With this work Laura Borzi delves into the complexity of the meaning of sovereignty in the context of the Canadian Arctic. Canada is facing today an urgent challenge: to make the framework of threats and global competition coexist with the multidimensionality of the Arctic sovereignty principle, including elements such as environmental protection and socio-economic development of the North, the rights and the security of Arctic peoples and their participation in the management of international relations, including the “neighbor” United States and with the other Arctic geographical giant, Russia.
Here we present the first part of the 3 chapters of Borzi's analysis. The second and third chapters, which we will make available in the next few weeks, will conclude the research on Canadian sovereignty in relation to indigenous peoples and on border issues with other Arctic countries.
in collaboration with Osservatorio Artico
- The (new) perception of security in the Arctic
- Russia and the sense of territorial integrity
- History of Canada and (non) evolution of the concept of sovereignty in the Arctic
- Canadian sovereignty and relationship with the United States: Defense against Help
- Canadian sovereignty and security - military defense
- Conclusions: a sovereignty to defend?
Scarcely considered by geopolitics throughout the last decade of the last century, the Arctic region has returned object of general attention from the years 2006-2007 due to the acceleration of global warming.
At the time, estimates of the wealth of the area's resources together with the high price of oil had fueled the idea of the Arctic as the new world energy frontier and as a shortcut to navigation to Asia.
Not only have the riparian states, the Artic Five, updated their policies in the North, but the interest of the rest of the international community in the region has also grown.
Through the leverage of scientific research, environmental protection and sustainable development, many actors, state and non-state, have tried to obtain that sort of diplomatic passport represented by the status of observer member of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum that since 1996 constitutes the pillar governance in the North.
If economic motivations, low oil prices and very high production costs have led to a decline in the Scramble for the Arctic adventure, the region remains more than ever under the lens of the international community.
It is not (or not only) the attractiveness of hydrocarbons to sensitize economic interests - which, moreover, remain focused on industrial activities already underway, such as mining, fishing and tourism.
Right now the new role of the region is rather of a political-military character: the possibility that global tensions, in particular the uninterrupted degradation of relations between NATO and Russia and the Sino-American competition, translate into dangers of conflict in the Arctic.
The return of power politics to the systemic level, connected to the melting of the ice which results in the opening of previously inaccessible spaces, has had significant effects on the perception of security for the coastal states.
This circumstance has a special significance for the two geographical giants, Russia and Canada, whose enormous Arctic territorial size (50% and 25% of the North) strongly influences their respective cultures and political identities.
This circumstance has sometimes evoked a nationalist rhetoric with particular emphasis on issues of sovereignty and security against external actors which seems to translate, at present, into a perceived need to increase military assets and civil infrastructures for the development of the territory and for its most punctual control.
The (new) perception of security in the Arctic
In this context, we want to pay attention to the dynamics that climate change has triggered on the perception of security in Russia and Canada, focusing mainly on the dimension of sovereignty which, in the north of the planet, is however a more complex issue for geographical reasons than elsewhere.
The sovereignty of a state, which in basic terms means that it does not recognize a superior authority above itself, under international law is divided into 3 components:
- a territory,
- a population residing on this territory,
- a system of governance.
These conditions must all be equally met even in a geographic space as large and sparsely populated as the Arctic.
Of course, the importance of states in defending their national sovereignty has to do with security. States defend their sovereignty first of all to safeguard their interests and values.
Arctic Region Map - By CIA World Factbook - CIA World Factbook, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
If in the past, in the period from the modern era to a few decades ago, in the world of borders that came out of the Peace of Wetsphalia, this protection took place essentially through the military instrument, in order to defend the territory from invasions by other states or to counteract revolts internal, today security (security and safety) must also be considered in the aspect of Human Security, for example to protect the well-being of the population or the preservation of the environment.
Russia and the sense of territorial integrity
An issue to which Russia also seems to be starting to pay more attention since the management of environmental and human challenges tests the country's territorial coherence and therefore the relaunch of the economic development of the North as a whole.
The hard security component is the element that remains prevalent in the Kremlin's mindset. And it couldn't be otherwise.
