The Canadians Look North

One afternoon in the late summer of 2002, the miners who were working deep underground in Canada's High North, at a spot lying around 450 miles above the Arctic Circle, finished their final shift. After more than 25 years in service, the mine at Nanisivik was being closed down, partly because the world market for its chief raw materials - zinc and lead - was badly depressed and partly because the site was, in any case, considered by most experts to be relatively exhausted.

Despite the shock of redundancy, some of the 80-strong workforce may have greeted the news of the mine's closure with mixed feelings, perhaps slightly relieved to leave such an austere setting. In this very remote, isolated corner of Baffin Island, the miners had no choice but to live in the confines of a tiny settlement that the operating company had had specially built about 1.5 miles from the excavation site. Contact with the outside world was minimal, although they could often hear planes landing and taking off from a nearby airstrip or see the occasional ship pulling into a distant port. Morale would have been undermined even more by the serious ill health that some of the men suffered, and many of the buildings were so badly contaminated by dust that they were demolished soon after the mine closed.

Unenviable and completely deserted though it was, this remote site suddenly found itself the centre of attention when, 5 years later, the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, announced plans to redevelop the old dock and runway, using them to supply new Arctic patrol vessels. Converting the port into a deepwater facility would cost around C$60 million and upgrading the airstrip, although it had previously been 'jet-capable', was projected to be at least as much.1 But despite such a high capital outlay, the government was determined to press ahead and wanted to start work in the summer of 2010 with a view to opening the site 2 years later.

The Canadian government regards this high expenditure as a worthwhile investment for one simple reason: Nanisivik is at the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage and therefore commands a vital strategic location. So if Canada has a strong military presence there, then it can much more easily deter any unwelcome visitors and, if necessary, block them altogether from trying to make their way across its waters.

Canada's armed forces have, of course, long had some presence north of the Arctic Circle, but it has not been much of a presence. Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had often been despatched to various outlying settlements and regions to reaffirm Ottawa's political authority, and had stepped up their numbers there during the Gold Rush in 1898, when a volunteer force helped to maintain law and order. But there has only been a regular contingent since 1970, when a permanent base was established at Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories for a unit, known as the Rangers, that is drawn almost entirely of Inuits who have a deep knowledge of and close familiarity with local conditions.

Its other Arctic resources are equally sparse. Canada has six icebreakers, but none of these are all-season polar icebreakers, despite the huge areas its Arctic shorelines cover, and its two most powerful vessels, CCGS Louis St Laurent and Terry Fox, are not powerful or resilient enough to cope with the worst of the Arctic's conditions. They are therefore 'two season' icebreakers that spend the winter months not in the High North but in the somewhat milder climate of the Gulf of St Lawrence. A number of governmental efforts have been made to improve things but to little avail. In 1985, Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government declared that it would build a powerful all-season icebreaker and 12 nuclear-powered submarines but went on to cancel the contracts a few years later. Nearly 20 years on, Ottawa acquired four second-hand, diesel-electric submarines from the Royal Navy that have always been unable to travel completely submerged for more than a few hours, rendering them completely useless under the ice. But as the ice retreats and other Arctic powers appear to flex muscle, Ottawa has suddenly started to turn north and change its priorities.

Signs of this change had first emerged in the run-up to the 2006 federal election, when Harper had promised to spend billions on the construction of icebreakers and on building a new army base in northern Cambridge Bay. The following July his government also announced the construction of between six and eight navy patrol ships that would be sent to guard the Northwest Passage. Building these vessels, which are classified as Polar Class 5 Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, would not be cheap: they would cost over C$3 billion to construct and another C$4.3 billion to run and maintain over their projected 25-year lifespan, but advocates of the programme argued their corner: 'It is no exaggeration to say that the need to assert our sovereignty and protect our territorial integrity in the north on our terms has never been more urgent', as Harper said at the time. 'Our expectation is over the next twenty-five years you're going to see an increasing range of human activity in that part of the world that you haven't seen in the past hundred years.'2

A few weeks later came a further announcement, made just days after the Russian flag-waving ceremony at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, when international tension over the region suddenly reached new heights and the need to build a stronger military presence seemed so much greater than before. On a tour of the far north, Harper stood next to Gordon O'Connor, his defence minister, and a group of soldiers to make a statement that a new Canadian forces winter fighting school would be built in Resolute Bay, also in the Northwest Passage, and assert that the new facilities would 'tell the world that Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic'. He also emphasized that 'Canada's government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it, and make no mistake, the government intends to use it', while adding that 'protecting national sovereignty, the integrity of our borders, is the first and foremost responsibility of a national government'.

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