Skip to content

Arctic sovereignty anchors federal plans to upgrade Canada’s military

Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal was at Joint Task Force North in Yellowknife on Monday, April 8, to announce multiple investments to update North and Arctic military defence. Kaicheng Xin/NNSL photo

Canada’s military will take a bigger role in the North over the next two decades as climate change and increasingly aggressive foes threaten Arctic sovereignty, says a new defence policy document released Monday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was flanked by Defence Minister Bill Blair, Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland as he announced the policy at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ont.

“Technological advances and cyberattacks mean there are myriad ways for engagement that go beyond traditional borders,” Trudeau said.

“Rising and disruptive powers like China and Russia mean NATO’s northern and western flank is the Canadian Arctic.”

The government is planning to buy new vehicles adapted to the frozen conditions in the North, build an Arctic satellite ground station and set up new northern operations hubs.

In addition to air and land, Canada needs to be prepared to defend itself under the ice, the document said.

Back in 2021, the Royal Canadian Navy launched a long-anticipated push to replace the country’s four Victoria-class submarines, which will reach the end of their lifespan in the mid-2030s.

The updated defence policy calls for the purchase of conventionally powered submarines — but the prime minister left the door open Monday to a nuclear-powered option.

“That is certainly what we will be looking at, as to what type of submarines are most appropriate for Canada’s responsibility in protecting the longest coastline in the world, and certainly the longest Arctic coastline in the world,” he said.

Along with that, Trudeau said Canada is exploring the possibility of joining the second phase of AUKUS, the U.S.-led alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia.

The initial pillar of that alliance was focused on developing nuclear-powered submarines for Australia. Its second phase is focused on advanced capabilities like quantum computing, AI and cyber technologies.

The Canadian Armed Forces is also setting up a new Cyber Command, which will see the military work alongside the Communications Security Establishment, the country’s cyberspy agency.

In all, Ottawa says the “Our North, Strong and Free” policy will boost military spending to 1.76 per cent of GDP by 2030.

That includes setting aside another $8.1 billion over the next five years and spending $73 billion by 2044.

It allocates $9.5 billion over 20 years to start ramping up production of artillery ammunition, $307 million for early-warning aircraft and $2.7 billion to buy long-range missiles. It projects that annual defence spending will have doubled between 2016 to 2026.

All of that still leaves Canada shy of the minimum two per cent the NATO allies agreed to spend last July. NATO’s latest figures show Canada is spending 1.33 per cent of GDP on defence and is lagging behind a growing number of countries.

But the cost of buying those new submarines is not yet calculated, Trudeau said, which means the spending total is sure to go up.

Northern perspective

Premier R.J. Simpson said the defence update is a recognition of the importance of the North and its people to the current and future security of Canada and North America. The NWT will be a strong partner with the federal government and Indigenous governments to ensure the protection of the people in the North, Simpson committed.

With infrastructure in the North still lacking, Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, who was in Yellowknife on Monday morning to put a Northern emphasis on the federal defence announcement, said the federal government is working with all levels of government to move forward with building more housing. Further consultation will be done to ensure more infrastructure can be built.

To address the community concerns relating to military presence and traffic, Vandal said Ottawa will work with the Indigenous government and local people to gather input from the community, as well as to let them know the main purpose of the presence is to ensure the safety of Canada.

“We will engage with northern Indigenous people with respect and with real partnership,” Vandal said.

As of now, the number of hubs to be built is still unknown, but the Northern Affairs minister said the public will be updated in a timely manner.

Struggling to find soldiers

This defence initiative comes at a time when persistent recruitment and retention problems that have plunged the Armed Forces into a personnel crisis, with more than 16,000 positions unfilled. Another 10,000 troops lack adequate training to deploy.

“Over the past number of years, more people have left than have joined the Canadian Armed Forces, and we’ve done a pretty deep dive into why that’s happening,” Blair said.

The government has pinpointed some of the factors that are keeping Canadians from donning a military uniform in the policy: “The burden of frequent postings, a lack of spousal employment opportunities, limited access to health and childcare, an oversaturated housing market, and high costs associated with relocation.”

The government plans to launch a Canadian Armed Forces housing strategy, at a cost of $295 million over 20 years, and to spend $100 million over five years to improve access to child care for military members as a way to tackle those issues.

It’s also vowing to overhaul and expedite the military’s recruitment processes, while examining ways to ease some medical requirements if possible.

In a statement, the opposition Conservatives called the plan desperate and criticized the plan to spend the bulk of the money in later years.

Spending on military housing, for example, is $7 million over the next five years, but $295 million over the next two decades.

“Trudeau is once again kicking the can down the road by committing most of the defence spending in today’s announcement until after the next election,” said defence critic James Bezan.

Defence officials also say they’re reviewing procurement, a long-standing issue, with the aim of streamlining it. The policy notes that during consultations, the defence industry said it needed to reset its relationship with government.

“Industry and experts also called for faster and more flexible defence procurement, secure supply chains, and investments to modernize defence infrastructure,” the document said.

—By Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press, with files from Kaicheng Xin, Northern News Services