For Moscow, climate change has translated into a feeling of strategic vulnerability that has significantly affected the perception of security
In the past, the ice in the north constituted a natural protection capable of attenuating the feeling of encirclement and vulnerability which, historically, has always accompanied the management of an immense territory.
On the one hand, Western states are concerned about the militarization of the Russian Arctic border even if it is a coherent element of the ambitious policy for the Arctic region and a fundamental instrument for the affirmation of power.
On the other hand, in the north of the planet, the perception of the threat is connected to the military presence of NATO and the ability of the Arctic states to take action to update their defense and security policies in the area.
Russia fears the military presence of the Alliance which has manifested itself in particular with an increase in exercises in the North, a sign of political interest in a region that risks seeing its vocation as a peace area compromised.
Trident Juncture in 2018 was the largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War with 50,000 soldiers from 29 NATO countries, plus Finland and Sweden.
Beyond the numbers in terms of men and means, there are two aspects to underline:
- first, the exercise took place in Norway, the country that most supported the need for a commitment to the North of the Alliance;
- it was also held to show the Alliance's ability to defend a member state from attack by a foreign country.
Russian Arctic claims - Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Between logistical, operational and coordination challenges, in such a difficult environment at high latitudes, we want to give the signal that we are clearly prepared for feared future scenarios of crisis in the North.
The Kremlin did not fail to reiterate that the growing NATO activities in the area constitute a significant threat in the Arctic as well as a challenge to Russian maritime and military doctrine.
The fear of the strengthening of NATO's east flank and the geographical connection between the Arctic and the Baltic have repercussions at the polar level in particular in the security and military sectors. If the tensions in the Baltic and the Black Sea are of greater intensity, while further north the possibility of direct conflicts seems less concrete, the possibility of misunderstandings and in general risks of conflicts associated with the progressive geopoliticization of the area cannot be excluded.
A year ago, in the Kremlin's political document, “Basic Principles of Russian Politics in the Arctic”, Moscow's priority interest was that aimed at “guaranteeing sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Therefore, in this sense, a further development of an ambitious military and civilian modernization program in the North is presumed, a region necessarily the object of particular attention since it produces 20% of Russian GDP.
Russia focuses on the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a national international shipping route for the potential of energy and mineral resources. For this, marine and terrestrial infrastructures, submarine cables and everything that can support the development and exploitation of the riches of the North are needed. If actual successes can be found in the economic development of the Yamal Peninsula, the issue of the legal status of the NSR is less prominent.
The Kremlin intends to assert control of the Route as inland waters and this stance, like the Canadian Northwest Passage, is not shared by the rest of the international community. This could result in conflict situations in the case of the passage of foreign ships.
Moscow requires the fulfillment of a series of conditions for transit: permission for the passage of Russian ships and Russian pilots on board them, with the threat of the use of force in the event of non-compliance with the requests.
Still on issues of international law, Russia affirms territorial sovereignty along the Arctic border established in 2013 which groups the northern territories close to the Arctic Ocean or connected to it for economic reasons.
The objective is twofold: to secure the transport lines of the border and prepare for new threats, theoretical at this stage, precisely with regard to sovereignty, for example on the continental shelf.
In this regard, Moscow is attentive to issues of international law. In 2001 he was the first to submit an official application to the Commission for the delimitation of the continental shelf for the recognition of the Lomonosov and Mendeleiev ridges as continuity of the Russian territory.
Following the Commission's recommendations on the limits of the continental shelf, further documentation was provided in 2015.
The Russian claims overlap with the Danish and Canadian claims in the part relating to the Lomonosov ridge.
It is reasonable to expect that, as in the past, disputes will be resolved through a diplomatic process which could lead to an agreement.
We will return in greater depth to the issues relating to territorial sovereignty in the third part of this work.
The project to secure the North is part of the continuity of the Russian policy aimed at guaranteeing its sovereignty through operational capacity and readiness of the FFAA, as well as through legislation aimed at restricting the transit of military ships in the Northwest Passage.
Russian history and strategic culture remain necessarily anchored to the concept of defense of territorial borders, albeit for over two decades in a broadened sense. The need to have “some control” over neighboring countries is indicated by the fact that most of the military bases are located in this space and by the search for glacis, the relentless search for strategic depth.
