How Vulnerable is the Canadian Arctic to Malicious Threats?

By Stefanie Fisher, M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University

In recent years it has become a common assumption that the Arctic region is vulnerable to threats from terrorists, piracy, human trafficking, and foreign states (among other modern external threats). The rhetoric produced by the Canadian government, in reference to the Arctic, is primarily concerned with maintaining Canadian sovereignty and security in the region. This has created the perception that the Canadian Arctic is particularly susceptible to external security threats, thereby necessitating a strong military presence and sophisticated technology in order to monitor for incoming missiles and/or drones. Several Canadian scholars, who frame the Arctic as a region whose security must be taken seriously, have exacerbated this thinking. However, this grim picture that has been painted is misleading. The realities of the Arctic starkly contrast the perceptions that have been created. Simply put, this alarmist rhetoric is hindering the real progress, which is being made by the Arctic states. Therefore, it is important that the focus be switched, and more attention be paid to the cooperation seen within the Arctic.

Why are we vulnerable? A look at why security has been framed as a pressing issue for the Arctic

The Arctic has long been framed as vulnerable and in need of heightened security. This mindset began in part due to fears during the Cold War of a Russian attack targeting the Arctic. More recently, the primary concern has been with melting sea ice, allowing for greater mobility in Arctic waters and creating “complex security challenges” (ranging from natural disasters and climate change complications to organized crime and espionage). This is not a new phenomenon for Arctic states, however, there seems to be a new sense of urgency amongst governments to heighten security, as interest in the region becomes greater. In conjunction with these threats, the fear of a Russian invasion continues to persist. This is partially due to their recent activity in Crimea, and their history of using military force to solve political issues—however, this is not the precedent that Russia has set in the Arctic.

There continues to be several assumptions as to why the Canadian Arctic is vulnerable, with a limited understanding of whether these fears will be realized. The recommendations put forth by scholars like Rob Huebert, along with priorities outlined in Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy, indicate that the solution to the outlined security concerns is a strong presence in our Arctic, through both the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and NORAD. However, the concerns facing the Arctic are not conventional military threats, thereby necessitating a response that can speak to the evolving environmental and human concerns present in the Arctic.

The realities of the Arctic security environment

As has been elucidated, some governments and scholars describe the Arctic as a region that is in need of heightened security, due to the likelihood of malicious actors using the Arctic as a gateway to attack North America. However, this is a highly contested claim, and for good reason, as the level of collaboration in the Arctic suggests a far different security reality than what has been popularized. Further, the sensationalist narrative that depicts Russia as a likely enemy in the Arctic, is conflicting to their actions in the region. Russia has always maintained their commitments under UNCLOS, which outlines sovereign maritime borders in the Arctic. Additionally, Russia has an interest in upholding international law as a large part of their international leverage comes from institutions such as the UN. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Russia would sever its diplomatic ties in the Arctic, as they have spent decades fostering and maintaining strong relationships.

Canada and the US maintain a strong joint defence relationship, capable of detecting not only threats from Russia, but also from potential terrorists and criminal networks. Further, regardless of the melting ice, the Arctic is still (and will remain) an unsafe passage for travelers, making it unlikely to see heavy traffic from international vessels. While it is positive that the Arctic is being given the long awaited attention it deserves, security in the region should be framed far differently, with less consideration to external threats and more to the immediate security of its people and the environment.

A different outlook for the Arctic   

The level of international cooperation in the Arctic is unprecedented. And, while ensuring that the Arctic is secure from external (and some internal) threats is important, there should be a far greater focus on organizations such as the Arctic Council, which sees all eight Arctic states coming together with various indigenous organizations and environmental groups, in order to protect the Arctic region. There is no question that the Arctic will face a host of new issues as the effects of climate change begin to become further apparent, and as the international community becomes more engaged and interested in Arctic navigation and resources. However, our joint defence capabilities and the continued difficulties with Arctic navigation, indicate that the North American Arctic is not only secure, but far from becoming a highly traversed region.

Therefore, a more favorable use of the new found interest in the Arctic would be to switch gears and bring to light the importance of international cooperation when it comes to matters like climate change and Arctic governance.


This entry has also been posted to the blog for Centre for Security, Intelligence and Defence Studies

Canadian Rangers” by US Embassy Canada is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Categories: Arctic Security

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