H+K senior associate and Arctic affairs expert Lee Carson recently contributed to Vanguard Magazine with an article discussing Canada’s Northern Strategy and infrastructure. Lee is one of Canada’s most accomplished builders of surveillance systems for achieving maritime and northern situational and domain awareness.

This article was originally published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Vanguard Magazine.

As a consultant specializing in the infrastructure needs of Canada’s Northern Strategy, one of the first questions I am frequently asked by prospective and current clients is about commitment and timing. “Is Canada’s commitment to Arctic infrastructure development real, or is it just rhetoric? When will the money and the opportunities flow? What will trigger it?”

The reality is actually quite a bit ahead of the (southern) perception. Massive federal infrastructure projects in the North are already well underway and the money is flowing. Consider, for example, the recently completed Deh Cho bridge over the Mackenzie River, the new Canadian High Arctic Training Centre in Resolute, the ongoing construction of an all-weather road to the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk, the reconstruction of the airport at Iqaluit, the construction of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, just to name a few.

So the short answer is that the Northern Strategy is well into implementation.

That said, one must acknowledge that some of the most highly anticipated and needed major Arctic security and defence projects are delayed or stalled for various reasons. Legitimate questions are outstanding about when these projects will finally get underway, and what will trigger them.

Those questions were in my head when this summer’s events in Ukraine unfolded and with them a sudden and dramatic thaw in Canadian-Russian relations. How would this affect Canada’s Northern Strategy? Would this trigger Arctic security projects?

This summer I also had the great privilege of joining the 2014 Franklin search team, as a member of the so called Victoria Strait Expedition. Along with most of the civilian members of the team, this put me on the Russian-flagged and crewed Akademik Sergey Vavilov, also known as the One Ocean Voyager for this mission. A most interesting and unique vantage point from which to ponder my question!

The Sergey Vavilov was actually built in Finland as an oceanographic research vessel for the former Soviet government. It is well fitted out with acoustics equipment used to receive a variety of undersea signals. Canadian readers familiar with the DRDC research vessel CFAV Quest will be able to relate to the general characteristics of the Sergey Vavilov. More recently, the ship has been converted into a polar expedition cruise ship, with upgraded accommodation and hotel facilities for up to 92 passengers. The ship is no stranger to the Canadian Arctic, now chartered continuously by the Canadian polar cruise company One Ocean of Squamish, B.C.

The participation of the Sergey Vavilov and its Russian captain and crew on this expedition no doubt caused a lot of concern and distrust in the minds of Canadian government officials. So why then was it used and what did the government do to appease its concerns? The answer to the first question is that this ship was ideal for the expedition needs while there was no Canadian alternative available. It is capable of operating in ice, it is extremely quiet with excellent station keeping ability, it has the capability and equipment needed to launch and recover sophisticated Canadian-built undersea search equipment, it has a highly experienced crew of Arctic navigators and watch keepers, and it had the accommodation space and facilities needed to house the expedition donors and staff. And perhaps most importantly, it was offered by Canadian industry to the government at no cost, enabling the government to fend off criticism of spending too much money on an Arctic treasure hunt. Finally, the Canadian alternative, the CFAV Quest, is out of service.

Message control and security were the answers to the second question. News media were trained on Prime Minister Harper in Lancaster Sound, and kept far from the Sergey Vavilov. Where the vessel was mentioned on government sites, it was only referred to as the “European” ship One Ocean Voyager. Canada’s state of the art underwater survey vehicle and high resolution sonar were kept in a locked and constantly guarded container on the ship. (Those arrangements were to prove somewhat impractical, as we relied on Russian crane operators and deck hands to launch and recover the vehicle through the open roof of the container.) All in all it made for a very politically charged atmosphere aboard the ship. Gradually though, the atmosphere changed, mostly as the Canadians onboard developed a respect for the capabilities of the ship and for the professionalism and Arctic experience of the Russian crew.

So, what of broader implications? Will the chilling of relationships between Canada and our allies and Russia make a difference in the implementation of Canada’s Northern Strategy? Consider the following:

  1. How long with the chill last? The Prime Minister is on record as saying “Whether it takes five months or 50 years to liberate it, Canada will never, ever recognize the illegal Russian occupation of any Ukrainian territory.”
  1. What is the motivation for Canada’s hawkish stance? Canada has a large population of ethnic Ukrainian citizens, most of whom will appreciate the government’s line. Votes matter. But there’s more to it than that. Harper distrusts Putin on a personal level. And, finally, there is an aspect of business competition. Canada and Russia both rely on oil and gas exports to drive their economies, and an isolated Russia coupled with a CETA agreement perhaps opens an opportunity for Canada to take European energy export market share from Russia.
  1. What could we do about it? Canada and the West are already applying specific and targeted economic sanctions on Russia, and they are having a bite, with the ruble having already lost a quarter of its value against the Canadian dollar since Russia first moved into Crimea. The sanctions are not universal. Canada is still doing business with Russia in areas where the net benefit to Canada is considered to outweigh the impact to Russia, including the oil industry where Canadian innovation is helping to open up Russia’s Arctic oil frontier. Direct military conflict is not an option. Pipeline solutions for getting Canadian oil to tidewater, let alone to Europe, are long lead items.

My expectation, therefore, is that we are into a world familiar to industry executive readers: namely a period of “coopetition” in the North as the Great Game plays out. While we have competing strategic interests, which itself breeds distrust, the fact is that as a practical matter both countries need each other’s support in the Arctic in the short to medium term: Canada for ships and capabilities like that provided by the Sergey Vavilov, and Russia for enabling technologies to grow their own economy, including Arctic oil development, perhaps prototyping techniques that could eventually be used in our own Arctic.

In the meantime, Canada would be well served to invest in a replacement to the Quest and especially in additional Arctic surveillance capabilities to better monitor the neighbour we don’t trust.

Lee Carson is president of NORSTRAT Consulting and a senior associate at Hill+Knowlton Strategies specializing in Arctic matters. He was a speaker at MASS14.