A prominent Inuvialuit leader said Canada needs to establish a more consistent presence in the Arctic if the country is to protect its sovereignty in the region.
Duane Smith, president and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation – which represents Inuit interests in the western Arctic – said the region was the “back door to Canada” and that his community was on the “front line” of Canadian sovereignty.
In an interview with CBC The House broadcast on Saturday, Smith said he told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that communities in his area were seeing an increased presence of research vessels from other countries. He also pointed to cases in which it was indigenous communities that alerted the government to the presence of strangers.
“A lot of Canadians might say, ‘this place is so far and or further away, what’s the point of security and sovereignty in such an area? ‘” Smith said. The House host Chris Hall.
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The answer, he said, was to respect the modern treaty and protect a substantial portion of Canadian territory and resources.
“So that’s why I’m suggesting that there needs to be some sort of more cohesive long-term strategy from the federal government in terms of having a visible presence, conducting more cohesive business, and engaging infrastructure in the region – to show that this is Canada.”
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The Arctic has become a growing concern for countries like Russia and China, which have invested in northern military bases and assets like icebreakers.
The federal government, meanwhile, says it is determined to secure its sovereignty in Canada’s Arctic by investing in new patrol vessels and modernizing the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Ottawa has committed an initial $252 million to modernize NORAD in 2021, while it allocated about $6 billion in this year’s budget to defense priorities, which include continental defence.
But the government has not detailed a precise breakdown of how those billions will be spent, with the announcement expected to come “this spring”, according to a statement from Defense Minister Anita Anand’s office.
The federal government has also changed traditional thinking about the defense of Canada’s North, which previously focused on military infrastructure and training exercises. Trudeau, meanwhile, has defined close cooperation and investment in northern Indigenous communities as key to security in the region.
“What is this policy, and frankly, the relationship that we have built over the last few years through the Crown-Inuit partnership [shows] is [that] sovereignty in the North is through the people who live there and have lived there for millennia,” Trudeau said last month.
Conservatives have accused the federal government of not going far enough in committing resources to secure the North.
“Our sovereignty and our security in the Arctic cannot be protected by any more empty Liberal promises,” Conservative spokesman Bob Zimmer said in the House of Commons this week.
Smith said his community was interested in working with the government on things like housing, but also on other infrastructure projects, like the Inuvik airstrip expansion, a Department of National Defence.
Smith said the costs for the Inuvik airstrip expansion are expected to increase due to factors such as the cost of fuel.
“But that shouldn’t be a reason to continually delay a project that is very important to Canada’s security and sovereignty,” he said.
As for a more robust military presence in the region, Smith said he was not opposed to this more traditional approach.
“We even suggested that a small military base would still be optically beneficial,” Smith said. It may not be economical to keep a large force in the region, he said, but it would send a message of Canada’s commitment.