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Canada’s military buildup in the Arctic threatens climate and Indigenous peoples

Militarization of the Canadian far north could pose risks to the ability of Inuit to protect their sovereignty, environment

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsEnvironmentWar Zones

Soldiers from the 4th Canadian Division’s Arctic Response Company Group near Cornwallis Island, Nunavut. Photo courtesy 4th Canadian Division Public Affairs/Flickr.

The militarists’ narrative goes something like this: despite not facing any imminent conventional military threats to its Arctic, Canada must significantly bolster the defence of its northernmost borders, otherwise the Russians could cross more than a thousand kilometres of usually icy ocean to take ‘our’ land and resources.

But whose land is it, anyway? And to whom do these resources belong?

Just last week, the Trudeau government unveiled its new budget, which includes billions in new defence spending along with additional resources for Canada’s Arctic. Heightened tensions with Russia are often cited as a justification for increased spending to enhance the security of Canada’s north, but for the Indigenous peoples who inhabit this region—and who stand to bear the brunt of climate change risks—the question of sovereignty is perceived differently.

According to the 2021 Arctic Yearbook, produced by the Northern Research Forum and the University of the Arctic Thematic Network on Geopolitics and Security, Indigenous peoples in the Arctic have long advocated for conceptualizing Arctic sovereignty as Indigenous sovereignty. They have deep concerns about the “unknowns associated with a changing climate and increased shipping, includ[ing] implications of increased international interest in the Canadian Arctic, which could pose threats to the ability of Inuit to protect their sovereignty and the environment they live in.”

If history teaches us anything, this latest push for a military buildup in the far north (premised on the unproven assumption of Russia’s expansionary designs on the Arctic) will line the pockets of domestic arms manufacturers, and likely result in deleterious impacts on Indigenous communities and the natural environment alike.

Seven decades ago, Inuit were ripped from their homes to establish Canadian Forces dominion over the far north. In 1949, Royal Canadian Air Force Station Resolute Bay was established some 800 kilometres from the North Pole. The following year, Canadian Forces Station Alert was built on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost and third-largest island. To solidify the base and Ottawa’s territorial claims, 87 Inuit living in northern Québec were forcibly relocated 2,000 kilometres north to Resolute Bay and Ellesmere Island in 1953.

In the words of journalist Dana Bowen, writing in Up Here magazine, the federal government “has gone to great lengths to assert its dominion over the land. And more often than not, those actions have caused great harm to the people who actually live there.”

Built in the early 1950s to counter the purported Russian menace, the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was a network of 63 radar and communication stations built over a 4,500 kilometre stretch in the Arctic Circle from the northwest coast of Alaska to the eastern shore of Baffin Island. With little consultation, the DEW Line pushed northern Indigenous peoples into a wage economy and sedentary lifestyle. The massive project left deep social scars and an ecological calamity. It required 460,000 tons of material to be transported north. Alongside maritime and land transport, 45,000 commercial flights delivered goods by covering distances of up to 5,000 kilometres. A staggering 9.6 million cubic yards of gravel was produced on site.

The off-road vehicles brought to the north damaged vegetation and melted permafrost. Activities associated with the DEW Line were linked to depleted fish stocks and agitating caribou and other game Indigenous peoples subsisted on.

When the DEW Line was abandoned a few years after being completed an incredible amount of material was left behind. There were rotted vehicles in lakes, containers full of hazardous materials and dumps leaking arsenic and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, harmful industrial chemicals. When the cleanup began three decades after the sites were abandoned, over 200,000 cubic metres of soil contaminated by diesel fuel was placed in nearby “land farms” where it was tossed and turned until the hydrocarbon evaporated to more acceptable levels. Additionally, 35,000 cubic metres of waste—mostly soil contaminated with PCBs and lead—was shipped south to be incinerated or buried.

A half-century after the DEW Line was abandoned in the mid-1960s, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development was still cleaning up 21 DEW Line sites.

One thousand kilometres south of the DEW Line, nearly one hundred “Mid Canada Line” radar sites spilled PCBs and other toxic substances for decades. Representing seven Indigenous communities in northern Ontario, the Mushkegowuk Council campaigned to have the government clean up the heavy metals, DDT, asbestos, PCBs and petroleum seeping out of the abandoned radar sites.

In researching the “Mid Canada Line” site at Moosonee, Laurentian University PhD candidate Sue Heffernan wrote that its “social and physical [landscape] impacts… were irrelevant to the military planners” and that “local people almost seem to have been ‘invisible’” during their construction. Nearly 50 years after the line was abandoned Ontario and Ottawa budgeted $100 million to clean up Mid-Canada Line contamination.

In a journal article published in Environmental History, Whitney Lackenbauer summarizes the destruction: “Military mega-projects radically transformed the human and physical geography of the North… northern nature was viewed through a series of shifting strategic perspectives, [remaining] a target of state-driven modernization linked consistently with military objectives.”

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has long advocated for the Arctic to be declared a zone of peace, a call which ICC chair, Dalee Sambo Dorough, repeated three weeks ago. Indigenous leaders have argued that a buildup of Canadian Forces equipment, infrastructure and personnel in the north undercuts their sovereignty while threatening the landscape and their cultural survival. Former president of the ICC, Mary Simon, decried measures “justified by the government on the basis of defence and military considerations… [that] often serve to promote our insecurity.”

Militarization of the Arctic must be opposed by environmentalists and all those who support reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.

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