NATO chief tours Arctic defences as Canada comes under pressure to guard the Far North

NATO’s secretary general is getting an up-close look at Canada’s northern defences on Thursday as he visits the Arctic, a region of escalating geopolitical competition.

Secretary general receives security briefing, observes annual military exercise

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrive in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on Thursday, August 25, 2022.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrive in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, on Thursday. Stoltenberg was given a first-hand look at a North Warning System radar station, part of a system due to be modernized. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

NATO's secretary general got an up-close look at Canada's northern defences — and culture — on Thursday during a visit to the Arctic, a region of escalating geopolitical competition.

Accompanied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Jens Stoltenberg had a first-hand look at a North Warning System radar station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut — part of a system due to be modernized as part of a multibillion-dollar refurbishment of NORAD, the North American air defence system.

Stoltenberg was given a full security briefing by Canada's top military commander, Gen. Wayne Eyre.

He also watched Canadian soldiers — and possibly some troops from a few other allied nations — take part in Canada's annual northern military exercise, known as Operation Nanook.

They toured the Canadian High Arctic Research Station and were greeted by local elder Eva Kakolak, who welcomed the delegation — including Defence Minister Anita Anand and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly — with the traditional lighting of the Qulliq, an Inuit oil lamp.

The ceremony was a reminder for NATO's top political leader that the people who inhabit Canada's North have lives and deep roots that extend beyond the international tensions that brought him there — a point that Trudeau underlined.

"We can never forget that sovereignty doesn't come through soldiers or scientists. Sovereignty comes through the people who've lived here for millennia," he said.

Stoltenberg acknowledged the social importance in his own brief remarks. 

"When I see what you do here — both when it comes to defence security, but also when it comes to research, understanding what the developments are ... the social, economic and the security aspects of the High North — then I realize how important Canada is when it comes to Arctic," the secretary general said.

Concerns over a resurgent Russia

Even still, it is the fear of a resurgent Russia that brought the head of NATO to Cambridge Bay.

In an opinion piece published recently in the Globe and Mail, Stoltenberg noted the increasing importance of Canada's Far North as the West's relationship with Moscow deteriorates over the war in Ukraine.

"The shortest path to North America for Russian missiles or bombers would be over the North Pole," the secretary general wrote. "This makes NORAD's role vital for North America and for NATO."

WATCH | International tensions bring NATO chief to Canada's Arctic: 

NATO chief visits Canada’s Far North amid concerns over Russian aggression

1 year ago
Duration 2:33
For the first time, NATO’s secretary general is touring Canada’s Far North. The visit comes amid increased concern around both national and NATO security, prompted by the West's deteriorating relationship with Russia over the war in Ukraine.

The visit is significant because the Liberal government is facing increased pressure from allies to take more ownership of the defence of its northern approaches.

"I suspect that Stoltenberg is spending time probably prodding and encouraging Canada to actually step up its game when it comes to Arctic security," said Rob Huebert, a defence expert on Canada's Far North at the University of Calgary.

The fact that the secretary general visited a NORAD radar station caught his attention, given last June's announcement about refurbishing the defence network.

"Stoltenberg is having a look at what we are promising to do," Huebert said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak with military members about the North Warning System Site in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on Thursday, August 25, 2022.
Stoltenberg and Trudeau, centre, speak with military members in Cambridge Bay on Thursday. The NATO secretary general was given a full security briefing by Canada's top military commander, Gen. Wayne Eyre. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

In June, just before the last NATO summit, Anand committed Canada to spending $4.9 billion over the next several years on updating NORAD, a joint military command with the United States.

The Liberal government also committed to an overall investment in continental and northern defence that it says will exceed $40 billion over the next two decades.

Ottawa has yet to fully explain how the money will be spent, other than to say about $15 billion will go to infrastructure upgrades.

Speaking at 5 Wing Goose Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador on Wednesday, Anand said the base is one of four that will see improvements.

She said the airfield "will receive significant upgrades which will enable its continued ability to support NORAD operations and to ensure the defence of North America."

"As we look around the world today," the defence minister said, "we recognize that our geography and our existing continental defences no longer provide the same protection that they once did."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.