Canada’s Arctic foreign policy

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

Canada‘s national identity, prosperity, security, values and interests are all centered on the Arctic. The Canadian Arctic encompasses 40% of Canada’s land area and is home to over 200,000 people, more than half of whom are Indigenous.

The Arctic is central to Canada’s sense of self. Many Canadians, including indigenous peoples, live in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, as well as the northern parts of many Canadian provinces. The Arctic is deeply ingrained in Canadian history and culture, and represents tremendous potential for Canada’s future.

Global Affairs Canada is in charge of coordinating and leading Canada’s international Arctic engagement. The Nordic and Polar Relations Division in Ottawa and the Canadian International Arctic Centre (CIAC) in Oslo, Norway, as well as Canadian embassies around the world, are primarily responsible for this work.

Canada participates actively in the Arctic Council, the primary international forum for Arctic cooperation. Canada held the first Chair of the Arctic Council from 1996 to 1998, and again from 2013-2015. Canada’s primary priorities related to the Arctic include addressing socio-economic and cultural development, environmental protection and climate change, and strengthening relations with Indigenous peoples.

Canada’s future

As a result of climate change and the search for new resources, new opportunities and challenges are emerging throughout the Arctic and north. The region’s geopolitical significance and implications for Canada have never been greater.

As global commerce makes its way to the region, Northern resource development will become increasingly important to northern economies, northern peoples, and the country as a whole. The potential of the north is piqueing the interest of Canada and, perhaps most siginficantly, China and the US as great power competition returns to the Arctic.

State and non-state actors are increasingly interested in, and competing for, access to the Canadian Arctic‘s rich natural resources and strategic position.

This comes at a time when climate change, combined with technological advancements, has made access to the region easier.

While the Canadian Arctic has historically been and continues to be a region of stability and peace, increased competition and access poses safety and security challenges to which Canada must be prepared to respond.

While geophysical conditions continue to limit certain activities at certain times of the year (and will continue to do so in the future), the Circumpolar North’s global demand for resources, desire for efficient shipping routes and geostrategic position portend increased interest in the region.

According to Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, ‘Nothing about us, without us’ is the essential principle that weaves federal, territorial, provincial and Indigenous institutions and interests together for mutual success.


Military Presence

According to the NATO Security Force Assistance (SFA), ‘for the past two decades, the world has been undergoing significant changes’. While academics and politicians have frequently heralded the Arctic as an ‘exceptional’ space of international cooperation since the Cold War’s end, it is also increasingly recognized as a zone of competition.

Canada is also increasing the size and capabilities of the Canadian Rangers, who are primarily drawn from indigenous communities and serve as Canada’s ‘eyes and ears’ in remote parts of the country. In addition, a new Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre is being built in Resolute Bay.

Through its collaboration in NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command, Canada and the United States work together to better monitor and control Northern airspace. The Canadian Forces will also use new technologies to improve surveillance of their territory and its approaches.

Following the Septmebr 11 terrorist attacks, Operation NOBLE EAGLE was launched. While NORAD’s mission has always been to protect US and Canadian airspace, prior to 9/11, NORAD was primarily positioned to look outward.

NORAD’s mission has evolved over the last two decades to include a focus on threats that may originate within the US and Canada, as well as the addition of a maritime warning mission. NORAD’s participation in North American homeland security operations has resulted in the redefinition of the institution’s role in defense and security operations.

Transport Canada, through its National Aerial Surveillance Program, plays an important role in the Arctic, contributing significantly to the protection of Canada’s interests in the region.

Transport Canada will continue to support Canada’s safety, security, environmental and economic interests in Northern waters by investing in new infrastructure (a new Arctic hangar and accommodations unit).

Currently, Transport Canada provides aircraft to monitor shipping activities, ice conditions and marine security, as well as environmental threats.

Transport Canada also shares information with other departments, agencies and organizations in order to carry out their mandates.

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