The prospect of the opening of the North due to climate change feeds the perception of the end of the sanctuarization that the territory enjoyed in the past.
History of Canada and (non) evolution of the concept of sovereignty in the Arctic
The theme of sovereignty and security, seen from Ottawa, is much more complex, because it is likely to be expanded or restricted on the basis of the many subjects who seek its limits and coordinates in relation to their perspectives of interest.
Sovereignty in the Arctic is a recurring topic in Canadian political discourse. Attention is often focused on the amount of resources to be allocated precisely for the protection of sovereignty and the security of the North.
Territory, government and population. In fact, when Ottawa talks about sovereignty in the Arctic it refers to a multitude of issues: from the control of the archipelago's waters, to the defense of external threats, to the partnership with local communities and to nation building activities, to the support of the legitimate aspirations of the residents.
Canada Map - Public Domain, Via Wikimedia Commons
If Canadian researchers of international relations are particularly attentive to the aspect of sovereignty in the Arctic, external observers are perplexed about a certain apprehension about the theme that characterizes this approach of Ottawa compared to the other Arctic states.
All the Arctic Five are, like Canada, interested in resolving the remaining and not numerous territorial disputes under the banner of international law. However, elsewhere, the predominant theme is the complexity of threats, particularly those coming from other states (Russia and China for the West) or groups of states (such as the Atlantic Alliance for Russia).
The current threats are now evident also for Canada in which the need for a no longer postponable updating of the concept of Arctic sovereignty seems to begin to emerge, which is part of the global competition in which the analysis of the threat to the country is relevant as a whole, not so much in the Arctic but across the Arctic.
This Canadian propensity to focus on Arctic sovereignty rather than the defense of the entire territory finds its explanation in Canadian history.
On the one hand, there is the tradition of having to seek its own safe route, juggling the politics of the great allied powers, in the order of the United Kingdom and the United States. Secondly, there is a long and difficult story to secure the title in the territory by a nation that has its origins in a colony experience, New France and English North America, and which, up to half of the 19th century, it did not have its own government.
In what will become Canada, it was the British who developed an interest in the Arctic areas, exploring and colonizing them. In 1670 the Hudson's Bay Company was granted a monopoly of trade over the region. It ruled de facto (without, however, having in while the development of the territory) until the states reclaimed the territories amid numerous conflicts, in particular for the fur trade.
Colonies evolved with the changing borders of military conquest and gaining the freedom to express their autonomous policy towards the motherland. Beginning in 1867, Canada gradually gained independence by gaining control of foreign policy in 1931.
As for the North, just 130 years ago, Canadian sovereignty was far from being assured.
In 1880, Great Britain ceded the islands of the Arctic archipelago to the new dominion which for a quarter of a century was not interested in the area at least until the Klondike Gold Rush (1896).
In the early twentieth century, the government sent exploratory missions to collect customs duties in a modest assertion of legitimate power.
Only in the period between the wars were established in the north the Gendarmerie Royale stations to show a continuous presence, although the geography exclude any kind of military threat, given the isolation from outbreaks in Europe and Asia.
From the Second World War, the Canadian Arctic acquired its own strategic importance and, since then, it is in relation to its American neighbor that issues of sovereignty acquire particular importance: the protection of the North means the protection of the Continent.
With these premises, it is possible to better understand and identify the key elements of the Canadian dossier on Arctic sovereignty, ultimately wanting to assess whether and to what extent these remain adequate to contemporary threats and challenges.
Canadian sovereignty and relationship with the United States: Defense against Help
As we have seen, Canada's relationship with its powerful American neighbor acquires greater significance starting from the Second World War when Washington takes action to ensure the protection of North America by providing military presence and capabilities for the Canadian Arctic.
Concern over land and air routes to Alaska has caused the Americans to conclude agreements with Canada to build infrastructure, including an oil pipeline, airfields and a highway in the Northeast.
Once American personnel were on the scene, with Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King (1935-1948) it was feared that security initiatives would pose a risk to sovereignty. Instead, at the end of the war and, at the request of Ottawa, the permanent installations passed into the hands of the Canadians.
But the interdependence between security and sovereignty was now a concept that was affirmed in all its scope. American security thus proved to be strongly related to Arctic defense.
Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker via Canadian Coast Guard
Due to the short distance from adversaries, the North has taken an interest in Western and Soviet nuclear planning, as indicated by the polar maps of the time, and the rivalry between the two blocs has had a significant impact on Arctic defense.
During the 1950s, with the intensification of the Cold War, an air defense complex was therefore built across North America with the aim of tracking Soviet bombers. From the first series of radar stations, the Pinetree line, the Mid Canada Line and the Distant Early Warning, completed in 1957, to their replacement with the North Early Warning System.
The sites were subjected to a joint US-Canada command and control system, NORAD, North American Aerospace Defense Command, established in '58 and subject to various updates since then.
This American presence has fueled Ottawa's fear of a “weakening” of sovereign rights in the North, but the perceived threat has not materialized, as the US has proved to be a reliable partner ready to leave Canadian territory once the projects were coming to an end.
During the Cold War, NATO and bilateral agreements with the United States ensured Canadian security. And not only that.
NORAD, whose fundamental function was the defense against airstrikes and the Soviet invasion, allowed Canada to participate in the defense of its territory and to “protect itself” from the United States. Here we want to refer to a concept of great importance for understanding the particularity of the Canada - United States relationship: that of defense against help.
This is a thesis developed by a Norwegian researcher, Nils Ørvik, at the beginning of the 1970s, which more generally concerns the dynamics of relations between minor states compared to major powers in the field of defence:
in the event that Canada had not provided a minimum of defense against external threats to the point of making the US vulnerable, the United States would have taken unilateral action at the cost of threatening or violating Canadian sovereignty.
Given the power gap between the two states and the American determination to protect itself from external threats, NORAD has given Ottawa a tool to control the defense (external sovereignty) of its territory.
More than 60 years later, bilateral agreements with the United States can be considered to have guaranteed Canadian security at a relatively low cost. In this way, Canada has carved out a role of security provider rather than just that of “consumer”.
A solid Arctic diplomacy has managed to preserve sovereignty in the North, saving the inaccessible cost of unilaterally defending the most distant regions, and has made it possible to make a contribution to international security through peacekeeping missions (expanding the concept of human security in foreign policy) and the Atlantic Alliance in Europe.
With regard to the current strategic landscape, the urgent question is precisely that of updating NORAD to the new threats, namely the military capabilities of the revisionist powers and their doctrines regarding the use of the new generation of nuclear and conventional precision weapons.
The need is expressed in the 2017 Strong Secure Engaged Defense Policy Paper, the September 2019 (Arctic and Northern Policy Framework) chapter on Canada's defense startegy, and the mandate letters to the new government ministers.
NORAD Map, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The issue of the modernization of NORAD, still the only bi-national military command of its kind, was addressed in the first meeting with President Joe Biden on February 23, 2021. The Joint Declaration indicates the beginning of an Arctic dialogue between the two countries which will cover various issues, from continental security, to social and economic development, to Arctic governance.
NORAD will remain the dominant dossier of the defense agenda of the Canada-US relationship, while the new American administration is working hard to put relations with allies back on a new track in the face of the emerging threats from Russia and a China.
From the perspective of the bilateral relationship, threats to Arctic sovereignty are essentially threats to the American continent, and therefore concern the defense of the entire Canadian territory.
Canadian sovereignty and security - military defense
Notoriously, the sovereignty of the state is also exercised with the control of the territory through the presence of instruments of force that can be activated in the event of external threats also for the purpose of “showing the flag”.
Indeed, the Canadian federal government has often referred to FFAAs whenever necessary in order to address perceived “sovereignty crises”. This occurred punctually with the trips of the Manhattan in the '69s and' 70s and with those of the Polar Star, up to the various stages of discussions regarding Hans's Island.
In the decade 2006-2015, with the conservative government of Prime Minister Harper, the FFAA were considered the cornerstone of the strategy on sovereignty based on a constant principle: use it or loose it.
What was needed in the North was an increase in military capabilities, more boots on the ground and eyes in the sky, a position specially conceived to note the weakness of liberals on the subject.
The reference is to the primordial role of the FFAA in the defense of sovereignty and to the existence of an essential relationship between the military element and the state. The notion that a country that fails to demonstrate effective occupancy and control of its territory can lose sovereignty through abandonment.
