A man whose life has been turned upside down in the name of Arctic sovereignty says Canada must now do more to keep his community and other remote Arctic communities safe.
Larry Audlaluk is an elder and historian who lives in Canada’s northernmost community, Grise Fiord, Nunavut. He was forcibly moved there in 1953 at the age of two from northern Quebec, when the federal government decided to settle a group of Inuit in the High Arctic in order to exercise its sovereignty.
Audlaluk still lives there with his family and says watching Russia – an Arctic neighbor with ambition – invade Ukraine has been “baffling”.
“We’re not too far from the North Pole,” he told CBC Nunavut’s morning radio show Qulliq. “Inside Canada, I felt quite close to the other side.”
The community of about 130 people is only 1,500 kilometers from the North Pole and about 3,400 kilometers from Ottawa.
“I felt like I was too close to be really comfortable.”
Audlaluk is not the only northern leader watching the situation closely as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second month.
Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane said Russia’s aggressive actions should serve as a wake-up call to build security and resilience in the North.
“Now, with Russia invading Ukraine, it shows that we are vulnerable,” she said. “We need to make sure we have the structures, the infrastructure in place, the services in place so that our people can not only thrive, but we can maintain Arctic sovereignty.”
“They have always had ambitions in the Arctic”
Clarence Wood is the mayor of Inuvik, a town located about 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories.
He says he’s not worried about the safety of people living in Inuvik right now, but he also thinks locals would be “crazy not to worry” about Arctic sovereignty, in light current events.
“Russia has ambitions,” he said. “They’ve always had ambitions in the Arctic, and with the expansion of their military into their Arctic regions, it brings us even closer. So, yes, I would say we have concerns. We have a very limited military presence I don’t think it would take a long time for the Russians to get through here if they put their minds to it.”
He says there was a “fairly large military presence in the area” until the 1980s, when the Canadian Navy moved most of its personnel there.
Now military planes do some exercises at the airport, but to a much lesser extent.
But Wood would like to see the Canadian military increase its presence in Inuvik again, especially while Russia is on the offensive.
“It could be a serious situation very quickly,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think we’re ready for that.”
Canada’s Arctic rich in natural resources
Other communities in the northern Northwest Territories are considering similar issues.
Erwin Elias is the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet on the edge of the Arctic Ocean and “just over 2,000 kilometers… from Russia”.
Elias is also not worried about a direct threat to Tuktoyaktuk at this time, but is aware of the region’s wealth of natural resources and what that could mean for the future.
“I wouldn’t say there is a concern right now, but there is a potential because of the oil and gas that surrounds us in the Arctic here,” he said.
So Elias says “of course” it would be a good time for the federal government to support communities in the Far North like his.
“Maybe it’s time for the government to come here and consider investing in the north again,” he said.
More than military power, says Prime Minister
Cochrane and the other territorial premiers have spoken with the Prime Minister and other members of the federal government to discuss their pressing concerns.
And while Cochrane says Russia’s invasion has put “more focus on the needs of the Arctic,” she adds that sovereignty means more than building a military presence and defense structures on the Arctic. territory. It also means building roads and ports, as well as better medical and telecommunications infrastructure.
“A lot of things that we need in the North are things that people in the South take for granted,” she said. “We don’t ask for unusual things. We ask to be on the same level as people from the South.”
A formal apology was issued to exiles in the High Arctic in 2010.
“We received recognition,” Audlaluk said. “But now what’s missing is a lot of infrastructure needs.”
For example, he would like to see better air service. Currently, the community of approximately 130 people is only accessible by charter flight from nearby Resolute Bay, the other High Arctic Exile community. A return flight from Grise Fiord to Ottawa costs $4,500.
“I know it involves a lot of politics,” Audlaluk said, “but we are still…in my opinion, the center of attention when it comes to the North Pole region.”