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Geopolitics

Arctic: Canada Flexes Its Military Muscle, Puts Russia On Alert

Canada is looking for ways to exert its authority in the Great North, as global warming invites competition for the region’s valuable resources. Of particular concern is Russia, which is seeking permission from the UN to extend its Arctic borders.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on hand for Arctic military operations in 2010
Prime Minister Stephen Harper on hand for Arctic military operations in 2010
Ludovic Hirztmann

MONTREAL – Canada is keeping a cautious eye on the Great North, preparing for a fight, if needs be, to protect valuable natural resources that global warming is making more accessible – to everyone.

Its latest military preparation is a large-scale Arctic mission dubbed "Operation Nanook 11," which Canada just launched together with the United States and Denmark. The mission to defend Ottawa's sovereignty in the Far North will extend until the end of August in the straits of Lancaster and Davis, in Baffin Bay and on and around Cornwallis Island.

Nanook 11 involves some 1,100 soldiers, a modest number by Canadian standards. The operation goes hand-in-hand, however, with other military efforts in the region. Ottawa has recently increased the number of Inuit rangers it relies on to protect the Arctic region. It has also modernized its far northern facilities.

Analysts say Nanook 11 was planned as a warning to Russia, Canada's main rival in the area. Russia has announced it wants to extend its Arctic borders, with the Kremlin promising to file an official request to the UN in 2012 asking for an expansion of Russia's continental shelf.

"The north is ours. We want to show our international partners that we are settled here. This is what we're aiming at," Lieutenant-Commander Luc Tremblay recently told Radio Canada.

At the beginning of his first term in 2006, Canada's conservative Prime minister Stephen Harper made a military buildup in the Far North a top priority. Since then, however, Ottawa has pursued more of a soft power approach, seeking allies and multiplying scientific and public relations missions to show the world that the Arctic region is definitely Canadian.

The government's heightened interest vis-à-vis the Great North has much to do with global warming, which is making it easier for boats to move in the Arctic. Last week's Arctic voyage by Michel Rocard, the French ambassador in charge of the international negotiations regarding the Arctic and Antarctica regions, was a case in point. Rocard traveled aboard the Quebecois icebreaker Admundsen.

Last month, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC, the ice floe hit its lowest level for this time of year since satellite-assisted measurements began in 1979. The gradual melt has sparked an international wrestling match over control of the Arctic's oil, gas and massive fish resources.

The new Promised Land

Snow crabs could soon taste like oil. The Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs granted block licenses to oil companies such as Husky Energy, ConocoPhilips, Imperial Oil, MGM Energy and Shell in the Beaufort Sea and in the Canadian Far North. For oil companies, the Arctic is the new promise land. "This land is of strategic interest for us," said Colleen McConnel, a spokeswoman for Husky Energy.

Arctic oil and gas resources would represent about one fifth of the planet's undiscovered hydrocarbon stocks, and Canada's conservative government has ruled out any moratorium on the region.

Mr. Harper says northern oil exploration is not a threat to the environment. "Rules are exceedingly strict in Canada," he told reporters last year, not long after British Petroleum's devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most environmental groups disagree. In one of its reports on the Arctic region, the World Wildlife Fund Canada complains that the country's "regulations are too relaxed." The report goes on to say that humans have yet to come up with a way to remove oil from ice-covered waters.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Office of Energy Efficiency published a report arguing that even if a spill were to occur in July, the warmest month of the year, extreme weather conditions in the north would severely hamper clean up efforts.

The Canadian military seems to agree. "It's a really tough environment to live in. Having to deal with the Arctic region is sometimes harder than dealing with Afghanistan," said Captain Tremblay. "Our biggest problem is logistics. But it's also hard for us to know how much time we can spend working out in the cold."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Canadian Forces Combat Camera

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