Costly fuel prompts cuts at northern military station

Rising fuel costs have led the Canadian military to make cutbacks at the Alert station in the Far North, just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper is promising to reinforce Arctic sovereignty claims.

Rising fuel costs have led the Canadian military to make cutbacks at the Alert station in the Far North, just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper is promising to reinforce Arctic sovereignty claims.

Canadian Forces Station Alert, located on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut , is a radio monitoring outpost and the most northerly permanent settlement in the world.

Some of the support jobs at the base that are now filled by military personnel, including cooks, janitors, drivers, and mechanics, will instead be undertaken by civilian contractors, military officials say.

There are approximately 70 armed forces personnel at the base, down from a peak of about 200 in the 1980s.

While refusing to say how big a cut there will be, Canadian military officials insist it won't affect the force's mission in the North.

Maj. Gioseph Anello says the Department of National Defence had to cut costs to offset the expense of heating the station's buildings.

He denies the move to contract workers signals a weaker commitment to northern sovereignty.

"If that message is being sent out, then it's not us sending it," Anello said. "We are recapitalizing. We are rationalizing to provide better sustainability up in Alert."

Anello points out the military is also investing money in the station, and modernizing some parts of the aging facility.

But NDP defence critic Dawn Black says the cuts are troubling.

During the recent federal election campaign, Harper promised a new Conservative government would enhance Arctic sovereignty by spending $5.3 billion over five years to defend northern waters against the Americans, the Russians and the Danes.

Black says that given Harper's pledges, the cost of fuel shouldn't get in the way of a military presence in the North.

"Everything that goes to the northern reaches of our country is expensive, and that should not impact on our sovereignty," she said.

The military is not saying exactly how many soldiers will be left at Alert, but it insists it will still be able to maintain radio surveillance of the Arctic.