In Defense of CCGS Diefenbaker – The Good and Bad of Harper’s Arctic Foreign Policy

As the Arctic warms there will be increased shipping, resource development, and the potential for confrontation. Canada must increase its presence in the region, but it should do this through Canadian Coast Guard not Royal Canadian Navy procurements. Building the CCGS Diefenbaker is thus a good policy move, while the Arctic Patrol Ship Policy is a bad one.

Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made Arctic sovereignty a key part of Canada’s foreign policy agenda. Harper has visited the Arctic every summer since becoming Prime Minister. During extensive military operations on Ellesmere and Baffin islands, Harper has made grandiose speeches to Canadian Forces. In 2010 he stated: “The first responsibility of government is to take care of our security . . . Nothing comes before that.” When two Russian bombers made a routine flight along the edge of Canada’s northern airspace, Canada responded by having fighter jets intercept and shadow them, causing Harper to declare that “at no time did Russian aircraft enter Canadian sovereign airspace.” While Harper’s actions on Arctic sovereignty appear to be an attempt to use the military to secure Canada’s Arctic region, it is in fact only a façade – it is useless for Canada to project military force in the Arctic. Harper’s use of the military in the Arctic is largely to gain domestic political support.

Talking tough for domestic political gain – Prime Minister Stephen Harper (left) and Minister of Defence Peter MacKay

No risk of armed conflict in the Arctic
The reason it is useless for Canada to project military force in the Arctic is because there is no risk of armed conflict in the Arctic. By ‘armed conflict’ I refer to states using military operations to resolve disputes through the use of force.  International law, not military force, will maintain Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. The Government of Canada’s “Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy” points out Canada’s only disagreements over Arctic territory are with Denmark over Hans Island and the Lincoln Sea maritime boundary, and with the United States over the Beaufort Sea maritime boundary. It also states: “All disagreements are well-managed, neither posing defence challenges for Canada . . . Canada will continue to manage these discrete boundary issues and will also, as a priority, seek to work with our neighbours to explore the possibility of resolving them in accordance with international law.” Canada and other Arctic states are currently mapping the undersea continental shelves of the Arctic, which would solve the issue diplomatically through the Law of the Sea Convention. Furthermore the very idea of Canada going to war with the United States or Denmark is laughable. Although Russia has been a historic rival, co-operation reigns supreme for Canada-Russia relations as well. A 2010 Wikileaks cable revealed Harper told NATO that “Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic.” Therefore Harper’s use of the military in the Arctic is likely an effort to gain domestic political backing, as a foreign policy move it is useless.

It is necessary for Canada to occupy the Arctic – Increased Shipping
There is little doubt shipping traffic in the Arctic region will increase in the near future. As the world’s climate warms, so too will the Arctic, meaning ice will melt and the Arctic will become more accessible. This will benefit shipping, using the North-west Passage means 15% of the distance is cut from the current Rotterdam to Shanghai route, Russia’s Northern Sea Route cuts 22%. Furthermore both Arctic routes are pirate-free. In 2011 there were 22 North-west Passage transits and in 2010 there were 18 compared to a historical average of 1 or 2. In 2011 there were 34 Northern Sea Route transits. Even if one were to exclude the need to secure Arctic-resources, increased shipping caused by newly navigable transit routes alone creates a need to patrol the Arctic. The North-west passage is completely encompassed by Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. Canada therefore must increase its presence in the Arctic because of the “increase in environmental threats, search and rescue incidents, civil emergencies and potential illegal activities.” (Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy) Just as Canada patrols its Pacific and Atlantic coasts, it must also patrol its Arctic coast.  Increased shipping means increased patrolling.

Shipping Routes – from The Economist

Resource Development
There is huge potential for Arctic resource development. According to a 2008 Study by the US Geological Survey, the Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 13% and 30% of the world’s estimated undiscovered reserves respectively. Creating the infrastructure needed to extract these reserves will again increase Arctic traffic, needing an increased Canadian presence for the same reasons as increased shipping.

Resources – from The Economist

The potential for a confrontation
Although all Arctic disputes are currently well managed, and there is no risk of armed conflict, there is always a risk of confrontation. By confrontation, I refer to non-military operations that work to resolve situations diplomatically, not through force. In 1995 Canada confronted Spain over resources off the coast of Newfoundland. During the ‘Fish War’ Canada’s Coast Guard CCGS Cape Roger actually fired shots at Spanish fishing vessels to halt illegal fishing by Spain. The situation was later resolved diplomatically and in Canada’s favor.  A similar situation could arise in the Arctic. Resource-disputes could cause confrontation, and the potential for confrontation means Canada will once again need to have an increased presence in the Arctic.

