On a cloudy day in September, Commander Nicole Robichaud looked ahead to the deep, blue water of the Arctic Ocean from the bridge of a brand new ship. Whitecaps and floating sea ice dotted the horizon.
The sixty-five crew members and sailors with the Royal Canadian Navy, were on board HMCS Margaret Brooke, one of six new icebreaker ships in Canada’s Arctic fleet. They travelled through some of the earth’s most unforgiving waters at the northernmost edge of North America.
The stark effects of the climate crisis and changing geopolitical landscape have created new threats in the Arctic. As the sea ice melts, previously impassable routes through the region and access to long-hidden natural resources are opening up.
Canada is one of eight nations with territorial claims in the Arctic, but hasn’t historically had a prominent surveillance presence until now.
Arctic security has been forced into the spotlight for the first time in a long time. A doomsday scenario of a Russian strike on North America, while still unlikely, no longer feels like a fantasy.
“We’re here doing our business, showing our sovereignty,” Robichaud told Global’s The New Reality. “We are here to protect our northern waters.”
As commander of HMCS Margaret Brooke, Robichaud and her crew ventured to the northern tip of Amund Ringnes Island, the highest point ever visited in the Arctic by any Royal Canadian Navy patrol ship. The crew also patrolled parts of the Northwest Passage, a famed route for failed explorations of past generations.
The September voyage was no small feat for a vessel the size of a football field. The ship is over 100 metres long and about 60 metres wide. Despite its size, the ship is agile and can maneuver quickly through narrow straits with the capability of cutting through ice up to a metre thick.
While there’s no immediate threat of armed conflict, a global power play for influence and resources in the Arctic region is heating up. HMCS Margaret Brooke wasn’t built for combat; it’s a patrol vessel, armed with just a single gun. The crew believes their presence alone sends a message.
“We’re here to prove that we can operate in the north and we can operate with our partners,” said Robichaud. “So, I think that shows a lot to our friends or foes that may be around.”
Roughly 40 per cent of Canada’s landmass is in the Arctic region. Every year, the country takes part in Operation Nanook, a security exercise with neighbouring northern nations, the United States, Denmark, and France. The countries work and sail together and the most recent exercise had a growing sense of urgency.
“As it becomes more accessible to us, it’s also more accessible to other countries, said Captain Sheldon Gillis, the Canadian task group commander for Operation Nanook.
Soldiers with the Operation are also working with the Canadian Rangers, a mainly Indigenous unit of Army reservists in the North.
“We want to make sure that other countries understand that Canada will enforce the rule of law in its Arctic, including the defence of our territory,” said Gillis.
Canada has historically been low-key about patrolling its Arctic region. But there’s growing concern that if Canada doesn’t assert its territorial ownership, another nation will.
“Whether it’s Russia or any other country, they need to know that this is Canadian territory and there are armed forces that will enforce that sovereignty on behalf of Canadians,” said Captain Gillis.
For years, Russia has been ramping-up its military presence in the Arctic, reopening and modernizing Cold War bases and building new structures.
Its northern fleet covers land, air and sea including an arsenal of nuclear-powered missiles, torpedo submarines and fighter jets. Russia’s growing military footprint sparked a heightened sense of urgency for the rest of the world, when it invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
“The threat environment facing North America, including Canada, is more serious than it was before,” said Whitney Lackenbauer, one of Canada’s foremost experts on Arctic history and security.
Lackenbauer holds the Canada Research Chair in the Study of the Canadian North and is a Professor at Trent University’s School for the Study of Canada. He said the Arctic had long been a beacon of geopolitical cooperation, but Russia’s war in Ukraine provoked a sense of uneasiness amongst the nations in the region.
“Russia is an increasingly uncertain, unpredictable actor globally, which means it affects Canada and it is an increasing risk to North America,” Lackenbauer told The New Reality.
Lackenbauer points to competing claims between Canada, the United States and Russia for resource rich regions of the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. geological survey estimates the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and a third of its undiscovered natural gas.
Disputes over territorial claims have been discussed at the Arctic Council — an intergovernmental forum made up of the eight Arctic nations and Indigenous groups — since 1996.
But the Council was suspended indefinitely after Russia invaded Ukraine, putting the prospect of a diplomatic solution for control of the territory in jeopardy.
“This leaves some questions about our ability to actually have conversations as a community of Arctic countries,” said Lackenbauer. However, he noted that a disagreement over ownership of Arctic resources is unlikely to spark an armed conflict anytime soon.
The U.S. and Canada have banned offshore drilling in Arctic waters and resource extraction in the far north can be prohibitively expensive. To Lackenbauer, the greater risk in the short-term, isn’t a fight for the Arctic, but rather, a fight through the Arctic.
If the U.S. and Canada were ever drawn into a direct conflict with Russia, the shortest route for Russian missiles to strike North America would be from the North Pole. It’s very possible no one would see it coming.
“There are new threats that are emerging that we don’t have the capacity at present to be able to detect, never mind be able to deter and then defeat,” said Lackenbauer.
Canada’s Arctic defence and surveillance system was first built back in the 1950s for the Cold War and was designed to detect old Soviet bombers.
The North Warning System is a chain of 47 radar sites stretching across the 70th parallel from Alaska to Greenland.
