Misgoverning the Canadian Arctic

The Canadian Arctic region has been often overlooked by the federal government in favour of more populated provinces, despite the importance and potential it holds. In 2020, a year where the COVID-19 pandemic has taken precedence over every other issue, this is more true than ever. 

The Canadian North has often been put aside in the national agenda despite making up 40 per cent of Canada and is home to more than 100,000 residents. While the federal government has done extensive extraction of raw materials in Northern Canada, it is far behind when it comes to developing communities, infrastructure, and defence in the region.

Professor Gabrielle A. Slowey, a political science professor at York, neatly summarized Canada’s ventures in the north. 

“The history of the Canadian North has been one of finding shipping routes to make the journey and transfer of goods across easier and expeditious. A lack of infrastructure is a significant issue across the Arctic,” Slowey says.

Since the Yukon gold rush in 1896 northern Canada has been vital for the mining industry. However, the Canadian government has only focused on it for material gains overlooking the communities. The issues that existed in the past have carried over to the present, as none of them were properly addressed. While the Canadian government is adamant of its sovereignty over the region and its waterways, communities are left behind and abandoned


One of the most important issues around the Arctic is the claims of sovereignty, creating friction between some states. Some states, including Denmark and Russia, have filed their claims, some conflicting with others, on specific areas they believe to be rightfully theirs. The claims are made through evidence backed by a mix of history, geography, and science, all of which are under review by the United Nations (UN).

The contention over sovereignty is crucial as it decides who has a final say over any trade disputes or economic decisions. It is so important even Canada’s closest ally, the United States of America, has disputed Canadian claims. Specifically, the issue of Canada’s claim over the Northwest Passage (NWP) as internal waters, which the United States deems as international water. 

However, the Canadian government has not budged on the issue. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland reaffirmed Canadian claims in response to the remarks of U.S. diplomat, Mike Pompeo, portraying it as “illegitimate claims.”

“Canada is very clear about the Northwest Passage (NWP) being Canadian. There is both a very strong historic and geographic connection with Canada.” Freeland said in a statement to the Star Edmonton, backing the long held stance on the NWP.

Russia has also filed their claims in the UN but they have taken another approach to solidify its presence in the Arctic. The path taken by Russia has been to create physical and symbolic governance over the Arctic.

The Russian Arctic is by far geographically the largest and holds the largest population at roughly two million inhabitants. Additionally it has the largest military and economic presence. 

The level of infrastructure and military involvement in the north can be seen in the graphic below where Russia far outnumbers its Arctic neighbours. (Courtesy of Lima Charlie Media)

As seen above, the Russian mineral, oil, and gas extraction is conducted all over the northern regions. Additionally, military bases are manned 24/7 with aircraft, naval ships, and personnel. 

Some of the military equipment that is stationed at these bases are Sierra-II submarines and Intercontinental ballistic missiles that are randomly tested without prior warning to its neighbours. Although Russia does not openly threaten its neighbours, it is showing its military capability as a sign of control over its Arctic regions.  

A more symbolic strategy of the Russian government is to fly strategic bombers close to U.S. and Canadian land, even going as far as disrupting air force flights and exercises in a non-aggressive way. 


While the federal government always deemed the Arctic to be strategically and economically important, it has been lackluster in its support of northern communities. For example, the mining industry in the Canadian north is massive, yet most of the profit is funneled out of the territories. “The Canadian economy is deeply rooted in resource extraction. From gold in the Yukon — which began with the Klondike gold rush in the 1800s and continues to drive the economy today [to the] diamond mining in the Northwest territory and the long debated Mackenzie Valley Gas pipeline,” says Slowey 

The Canadian mining industry contributes roughly five per cent to the overall Gross Domestic Product. Yet, the indigenious communities rarely benefit. 

“Unfortunately, the history of resource development has not tended to assist or benefit Indigenous communities. That is changing somewhat- more Indigenous communities are insisting on benefitting from the activity taking place on their land. There is incentive now for industry to work with local communities more,” says Johnson.

However, Slowey explains that the change is not significant: “Most often the agreements still don’t offer enough benefits and the industry and government largely reap the benefits. Also, there are spaces and places where Indigenous peoples do not want and will work to stop industry from going — for traditional or other reasons. So there is more Indigenous agency as they articulate their needs and concerns about extraction taking place on or near their traditional territory.”

    “As climate change accelerates melting sea ice, the potential for opening up the Arctic is increasing and this itself carries significant impacts and concerns for local Indigenous communities.”

There have even been instances where indigenous communities have won disputes. The Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) is an institution of the public government which reviews potential issues in development projects in the north. It helped a community prevent a uranium mine project from operating in Baker Lake, Nunavut. The Kiggavik mine was stopped by the federal government supporting the decision of the NIRB . 

Other major projects have been proposed like a deep sea water port in Nanisivik, however it is for the military and government, once again not directly benefiting surrounding populations.

“One issue for the federal government has been the building of a deep water port. The Harper government did propose a site but it would not have served the interests of Indigenous communities that reside in the region,” explains Slowey.

