Arctic In Peril–Who’s Guarding Our Back Door?

Arctic In Peril | 'Who's guarding our back door?'

The Arctic has immense oil reserves and mineral wealth, but Canada has been slow to protect its northern sovereignty

Nov 18, 2007 04:30 AM
Ed Struzik
Atkinson Fellow

CHURCHILL, Man.n the fall of 1998, a Russian IL-76 flew over the North Pole to the tiny sub-Arctic town of Churchill on the shores of western Hudson Bay.

Mike Lawson, who was on airport duty, remembers it well.

“We don't get big Russian planes like that in Churchill,” he says of the Il-76, an unforgettably large cargo plane that is even bigger than the C-130 Hercules used by the Canadian military. “In fact, in the 18 years I've been here, I've seen only one other like it.”

Even more unusual was the pilot switching off his landing lights the moment he hit the tarmac despite blowing snow and marginal visibility.

The crew members were spotted drinking beer at Gypsies, a popular restaurant, at 10 a.m. the next morning, but they didn't stay long. A Bell 206 helicopter landed at Churchill that day, and the Russians drove back to the airport, dropped the plane's cargo doors, loaded the helicopter and took off.

“Just like that,” says Lawson. “No one was there to ask questions or inspect documents. It makes you wonder who's guarding our back door.”

It turns out Canadian intelligence officials were aware of the flight of the IL-76 and monitored its return to a region of Russia known for organized crime. Whether they let the Russians arrive and depart unfettered for intelligence purposes, or whether they were powerless to intervene, no one will say.

For Col. Pierre Leblanc, commander of Canada's northern forces at the time, the significance of the incident became clear the following year when a Chinese research ship, armed with machine guns, showed up unannounced at the tiny Inuit community of Tuktoyaktuk, ostensibly to meet a Chinese tour guide who had claimed refugee status in 1993.

If Canada's back door is vulnerable to suspicious entries like these two incidents, Leblanc wondered, what might it be like in 20 or 30 years if climate change melts sea ice sufficiently to open the country's Arctic waterways. Could the military or the Canadian Coast Guard stop a rogue ship if it took a run through the Northwest Passage to save 9,000 kilometres of ocean travel? Or stop a tanker from taking a load of fresh water from an Arctic river or lake?

Could Transport or Environment Canada clean up an oil or fuel spill if a tanker like the Exxon Valdez was damaged by ice and spilled its cargo? And what about a ship that might be trying to smuggle in illegal immigrants?

To answer those questions, Leblanc set up the Arctic Security Interdepartmental Working group. Representatives from the military, the RCMP, CSIS, Foreign Affairs, Revenue Canada and Immigration meet biannually to assess Arctic security issues.

Eight years later, Leblanc, now retired but still very much involved in the sovereignty and security debate, is still looking for the answers to an issue that made headlines recently when Russians, Danes and Americans all of whom dispute Canada's claims over the Arctic and its immense oil reserves and mineral wealth made loud forays into Canadian waters.

For Leblanc, the unannounced passing of a U.S. submarine in 2006 through or very near Canadian waters no one in Canada knows for certain was proof that Canada does not have control over the Arctic.

In fact, the back door is still so wide open that a Romanian man who had been kicked out of the country was able to get back in the summer of 2006, taking a six-metre boat roughly 1,000 kilometres from Greenland to Grise Fiord, Canada's northernmost civilian community. His arrest, and the apprehension of two Turkish sailors who jumped ship in Churchill later in November, had more to do with alert civilians than they did with the country's ability to monitor what's happening in the polar world.

Military and intelligence officials agree similar incidents are bound to increase as climatic changes in the Arctic make it easier to navigate through this part of the world.

The Center for Naval Analyses, a private consultant to the U.S. government, warned earlier this year that geopolitical upheaval caused by climate change could create new havens for terrorists, trigger waves of illegal immigration and disrupt oil supplies. In the centre's report, retired admiral Donald Pilling, the former vice-chief of U.S. naval operations, noted that neither Canada nor the United States has the military capability to handle threats in the Northwest Passage.

“As the Arctic ice continues to recede, we're going to see a lot more people and a lot more ships trying to get in,” agrees Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies in Calgary. “Unless we're prepared to prove that we can control what we claim, we're going to be in for serious trouble.”

It was late August and Huebert had just returned from Baffin Island in Nunavut, where Operation Nanook the largest and most ambitious military exercise ever in the Arctic had just ended. According to one top military official, Operation Nanook was supposed to “show the world we'll be watching if they trespass on Canada's Arctic.”

What the world saw was that even when the military stages a scenario in which it intercepts a foreign vessel en route to the Arctic to meet a plane smuggling narcotics from Mexico it couldn't pull it off cleanly. Dense fog, cellphones that didn't work and other equipment failures foiled the best efforts of a CF-18, a Navy submarine, Aurora surveillance aircraft, the Coast Guard, Inuit Rangers and the RCMP, all working together.

Huebert is gracious in describing this exercise, and another problem-plagued one last summer that left a Twin Otter stuck in mud on the edge of a tundra cliff. “These are important baby steps that are absolutely necessary.”

But he says Operation Nanook showed just how far Canada needs to go before it can prove to the rest of the world that it can stop trespassers.

