Federal government needs to act now to ensure Canada’s Arctic security: Senate committee

Mark Lowey
February 7, 2024

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing presence in the region, and accelerating climate change all present risks to the security of Canada’s Arctic (photo above of Pond Inlet, Nunavut), according to a Senate committee report.

Canada lacks surveillance systems required to detect newly developed hypersonic and long-range cruise missiles  incoming to North America from across the Arctic, while the country’s ability to complete defence projects on time and on budget has been inconsistent, says the report, “Arctic Security Under Threat,” by the Senate Standing Committee on National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs.

The war in Ukraine “has vital consequences for Arctic security and defence, not all of which – at present – are clear,” the report says. Witnesses told the committee about the buildup of Russia’s Arctic military bases, the presence of foreign submarines in Arctic waters, and the frequency and sophistication of cyber-attacks.

Pierre Leblanc, president of Arctic Security Consultants and retired Canadian Forces colonel, said he’s worried that the Canadian Forces Station in Alert, Nunavut – located closer to a Russian air base than to a Canadian air base – could be vulnerable to an attack.

Robert Huebert, associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, raised the issue of Russia’s potential capabilities to disrupt communications in northern Canada by damaging undersea cables or attacking communications satellites.

Several witnesses emphasized that the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) North Warning System (photo at left  shows one site in the system. Photo credit: Jane George) – built between 1986 and 1992 to replace the Distant Early Warning Line constructed in the 1950s – needs to be improved. Retired Col. Leblanc, who commanded Canadian Forces Northern Area (Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories) until his retirement in 2000, described the system as “obsolete.” David Auerswald, professor, National Security at the U.S. National War College, referred to existing military defence sensors in the North as “woefully inadequate.”

The federal government in June 2022 announced a funding commitment of $38.6 billion over 20 years to modernize NORAD. The funding will be allocated to five areas: surveillance systems; technology-enabled decision-making; air weapons; infrastructure and support capabilities; and research and development.

The NORAD modernization plan involves the development of a new system – the Northern Approaches Surveillance System – that will have two components: a network of sensors and “over-the-horizon” radar systems. A Department of National Defence official told the Senate committee the new radar systems will “drastically improve the Canadian Armed Forces and NORAD’s ability to detect aerospace threats coming to Canada.”

The Senate committee’s report notes that the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, in its April 2023 report, “A Secure and Sovereign Arctic,” recommended that the federal government should reconsider its long-standing position that Canada not participate in the U.S.’s ballistic missile defence program.

The Senate committee endorsed this recommendation, but it pointed out that NORAD doesn’t have a role in defeating long-range cruise missiles or hypersonic missiles. “Given the changing international security environment, the committee questions whether Canada, as part of NORAD, should develop the ability to both detect and destroy such missiles.”

One of the committee’s recommendations is that the federal government, in its next defence policy, outline Canada’s approach to deterring adversaries in the Arctic, “including the expected ‘gap period’ between when adversaries could deploy new weapons systems and when the North American Aerospace Defense Command will have the technology to detect them.”

Risks to Canada from China’s activities in the Arctic

China has sought to establish scientific research stations in the Arctic, build nuclear-powered icebreakers, make investments in natural resource projects, and participate in the development of shipping routes in the region, according to the Senate committee’s report.

While China has not yet contributed to building military infrastructure or conducted military activities in the Arctic, “witnesses raised concerns about China’s possible military use of civilian scientific research facilities located in the region,” the report says. A Global Affairs Canada official told the committee that “many of the Chinese activities in and around the Arctic have dual-use purposes and could be used to advance China’s strategic and military interests.”

Witnesses also drew attention to potential national security, political and economic risks associated with increased Chinese investment in natural resource projects in the Canadian Arctic, including those relating to minerals and fisheries.

Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to China, pointed to the proposed purchase of Canadian-owned gold mining company TMAC Resources by Chinese-owned Shandong Gold Mining Co. That acquisition didn’t occur because of the outcome of a national security review. However, Saint-Jacques noted that the Chinese state-owned enterprise’s attempt to purchase mining operations in Canada shows China’s interest in acquiring natural resources that are strategically important for its development.

Adam Lajeunesse, associate professor in the Public Policy and Governance Department at St. Francis Xavier University, said the rejection of the proposed purchase is “a good example of Canada demonstrating that its security priorities extend to the Arctic and that the government is aware of the dangers posed by . . . foreign direct investment from competitors like China.”

The “main concern” with Chinese investments in the Canadian Arctic is “the influence that a Chinese company would have in a small community,” Lajeunesse said.

Ron Wallace, fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, told the committee that cooperation continues between China and Russia on liquefied natural gas projects in the Russian Arctic. He maintained there are “no indications that the current situation in Ukraine will diminish [China’s] interests in those Russian export capacities from the Arctic.”

The Canadian Armed Forces’ permanent presence in the Arctic comprises about 340 military and civilian personnel, as well as the Canadian Rangers (photo at right). There are approximately 1,750 Canadian Rangers – who carry firearms solely for the purpose of self-defence – organized into 21 patrols.