This attitude of the conservatives on the defense of the territory was part of a vision of Canada probably beyond its means, which deserves to be contextualized.
The Harper mandate (2006-2015) coincided on the one hand with the return of the Arctic to global geopolitical attention, and on the other with a concomitant situation of severe shortage of military assets in the North, a consequence of the scarce attention paid to the strategic theater of East-West confrontation once the Soviet empire collapsed.
In 2000, Canadian capabilities to operate in the North had atrophied: in the three Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon, they consisted of a headquarters in Yellowknife with a staff of 77 people, 4 Twin Otter Transport helicopters, small stations along the North Warning System and the First Canadian Rangers Patrol Group.
The fact that the Arctic was an element of concern for defense and other government departments is confirmed at the beginning of the millennium by the Department of Defense with the report Arctic Capability Study, in which emerging trends and potential threats were indicated by taking stock of the asset in the arctic. The shortcomings were such that it was not possible to carry out the basic missions of the FFAA in Canadian territory: from Search & Rescue and environmental protection missions, to humanitarian assistance or support for civilian power.
The data from the scientific community were also worrying, indicating the opening within twenty years of the Northwest Passage to navigation for part of the year and the potential challenges of sovereignty deriving from the increase in transits in the PNO that could endanger the legal status of passage as Canada's historic inland waters.
According to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, in international straits there is a right of passage for foreign ships and, among others, neither the US nor the EU, the most important allies, recognized the Canadian position as well founded. Therefore, it was important to exercise control over the area in question.
In 2006, in the course of a testimony to the Senate Permanent Commission on Security and Defense, a leading expert in international law, Donat Pharand, warned that if the country did not take adequate measures of control, Arctic sovereignty would collapse.
The liberal Trudeau government, which succeeded Harper in 2015, has pushed forward the concept of the importance of the Arctic to the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
It is with the Strong Secure and Engaged defense policy document (2017) that the approach to regional security is outlined in detail on the basis of some elements:
• Increase in unconventional threats coming not from state actors, but from commercial interests
• Navigation, scientific research and tourism that pose new security questions
• Increasing need for search and rescue activities for natural or human-induced disasters
In this sense, procurement was oriented towards adequate assets such as surveillance and information systems and the improvement of situational awareness and tactical movement, with an integrated approach of the various government departments (whole of government approach) and the strengthening of relations with allies.
Issues of sovereignty and security are reiterated in the Arctic Strategy which makes many references to the 2017 document.
The presence in the North is firmly asserted, thanks to an increased military commitment, territorial control and strengthening of emergency management, with the essential collaboration with local communities, indigenous groups and international partners.
The Trudeau government has given continuity to the commitments and investments of the previous Conservative government with an increase in the military presence in the Arctic and in the long run the term “sovereignty” is used much more sparingly.
Distinguishing itself in this from the tradition of conservatives, a semantic migration takes place towards terms such as “control and surveillance”.
The document records the increase of security issues rather than conventional defense threats, confirming an approach to defense planning in a ten-year timeline. The military component is seen with a view to improving its mobility and reaching the territories further north, establishing a greater presence in the Arctic to manage an immense territory in an area of over 10 million square km.
In line with previous defense materials, the message we want to convey is the need to prepare to support search and rescue (SAR) activities and pay attention to the chapters relating to environmental disasters, lack of services (water, food, energy), problems relating to navigation, criminal activities, the interference of state or non-state actors on safety.
Overall Defense Policy touches the right notes.
In this context, the indigenous communities, on which we will dwell in the second chapter of this article in relation to the concept of sovereignty, are the most effective presence in the North.
It is therefore considered necessary to increase collaboration through the Canadian Rangers and the Junior Canadian Rangers. This aspect of attention to indigenous peoples is particularly important for the focus given by the Trudeau government to the attribution of responsibilities to Aborigines. In this sense, the Defense indicates that the training of Rangers, a tradition of defense policy dating back to the 70s, will be improved and intensified.
Canadian Rangers in Nunavut, Canada
The Rangers have been in Canadian history the functional answer to the challenges of a territory of great distances, scarce human resources and exponential costs. This has made it essential and effective to rely on the knowledge of local populations.
