By Joe Spears

In an April 2016 article, Breaking Bread and the Ice in Washington, I examined Canada’s evolving Arctic policy under the then new and shiny Trudeau government. The Joint Arctic Statement communique was unveiled with great fanfare at the Obama White House in Washington, DC. Four years into the Trudeau mandate, the world has seen many changes, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and we are still awaiting a Canadian Arctic policy. It is clearly not a priority.

A Canadian Arctic policy has proven to be more elusive than the search for Sir John Franklin’s ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. However, at long last, Canada’s new Arctic policy will be released in June, and will guide the federal government into 2030. It will be named Arctic and Northern Policy and will supersede the 2009 Northern Strategy document and the 2010 Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy, both created by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. The federal Minister responsible for the Arctic, Minister of Minister of Intergovernmental and Northern Affairs and Internal Trade, Dominic Leblanc, has taken a medical leave of absence, which might impact the release date.

The original six themes took in Arctic infrastructure; Arctic people and communities; sustainable and diversified economies; Arctic science and indigenous knowledge; protecting the environment, conserving Arctic biodiversity; and the Arctic in a global context. Two more were subsequently added: national security and reconciliation.

Canada has so far ignored the strong interest that both Russia and China are displaying in developing and expanding commercial shipping infrastructure, and oil and gas exploration and extraction. Moreover, Russia is building out robust military bases in the North, and is investing heavily in enhanced military capability.

How the new policy will differ from the existing Northern Strategy policy remains to be seen. The former Prime Minister’s strategy was the development of natural resources and protection of Canada’s sovereignty as key components of an Arctic strategy, which rested on four pillars:

  • Exercising our Arctic sovereignty,
  • Protecting our environmental heritage,
  • Promoting social and economic development,
  • Improving and devolving Northern governance.

This policy was part of the underlying foundation for the development of the Royal Canadian Navy’s Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS known as the DeWolfe Class of warships) that are presently being built by the Irving shipyard in Halifax. AOPS naval vessels are being constructed to commercial and not warship standards: these vessels have limited armaments, and are not icebreakers.

The recent Canadian Defence policy review that took place produced a 113-page document in 2017, Strong Secure Engaged, which set out a blueprint for Canada’s Defence policy for the next ten years. Strong Secure Engaged said this with respect to an undefinable threat: “Climate change, combined with advancements in technology, is leading to an increasingly accessible Arctic.”

In the past, international activities and force projection by other countries were thwarted by the impenetrable presence of multi-year ice in the Arctic. However, today, with multi-year ice waning, the Arctic is easier to transit than as it used to be. The policy review recognizes that there needs to be sustained funding to fund critical infrastructure as international shipping increases through the Northwest Passage, and capabilities to protect our sovereignty and security. The review made specific reference to the Arctic. It moved away from specifically referencing sovereignty to more functional terms such as monitoring and surveillance. The policy acknowledges NATO is paying increasing attention to Russia’s ability to “project force” from the Arctic and says Canada will be ready to “deter and defend,” should the need arise. However, with Canada’s military capabilities seriously degraded, particularly in the Arctic, it is a mystery how such actions would actually be conducted.

The premier of the Northwest Territories, Bob McLeod, wants Canada to triple its icebreaker fleet within five years and triple its Arctic deepwater port capacity within 10 years. “I think that you see other Arctic countries becoming significant players in the Arctic and we need to be sure that Canada and the North is ready for when that happens,” McLeod said.

Canada needs to develop its critical Arctic marine infrastructure, especially if we take the position that the waters of the Northwest Passage are Canadian internal waters. We need the ability to manage the marine activities and strengthen our relationship with other countries, and in particular our best friend and neighbour, the United States which has similar interests in the Arctic. We need increased hydrographic coverage, marine salvage, aids to navigation, as well as icebreaker and marine vessel support.

The United States Coast Guard issued an Arctic Strategic Outlook in April 2019. An Arctic policy for Canada needs to consider international military developments, as well as future resource development. International shipping will undoubtedly increase in Arctic waters, whether we like it or not, and we need to be prepared to support legitimate international commercial activity. We need to start the process of putting the necessary shipping infrastructure in place. Beyond that, an Arctic policy must be followed by significant action.

Joe Spears of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group is a long shipping governance and a longstanding interest in international Arctic shipping and the need for ocean and shipping  governance and has assisted Canada both a legal and policy capacity. Joe can be reached at