliation Program, with a focus on northern/Arctic sovereignty, which followed her announcement last year that NORAD would receive modernization funding. Among the $38.6-billion in new NORAD spending were projects with substantial northern footprints, including a polar over-the-horizon radar system to be located in the high Arctic, as well as substantial upgrades to four NORAD operating locations in Inuvik, N.W.T., Goose Bay, N.L., Yellowknife and Iqaluit.
As needed as they are, new northern NORAD projects only scratch the surface of the defence requirements for our country and our continent. It is in the North where Canada could make investments that push us toward fulfilling our NATO commitments, while simultaneously supporting the social and economic development of Inuit Nunangat. Infrastructure and equipment that simultaneously supports both military and civilian purposes could transform the Arctic. Deep-water ports, carbon-free energy sources, all-weather roads connecting southern Canada to the Northwest Passage, upgraded airports, reliable broadband internet, and autonomous underwater vehicles tasked with monitoring and mapping the seabed all have a role to play in defending the North while providing greater security to those who live, work and travel there. Such investment could also greatly help the economic potential of the North be realized. In particular, critical minerals that currently lie stranded in landlocked deposits could become extractable under a nation-building Arctic infrastructure program underpinned by defence-focused investments. Efforts to this effect would help Canada and its allies become less reliant on supply chains currently dominated by adversaries (and friends of uncertain loyalty).
There has never been a better time for Canada to back a plan to meet our NATO commitments via a large, focused program of northern investment. Finland’s April accession into NATO, and Sweden’s anticipated admission later this year, profoundly increase the organization’s focus on the Arctic. Last August’s visit to the Canadian Arctic by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who was accompanied by Mr. Trudeau, also supports the thesis that Canada has support at the highest level to make Arctic investments a cornerstone of its defence-spending policy.
A more robust presence of the Canadian Armed Forces in our Arctic regions would also strengthen the position of the Northwest Passage as an internal waterway fully under Canadian jurisdiction. Finally, Inuit-owned businesses and Inuit workers would be at the heart of a defence-focused infrastructure program. Inuit know the Arctic like no others. We are willing and ready to step up and contribute our traditional knowledge of Inuit Nunangat to the defence of our lands and communities.