The Canadian Rangers currently face challenges, including low rates of compensation, claw-backs of post-retirement benefits and equipment difficulties, that are negatively affecting recruitment and retention, the Senate committee noted. Its report recommended that the federal government “expeditiously address” these challenges, and “should both ensure that the Canadian Rangers have adequate access to equipment and make necessary changes to their compensation.” Ottawa should publish an update, by June 30, 2024, on the status of the Canadian Ranger enhancement program, the committee said.

Witnesses had different views about whether there should be a greater permanent Canadian military presence in the Arctic, versus a component of the military trained for Arctic operations that could respond when necessary.

David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, argued that Canada’s defence procurement process is “systematically incapable of procuring major defence equipment on the timelines identified by [the Department of National Defence].” He noted that the size of DND’s procurement workforce was substantially reduced in the 1990s and hasn’t yet returned to previous levels.

The committee said Canada’s ability to complete defence projects on time and on budget has been inconsistent, regardless of the political party in power. “Given the decades-long timelines for some defence procurement projects, Canada’s procurement system should be improved to ensure that the Canadian Armed Forces has the equipment it needs, when it needs it, to make a meaningful contribution to Arctic security and defence in a rapidly changing international context.”

Climate change already having dramatic impacts on Canada’s Arctic

The Canadian Arctic comprises 40 per cent of Canada’s land mass, 75 per cent of its coastline and less than one per cent of its population – mostly Inuit. More than 50 per cent of the inhabitants of the three northern territories are Indigenous.

Witnesses told the Senate committee that climate change in the Arctic is having a range of economic, social and security effects, among others. Major-General Michael Wright, commander of Canadian Forces intelligence Command and chief of defence intelligence, asserted that climate change will have a “significant impact on the security situation in the Arctic.” A Global Affairs Canada official characterized global climate change as a “serious threat” to the Arctic and its inhabitants. (Photo above shows Inuit fishermen travelling on ice).

Canada’s most recent national climate change assessment indicates that the Canadian Arctic is warming at three times the global rate, and research by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cautions that increased temperatures will likely continue to result in “glacier mass loss, permafrost thaw, and decline in snow cover and Arctic sea ice.” The IPCC’s 2023 synthesis report found that the impacts of climate change on Arctic ecosystems are “approaching irreversibility.”

Magali Vullierme, a post-doctoral researcher in the North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network, Trent University, told the committee that airports in Arctic communities, which are built on permafrost, and North Warning System radar stations, which are generally located along coastlines, are at risk of being damaged by permafrost thaw and coastal erosion.

Witnesses highlighted the transformative role of climate change in the Arctic in increasing human activity and economic opportunities in the region. A Global Affairs Canada official cautioned that the “considerable opportunities in international shipping, scientific research, tourism and natural resources” resulting from climate change have safety and security risks.

From 1990 to 2021, the annual number of vessel voyages – or transits – in Canadian Arctic waters more than tripled, with 385 transits in 2021. In 2017, just 33 transits were completed through the Northwest Passage.

The committee recommended that the federal government work with territorial, local and Indigenous governments and treaty rights holders to develop a framework and associated mechanisms that would result in a better understanding of the environmental impacts in the Arctic of current and planned activities pertaining to security and defence.

The committee also recommended that the federal government establish, by March 31, 2024, a permanent Arctic search and rescue roundtable. This roundtable should comprise representatives of the federal, territorial and Indigenous governments, along with community-based organizations and government entities involved in search and rescue, including the Canadian Rangers. “Its goals should include the development of a comprehensive Arctic search and rescue strategy.”

The committee’s made a total of 23 recommendations in its report, including that the federal government:

  • In its next defence policy, include a section on Arctic security and defence, with a section on underwater domain awareness and underwater threats that outlines a plan for expeditiously replacing Canada’s existing submarines (which can’t operate under Arctic ice) with submarines that could operate better in the Arctic.
  • Provide an annual update about Canada’s Arctic-related security and defence priorities and plans.
  • Make efforts to join the trilateral security partnership among Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., known as AUKUS, to contribute to intelligence gathering and sharing.
  • Use existing or new institutionalized mechanisms to partner with Indigenous peoples in the Arctic, including to obtain their views about security and defence in the region.
  • Identify, for each ongoing and proposed security and defence project in the Arctic, the likely social and economic benefits for Arctic communities that would result. If such projects are unlikely to have such benefits, the government should indicate other federal funding sources to meet the most urgent social and economic needs in the Arctic.
  • Consider whether the two Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships procured for the Canadian Coast Guard should carry armaments in order to improve the protection of Canadian sovereignty, as well as secure the country’s Arctic coasts and waters. 
  • Develop a plan for improving broadband internet connectivity in the Arctic to meet both military and civilian needs. Publish information by June 30, 2024, that includes the amount of money required to implement the plan and its associated timelines.


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