Arctic of 'strategic importance' to Canada: PM

Canada's future is tied to its ability to defend its land and waters, including the Arctic, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday aboard a navy ship in Frobisher Bay near Iqaluit.
Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk, left, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, centre, and Defence Minister Peter McKay approach the submarine HMCS Corner Brook in Frobisher Bay off Baffin Island near Iqaluit on Wednesday. ((Andy Clark/Reuters))

Canada's future is tied to its ability to defend its land and waters, including the Arctic, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday aboard a navy ship in Frobisher Bay near Iqaluit.

Harper arrived on the frigate HMCS Toronto by helicopter to observe Operation Nanook, the Canadian Forces' annual sovereignty exercise in the eastern Arctic.

The prime minister said Operation Nanook is Canada's most ambitious sovereignty exercise, adding that it's underway as other countries are probing northern Canada by sea and by air.

'Use it or lose it'

"With immense natural wealth and the growing potential for new global trade routes, the strategic importance of Canada's Arctic is heightened as never before," Harper told reporters and military personnel aboard the frigate.

Harper repeated his oft-quoted line about Arctic sovereignty — "use it or lose it" — saying a national government's foremost responsibility is to protect the integrity of its country's borders.

The prime minister later boarded Canada's only operational submarine, HMCS Corner Brook, which dove underwater for an hour-long anti-submarine warcraft exercise in the mouth of Frobisher Bay.

Two CF-18 fighter jets also took part in Wednesday's exercise, which was also observed by Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk.

Operation Nanook involves about 700 military personnel on land and sea and in the air. It will include maritime surveillance patrols in the Hudson and Davis straits and aerial reconnaissance over much of the North.

Too focused on military might: NDP

The exercise, which will conclude Aug. 28, is partly meant to demonstrate Canada's sovereignty in the North, in an area where Russian and American subs have long prowled.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on a five-day tour of the three northern territories. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
Canada has also been in quarrels with Denmark over control of Hans Island, but they quietly began forging closer military links recently.

But Western Arctic New Democrat MP Dennis Bevington, whose riding encompasses the Northwest Territories, said Canada shouldn't be flexing its military muscle if it wants to resolve territorial disputes with Russia and the U.S.

"Those are not issues that are going to be settled by Canadian military might," Bevington said. "Those are only going to be settled through negotiation with, you know, our largest partner in the world."

Emergency preparedness

Natynczyk conceded that there are no conventional military threats to Canada in the Arctic.

But Natynczyk said exercises such as Operation Nanook are still important because they train personnel to deal with emergencies such as possible toxic spills as a result of increased commercial traffic in the Northwest Passage.

"If they go up on the rocks somewhere, you will have a significant environmental spill up here, but also you'll have a search and rescue issue," he said.

Natynczyk added that training military personnel to deal with Arctic situations in southern Canada is no substitute for the unique climate and topography of Canada's North.

Harper's participation in the exercise is part of a five-day visit to the three northern territories.

During the tour, which has included a number of federal cabinet ministers, the government has made a series of announcements related to the military and economic development.

On Wednesdsay night, Harper will meet with Inuit leaders including Mary Simon of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Paul Kaludjak of Nunavut land-claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

They'll also be joined by Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl and by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who is also the Conservative MP for Nunavut.

On Thursday, Harper will visit the Baffin Island community of Pangnirtung before travelling to Yellowknife to make an announcement there.