The Military Goes North

OpenCanada talked to a DND official about how the Canadian Forces can play an important role in the Arctic.
By: /
February 8, 2013

The Canadian Forces play a critical role in sustaining and protecting Canada’s northern communities. The Canadian government has declared that Arctic development for the benefit of northerners will be a top priority when it assumes chairmanship of the Arctic Council in June 2013. OpenCanada spoke to an Arctic policy official at the Department of National Defence (DND) about Canadian Forces operations in the Far North, and the DND’s capacity to assist Canada with implementing goals while the country is chair of the council.

The Canadian Forces have been increasingly visible in the Arctic in recent years. Are Canadian Forces focused on enhancing their response-preparedness for a particular type of incident?

The Canadian Forces are always looking at a wide range of scenarios. Think back to the crash of the 737 in Resolute Bay in 2011. Coincidentally, we were doing an exercise that involved the simulation of a major air disaster in that area, so all of our equipment was there. We were also already working very closely with public safety personnel and the RCMP. So, we were able to take part in a team effort to respond to the disaster.

It’s always really a team effort more than a Canadian Forces effort when it comes to operations in the North, because there’s basically nothing that we do there that doesn’t require participation from personnel in other government departments.

But the air disaster scenario is one scenario in a very wide range of possible disaster scenarios. We need to be ready for pretty much anything.

How closely will the Canadian Forces work with the Arctic Council?

It will be very much a supporting role, because the Arctic Council doesn’t have a mandate for defence or military matters. The council has started to look more at safety and security over the last few years, and we’ve certainly played a big part ­in things like the Arctic Search and Rescue (SAR) Treaty. We hosted a tabletop exercise for other countries, and we will be going to Denmark this year to participate in a follow-up, so I think we are active in that thin security-focused slice of the Arctic Council’s activities.

We have been consulted by DFAIT in relation to some of the department’s priorities for the upcoming chairmanship. None of the council’s core priorities are really at the centre of our mandate, but we’re following the issues that relate to resource development very closely because our mandate includes things like search and rescue, which could become more significant owing to increased development in the Arctic.

We have a headquarters, Joint Task Force North, in Yellowknife. Up there, they are doing a lot of work with stakeholders in the North – at the territorial level, and even with private companies – in order to get a sense of where the activity is going to be and where we might be called upon to provide support. Again, our primary role is to support the other government departments responsible for taking the lead in responding to incidents.

As we see more resource development in the North, we will see more activity, both from a maritime point of view and from an air point of view, and therefore a higher percentage of chances for search and rescue incidents, and maybe environmental incidents, as well, where we’d be supporting the Coast Guard, for example. We are monitoring developments so that we can play that role. But we won’t have a central role in how these activities move forward. We will assist with them according to our mandate. 

Do you think security issues should make up a larger part of the Arctic Council mandate?

I don’t think so. I think that the mandate of the Arctic Council is pretty clear, and I don’t think there’s necessarily a need to change that. The DND certainly doesn’t see a need to change that. The council is doing quite a lot of good work the way it is. It would probably be too much to add security to the mandate of the council, and I’m not sure all the other members would agree to an expansion of the agenda in that direction.

If the council is not the best forum to resolve security issues, are there other diplomatic channels that could be utilized?

A lot of the contact that we maintain with our neighbours in the Arctic is actually fairly informal. But we have had some of our northern commanders visit Denmark and the United States. And we have actually created a lot of links at the operational level for co-operation, whether in relation to search and rescue or surveillance. Sometimes a diplomatic channel is as simple as knowing the phone number of who to call.

I think one step that was taken last year was the first meeting of the northern chiefs of defence in Goose Bay. The chiefs of defence of the eight Arctic Council countries, with Iceland as a civilian representative, met in Goose Bay to exchange perspectives on what the safety and security challenges in the North are, and how their countries could work together to best address those challenges, starting with the exchange of lessons learned about operating in the North, and in supporting civilian authorities. There is going to be a follow-up meeting in Denmark in June 2013, and annual events from now on.

One of the big things that came out of the Goose Bay meeting was an appreciation that all the countries, including Russia and the United States, are in agreement that there is no military threat in the Arctic. All parties agree that the role of military actors in the Far North is to support civilian authorities. In certain countries, it’s the Coast Guard that does most of the search and rescue, while in others it’s the military. Regardless, the question is how – not if – Arctic nations, including defence organizations, will co-operate in responding to a disaster. We need to keep working at co-ordinated responses to this challenge, and to other kinds of challenges.

We need to work together because the Arctic is a huge area, everybody has limited resources, and it’s a very difficult environment to operate in. The more that all these countries communicate with each other, the better off we will be. The northern arctic chiefs of defence forum is really the pre-eminent forum to discuss these issues from a military perspective.

How would you sum up the evolution of the Department of National Defence’s Arctic policy?

The Government has recognized that, as activity grows in the North, the Canadian Forces will play an increasingly vital role in demonstrating a Canadian presence in the region, in co-operation with other departments. Evidence of this includes exercises such as Operation Nanook (which involves a number of departments and agencies) as well as investments in resources for future exercises, such as Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, a refueling and berthing facility in Nanisivik, and increases in the number of Canadian Rangers.

This interview was edited for length and clarity

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