Their importance in the Arctic is consistent with Trudeau's policy of reconciliation with the aborigines. Their abilities have been increasingly referred to in recent years, as the issues of the North have taken on ever greater importance. However, an increase in their use also as operating and training time could have a damaging effect.
Having outlined the need for Ottawa to “return” to the North, it is necessary to evaluate in what sense the presence of the FFAA can constitute the defense of sovereignty.
According to the Canadian history of land acquisition, surveillance and military presence on the ground are often associated with the credibility of the country in defense of sovereignty, which is why an increase in the armed forces has appeared natural since the era of Pierre Trudeau (1968 -1979 and 1980-84).
As in the past, today the “sovereignty in the Arctic” dossier seems to be based on legal, political and economic conditions.
If the military presence for surveillance and control activities is a necessary element for the exercise of sovereignty, it cannot be the sole basis. If anything, the military component should have an essential support role, retaining a consistent ability to respond to a wide range of internal issues such as:
- military support to civilian organizations regarding national security
- compliance with the law
- rapid response to emergencies
- contribution to search and rescue operations.
Conclusions: a sovereignty to defend?
The defense of sovereignty in the Arctic or in the rest of Canada is not a question of borders.
The challenges for Canada as well as for every other nation in the world do not come from a ground invasion threats, but consist of a very different kind of threats such as:
- cyber attacks,
- theft of intellectual property,
- propaganda and interference among the population and in particular in the formation of opinions and in the mechanism of the electoral process.
The social and political system of democracies has become complex everywhere (see for example the possibility of online voting) and as such more vulnerable to external manipulation.
In fact, it is totally inappropriate to speculate on the condition for which, in the near future, the North can be a vector through which opponents will try to hit the Candian vulnerability, as happens in other parts of the planet.
A first example of disinformation activity is that aimed at undermining the relationship between allies, for example by leveraging existing disagreements or debates even if, as has been observed, the Arctic differences are likely to be resolved in the light of the dense legal structure UNCLOS.
Instead, more dangerous could be the spread of false news on issues of the Canadian Arctic.
For example, negatively fueling the debate on aspects on which the government and local representatives have expressed different views, lends itself to exploitation of external actors.
Other actors could take advantage of the opportunity to create political conflicts, undermine social cohesion or increase polarization, a way to ultimately sabotage the coherence of vision necessary to face as a community, both in the North and in the rest of the planet, the challenges and to present and future threats.
A state with a weak internal cohesion inevitably weakens also in the international dimension, being less able to achieve its strategic objectives on a global scale.
What must make us reflect in the broader geopolitical framework are the attitudes of Russia and China to the North of the world not interested in conquering territories or hoarding Canadian resources but rather in using the North as a theater of diversion.
Attention to the area, also in terms of focus on increasing Russian military capabilities and the economic power of Beijing, a possible preview of military garrisons, risks displacing Canada's (and Western's) resources from other areas of the planet where major interests are at stake.
Opponents eventually expand their margin of maneuver systemically to achieve their goals on a global scale.
Canada, a nation of great Nordic geographical weight, but of a much more modest nature in world politics, will have to replace the concept of Arctic sovereignty with that of defending the entire territory from present and future threats, in the awareness that the international context that affects 'Canadian Arctic is much more problematic and uncertain than in the past.
*Analyst at the Centro Studi Italia-Canada, Arctic and canadian foreign policy expert
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 A broad definition of Human Security is provided by the Human Development Report (HDR-United Nations 1994. There are seven categories that qualify the threats to human security: community security (tensions between ethnic groups, loss of traditional culture), economic security (poverty, unemployment), environmental security (pollution), food security (access to food), health security (disease, malnutrition), personal security (torture, domestic violence, suicides), political security (repression). http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/255/hdr_1994_en_complete_nostats.pdf
 Cooperation is facilitated by Article 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea UNCLOS (1984) which defines the continental shelf, establishes that the Commission shall make recommendations to coastal States on matters related to the establishment of the outer limits of their continental shelf. The limits of the shelf established by a coastal State on the basis of these recommendations shall be final and binding. However, this does not prejudice the delimitation of the continental shelf between States with opposite or adjacent coasts. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.