While the increased accessibility to northern Canada may look as an opportunity for the government and corporations, Slowey believes with current policies, most indigenous communities won’t benefit. 

“As climate change accelerates melting sea ice, the potential for opening up the Arctic is increasing and this itself carries significant impacts and concerns for local Indigenous communities,” says Slowey.


According to an international report, climate change is viewed as the most vital issue in the world. The Arctic is one of the regions which is heavily impacted and shows tangible evidence of global warming.

A timeline from NASA showing the melting arctic ice from 1979 to 2012, a result of rapid climate change. (Courtesy of NASA)

Unfortunately, the main reason interest has increased in the area over the past decades is due to the melting ice providing more opportunity to trade and extract resources, year round. Experts warn that such activity should be re-evaluated as the increased activity will only worsen the ongoing situation. 

Russia and China are heavily investing and cooperating on investment in northern sea routes and Arctic shelf resource extraction. Talks between the two countries began as far back as 2013 in regards to oil extraction in the Arctic, as the year round ice recedes further back. 

According to PhD. student Benjamin Johnson: “Russia is the biggest Arctic state and is actively pursuing resource development and infrastructure projects in addition to defence modernization of its Northern Fleet. Compared to Russia, Canada’s investment and presence is much smaller.”

Meanwhile China’s interest in the Arctic “is linked to China’s Belt and Road initiative, as well as energy investments in at least one Russian project and the obvious import/export incentives that the Arctic shipping routes may provide in the future,” Johnson says.

    “I think the general sentiment by energy/economic analysts is that there are a lot of issues that make exploration unattractive for the time being.”

The incentives include shorter routes to European and North American markets, which can circumvent the Suez Canal. Something that is crucial to Russia and China in gaining an upper hand in trade negotiation and deals. 

According to Slowey, the Canadian North has “the potential for offshore oil and gas —so the Arctic is rich in minerals and as technologies and climate change it becomes more feasible to extract in the region.” 

However, the public backlash at projects that are counterintuitive to preventing global warming have caused those ideas to not become reality.

“In terms of the circumpolar Arctic and energy development, there has been a freeze on offshore exploration activities in Canada since 2018. I think the general sentiment by energy/economic analysts is that there are a lot of issues that make exploration unattractive for the time being,” Johnson says.

Johnson also mentions multiple reasons for this public view, including competing development sites, and the negative attention caused by incidents such as the BP oil spill in 2010


The Canadian military presence in the Arctic has been criticized as underfunded and overlooked for decades, but Johnson believes the Trudeau government has begun to take correct steps, albeit different from other nations.

“There has been some movement since then in terms of defence focus and investment. I am focusing my research on Canada’s defence initiatives in relation to enhancing its ‘situational awareness’ in the Arctic, which is a major defence goal.” Johnson went on to explain, “The ‘All Domain Situational Awareness Program,’ which started in 2016, is a broad funding program that has awarded a number of development contracts to private companies and universities specifically working on research and development projects.”

Although many nations are investing to improve their operations in the north, major states focus on capabilities to station and maintain military presence with army, naval and air force units. For example, Russia’s Northern Fleet is entirely dedicated to securing and defending Russia’s bases and assets in the arctic.

Johnson continued: These projects are very diverse and span the range of domains (land, air, sea, space, electronic) and include things like drones (air and suboceanic), underwater sensors, quantum-based radar, satellites, and spectral imaging systems. The other aspect related to situational awareness is intelligence analysis, with the general goal being to provide real-time surveillance and intelligence pictures of the Arctic, including its coastline and even beyond the state’s territory.” 

The Canadian approach deviates in preferring to focus on a strategy that relies on technology over physical military presence such as army and navy bases. 

Johnson refers to what nations like Russia and the U.S. prefer, such as large military deployments, building large defence weapons, and infrastructure etc. 

“This is also a key site for the development and use of things like artificial intelligence and machine learning for augmenting human capabilities and decision making. In general, this approach to supporting Arctic security has been favoured by the state because it’s comparatively more cost-effective than other more labour intensive strategies,” Johnson says

“It fills a greater need for the range of security issues confronting the Arctic outside of narrow military considerations,” he adds.

The defence dilemma Canada is facing can be summarized by its massive landmass and its relatively small population of only 37 million. The entirety of the Canadian north, a landmass of nearly four million km2, with a unit of 1,800 rangers assigned to it. To put it into perspective, Russia, the only country bigger than Canada, has a population of 144 million — nearly four times larger than Canada. Additionally, the area is assigned to the Northern Fleet as well as ground forces, and air forces.

Despite the seemingly small steps taken by the liberal government, they are an improvement over previous attempts at bolstering northern defence. 

The Canadian Arctic is as full of possibility as it is full of problems. The potential for industry and infrastructure is massive, yet Canada has a record of disregarding communities and harming the environment. The biggest issue presiding over all that is the imminent danger presented by climate change, which would only be accelerated by meaningful development in the north.

About the Author

By Sergiy Slipchenko

Former Editor


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