Canada should be at the forefront of an international push to de-militarize the Arctic and declare it a nuclear-free zone,
one of the country's prominent foreign affairs ministers said Wednesday.

Aside from the Arctic Council, which does not deal with security issues, there's very little international framework governing the Far North — and that makes Lloyd Axworthy nervous.

It's important Canada prepare some kind of diplomatic initiative before the United Nations begins drawing Arctic boundaries between nations over the next few years, said Axworthy, who served as Jean Chretien's foreign affairs minister and helped establish the treaty that bans anti-personnel land mines.

A de-militarized, nuclear-free Arctic "is an idea whose time has come," Axworthy said during a break at a Canadian Defence Association Institute symposium on the effects of climate change on security policy.

"I think the way things are going, internationally, it would be a way to put the brakes on Putin."

That may be easier said than done, since Russia has reactivated a whole series of Cold War-era bases in the Arctic, stationed brigade-sized units in the North and increased long-range strategic bomber patrols. Russia also carried out a massive training exercise earlier this year that simulated a nuclear confrontation.

'A strategic buffer'

Axworthy's comments come as an internal Department of National Defence analysis suggests Russia's international posture and military buildup could be meant to give itself some breathing room.

"Russian actions have been consistent with territorial defence," said a censored briefing dated Oct. 31, 2014, stamped
"Secret, Canadian Eyes Only" and obtained by The Canadian Press. "Moscow also aims to maintain a strategic buffer to defend against potential foreign intrusion."

Even before the climate change debate, the frozen North was a silently contested arena. U.S. and Russian nuclear-powered submarines routinely prowled below the ice and land-based radar stations provided early warning of Russian bombers and missiles during the decades-long standoff with the former Soviet Union.

The thawing sea lanes and landscape have opened up the possibility of a scramble for resources, where scientists estimate 13 per cent of the world's undiscovered conventional oil resources and 30 per cent of its undiscovered natural gas resources are located.

The Harper government has sought to increase Canada's military presence in the North through light naval icebreakers, a new deep-water base and more winter warfare exercises.

A sensor and surveillance network in the North

But Axworthy said Canada's efforts pale in comparison to the billions being spent by Russia; he says even Norway is spending more on its Arctic defence.

"Something needs to happen to get people to think more seriously about the security side," he said.

Canada needs to invest more in creating a sensor and surveillance network in the North that could double as an environmental monitor, tracking both security activity and ecological change.

The National Defence briefing says Russia's activities have caught the attention of NATO and forced it to reconsider the importance of the Arctic and a review of the military alliance's policy towards the region.

"I know that we have that beautifully calm, competent Canadian sense of complacency, but the reality is there is a serious military issue that needs to be worked at," Axworthy told the roundtable.

None of the Arctic nations have international agreements on the size of forces in the region, activity or boundaries, he noted.