“To do this in August in the southern part of the Arctic near Iqaluit, which has an airport, RCMP base and other infrastructure, is one thing,” says Huebert. “But to do it in February or March in some remote part of the Northwest Passage where there is no port nearby would be the true test of an Arctic nation.”

Operation Nanook was not Canada's first troubled attempt at an Arctic military exercise.

Operation Narwhal, a joint exercise between Canadian Forces Northern Area and Maritime Forces Atlantic personnel, took place in July/August 2002. But while the military was engaged in this exercise, the Danish government sent a frigate to Hans Island to erect a flag and lay down a plaque claiming ownership of the tiny, barren island, which Canada had already claimed.

IF CANADIANS need to be reminded why something must be done soon, says Huebert, they should look at Russia's recent planting of a territorial flag on the seabed at the North Pole and Imperial Oil and Exxon Mobil's $585-million bid for development rights in the Beaufort Sea this summer.

“It's not just the Danes planting a flag on Hans Island,” he says. “The Arctic is becoming a big-league playing field that's destined to become a much busier place now that the ice is melting. If we're going to be serious players in the Arctic, we've got to get out of this minor-league mentality.

“Climate change isn't going to reverse itself. The Russians aren't just playing around, and the American oil companies wouldn't be spending all that money if they didn't think that this was the place to do business.”

Twice, the Canadian government has tried to allay public concern about the country's ability to protect its Arctic sovereignty by proposing to build nuclear-powered icebreakers. Both times, it backed out because of the high costs, and because public interest in the issue waned.

Now Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proposing to construct five to eight Arctic naval patrol vessels, refurbish a seaport at Nanisivik in the Northwest Passage, and set up a military training base at Resolute.

Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, applauds the idea of the port and training centre. But like many others, including most Inuit leaders, he's critical of the plan to spend $3.1 billion on navy patrol boats that have only a very limited capability for travelling through the ice-infested waters of the Arctic.

The Canadian government would be wiser, he says, to use that money to build two world-class icebreakers for the Coast Guard.

“Unlike the five to eight ice-strengthened patrol ships, these ships “could go anywhere, anytime,” says Byers.

“We're not going to get into a gunfight if the Russians sail into our waters. What we need in the North is a civilian force like the Coast Guard, which did very well in August working with the RCMP to intercept those Norwegian cowboys who tried to sail through the Passage with two people undercover.”

Unlike the Navy, which has almost no experience in the Arctic, the Coast Guard has a long history in the North. In 1994, the icebreaker Louis St. Laurent, flagship of the Coast Guard fleet, made history when it sailed to the North Pole. Nowadays, the Louis, the Sir Wilfred Laurier, the Amundsen and other ships in the fleet often do double duty as scientific research vessels.

But like most Coast Guard ships, the Louis is showing its age. Built in 1969 and completely refitted between 1988 and 1993, it's been repaired and tweaked so many times that veterans of the service now refer to her as the “Joan Rivers of the fleet.”

Rob Huebert is all for reinvesting in the Coast Guard but says there will be more than enough work for both Navy patrol boats and Coast Guard icebreakers in the future. “Climate change, rising resource prices, international politics and the development of new technologies are making it easier and more attractive to exploit the Arctic.”

“Samsung Industries of South Korea is currently building several 120,000-tonne vessels that are designed to carry oil and gas from the Russian Arctic. There's no reason to think that other countries couldn't build or use these ships to carry oil and gas from northern Canada and Alaska.”

Pierre Leblanc agrees that having both Coast Guard icebreakers and Navy patrol ships (with more icebreaking capabilities than the ones being proposed) would be ideal. But if cost becomes an issue, as he suspects it might, he believes the resources should go to a Coast Guard Service that not only has powerful new icebreakers but also the firepower to enforce a new mandate that includes sovereignty and security. He says Canada also needs an Arctic undersea surveillance system that can detect submarines.

“Think of the Spanish trawler that was illegally fishing in Canadian waters on the East Coast a few years ago. It was only after a few shots were fired in front of that ship that the captain realized Canada was deadly serious about stopping him. That's the kind of firepower and mandate we need to assert our sovereignty over the Arctic.”

Leblanc warns that the Canadian government no longer has the luxury of time to sit back and consider its options.

“Consider the latest report which shows that ice coverage in the Arctic this summer is now at the lowest point in recent history. The possibility of an oil spill or a terrorist or a drug smuggler exploiting our back door is no longer theoretical. It is a real threat. Canada needs to be prepared.”


Atkinson Series: Arctic in Peril
Audio slideshow (medium bandwith)
Audio slideshow (high bandwidth)
Map: Key locations in the series (PDF)
Map: Who owns the Arctic? (PDF)
Map: How Arctic 'plumbing' went awry (PDF)
Ed Struzik gives an overview of his Arctic in Peril series in a stunning audio slideshow featuring dramatic photos from the North. Choose the format:

[]Flash slideshow (medium bandwidth)

[]High-definition slideshow. (20MB, requires QuickTime 7).
Whose passage?
In the fall of 1986, foreign policy parliamentarians criss-crossing the country kept hearing Canadians speak out about Arctic sovereignty.