CCGS Louis St. Laurent (top) and a USCGC Healey

Canada’s Arctic Policy going forward – Procurements
As previously mentioned for Canada to project military force in the Arctic is useless, however increased presence is needed to patrol increased shipping, resource development, and to mitigate potential confrontations. This presence should therefore be Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) rather than the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). The Department of Fisheries and Oceans 2012 announcement on behalf of the Government of Canada that it is investing $720 million to build a new polar icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, is a necessary move in order to increase Canada’s presence. The new CCG flagship will replace the current CCGS Louis St. Laurent, and will have increased capabilities. The CCGS Diefenbaker will be able to navigate the Arctic Archipelago for three seasons per year and break ice up to 2.5 meters thick, while the CCGS St. Laurent is only able to operate for two seasons per year and break ice up to 1.3 meters thick. Both vessels will be/are armed. Canada’s procurement of the CCGS Diefenbaker accommodates an increased presence in the Arctic, and is therefore a necessary policy move.

Although CCGS Diefenbaker will still not have the capabilities over other American or Russian polar icebreakers, it still is a move to increase Canadian presence. Increasing Canadian presence in the Arctic is not a competition, but a practice in international co-operation.  International shipping will require a international policing effort under international law, resource-development will require research that can be best achieved when there is international co-operation.  Canada should participate in these activities to increase its presence, a goal that CCGS Diefenbaker accommodates.

CCGS Lois St. Laurent flanked by a Russian nuclear icebreaker NS Yamal (near, right) and a USCGC Polar Sea

Canada’s Arctic Patrol Ship Policy is a move in the wrong direction. The project will see the procurement of six to eight ice-capable patrol vessels for the RCN. As previously pointed out, there is no need for a Canadian military presence in the Arctic, and therefore the Patrol Ship Policy is misdirected. Since there is a need for increased presence, Canada should instead invest in CCG vessels. During the ‘Fish War,’ it was CCG ships, not naval vessels, that were needed to confront Spain. Furthermore the CCG is more versatile, able to respond to more situations than the RCN. As the Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy outlines, Canada must be able to respond to environmental threats, search and rescue incidents, civil emergencies and potential illegal activities. The CCG is by definition better able to do this, as the RCN is more focused on projecting military force. Michael Byers, one of Canada’s leading experts on polar issues from the University of British Columbia states: “I am personally hoping that there will be some reversal of these plans. So instead of getting new ships for the navy, we’ll get new ships for the coast guard . . . The fact that the promises haven’t been fulfilled yet means there’s time to alter the plans.”

Works Cited
“Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ship.” National Defence and the Canadian Forces. 3 April 2012.
Bartleman, James. Rollercoaster: My Hectic Years as Jean Chrétien’s Diplomatic Advisor 1994-1998. Toronto: McClelland and Steward Ltd., 2005.

“CCGS John G. Diefenbaker.” Global Security. 13 September 2012.

Ibbitson, John. “Harper gears up for another round of Arctic chest-thumping.” The Globe and Mail, 19 July 2011. for-another-round-of-arctic-chest-thumping/article2101851/

Ibbitson, John. “Harper’s Arctic ice show: political stagecraft masks cold reality.” The Globe and Mail, 25 August, 2010. show-political-stagecraft-masks-cold-reality/article1685471/

McRae, Donald. “Rethinking the Arctic: A New Agenda for Canada and the United States.” In Canada Among Nations 2009-2010, edited by Fen Osler Hampson and Paul Heinbecker, 245-254. Montreal: McGill University Press, 2010.

“The Melting North. The Arctic Special Report” The Economist vol. 403 no. 8789, 16 June 2012.

“National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy.” National Defence and Canadian Forces. 18 October 2012.

Press, Jordan and Randy Boswell. “Military spending in North ‘critical,’ despite budget overages: Harper.” National Post, 24 August 2012.

“Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy: Exercising Sovereignty and Promoting Canada’s Northern Strategy Abroad.” Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. 26 September 2012. polaire/canada_arctic_foreign_policy_booklet- la_politique_etrangere_du_canada_pour_arctique_livret.aspx?lang=eng&view=d# sovereignty


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