“The last time that we modernised NORAD was 1985. Would you use a computer from 1985 to do your job? Let alone trying to assure the protection of the entire Canadian state?” asked Rob Huebert, an Arctic security expert at the University of Calgary.
Huebert said Canada’s North Warning System is no match for Russia’s high-tech arsenal like hypersonic missiles, which can travel many times the speed of sound, and have featured prominently in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“We also face the existential threat of the Russians increasingly talking about the use of nuclear weapons,” said Huebert, who points to the Arctic as the location where the bulk of Russia’s nuclear forces are stationed.
“And so the Arctic becomes the battlefield.”
For the Royal Canadian Navy navigating this region, local knowledge is a lifeline and they are seeking help from Indigenous peoples in Canada’s northern communities who have been stewards of these waters and this land for generations. They’ve also experienced how the effects of climate change are reshaping the region.
The community of Cambridge Bay is a microcosm of those changes. It’s an Inuit hamlet of 1,700 people, perched on the western edge of the Northwest Passage. It was once impassable because of ice, but now it’s visited by cruise ships through the summer, shuttling in more tourists than there are residents in the entire community.
With the help of locals, HMCS Margaret Brooke and its crew are patrolling and policing the growing maritime traffic.
Sub-Lieutenant Emily Gjos, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Historic Metis Community, holds the newly-created position of Indigenous Liaison Officer within the Navy. She was on board HMCS Margaret Brooke in September and said the conversations with local communities provides valuable insight about how to navigate specific areas.
“For us, it’s an incredibly important relationship because, you know, not just that it’s the right thing to do, but also they’re incredible navigators and environmental stewards.”
When it comes to national security, including Russia’s growing Arctic shadow, northern communities have an important role to play.
“We are the eyes and the ears of the North,” said Harry Flaherty, the chair of Nasittuq, the Inuit-owned company responsible for operating and maintaining Canada’s North Warning System.
One of the 47 radar sites is in Flaherty’s home city of Iqaluit. He said they’re showing their age.
“Our facilities are pretty outdated,” he said. “They’re over 20 years old and most of them are kind of getting obsolete.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau toured the North Warning System radar station in Cambridge Bay in August 2022, during a visit from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Canada’s defence minister, Anita Anand, also toured the sites.
The trip came on the heels of the federal government’s pledge to spend $4.9 billion over the next six years to modernise Canada’s northern defences.
It’s a financial commitment Flaherty said was long overdue. When these systems were first built, there was no meaningful consultation or collaboration with northern communities. Flaherty hopes this time will be different.
“Right across Canada, all the way from the west to the east, we have local communities, local rangers and local businesses that know what’s going,” said Flaherty.
“We know the logistics, we know the land, we know the areas, so we could play a big role.”
It’s a potential ‘win-win’ for Arctic security and northern development.
“I see really important opportunity space between smart defence investments and addressing a lot of the long-standing infrastructure gaps that exist in the Canadian North,” said Lackenbauer.
The possibility of building Arctic runways for Canadian fighter jets or new ports for Navy ships could also serve as civilian transportation hubs, especially for remote, fly-in communities. Cellular infrastructure would also be needed, which in turn would help connect northern regions.
“It makes sense, where possible, to also allow communities to benefit from these investments,” said Lackenbauer.
“All of this needs to be integrated. Canada needs to have a plan to bring this all together. And the time is now.”
The government’s funding announcement earlier this year included an initial $4.9 billion of spending over the next six years. However, military sources told Global News, there are significant concerns it’s not new money and will need to be found from within the existing budget.
“There’s all sorts of uncertainty about just how serious our government is, actually. Canada is the laggard in terms of responding within this overall context. We’re not really engaging the northern countries,” said Huebert.
“We’ve almost, to a certain degree, been whistling past the graveyard and hoping no one notices that we’re not doing anything. But I think that this is being noticed today.”
Global News sat down with defence minister Anita Anand in Ottawa for its current affairs program The New Reality to ask how the federal government plans to keep Canadians safe.
Anand said the government will proceed with its plan to spend $600 million towards maintaining the North Warning System while they bring a new surveillance system online.
“We’ll have to make sure that we’re continuing to upgrade the current system while replacing it with this new system, which will ensure that we have our surveillance moving further and further north so that we can detect new technologies in missiles such as cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles,” said Anand “Which is the new reality for air surveillance.”
Anand said Canada is working very closely with the U.S. to ensure the continent is protected.
“We do know that there is infrastructure from Russia that they are moving further and further north on their territory. And while the threat of an invasion of our Arctic is very low at the current time, we need to be prepared for any eventuality,” said Anand.
Global News asked Anand to clarify the source of the $4.9 billion funding for the first six years of the government’s investment.
“That is in part budget 2022 and other funding,” she said. “The money after the six-year period is largely new money and that will be for continental defence and NORAD modernization.”
With the effects of the climate crisis and the evolving state of geopolitics, Anand told Global News that Arctic sovereignty and security represents an increasingly important file as the world grows darker.
“Climate change is a threat to our security … and so as the minister of national defence, we make sure that we are addressing climate change realities as well as responding to global conflicts, for example, in Ukraine. We want to make sure we are investing in the infrastructure that we need to keep Canadians safe in the short and the long-term,” said Anand.
“We are doing whatever it takes to defend the Arctic.”