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Notes from the Trail: The international community is counting on us

Notes from the Trail with Nancy Vail
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, middle, signs the guestbook at JTFN during his brief visit to Yellowknife late last month. Governor-General Mary Simon watches on. Visits like this one hold more importance than just paying lip service, writes columnist Nancy Vail. NNSL file photo

It wasn’t just friendship building that brought the President of Germany and Governor General Mary Simon to the North in recent weeks and to Tuktoyaktuk and Yellowknife in particular. Nor was it just casual banter about northern defense between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden during his visit to Canada last month.

The fact is, though our population is small, northern land mass is open and we stand at the forefront of North American sovereignty. Additionally, the north, more than any other place on earth, is the barometer of the impacts of climate change. All eyes are on the north. The story of human and even democratic survival starts and ends here.

Since Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine more than a year ago, defense analysts in Canada and the States have taken a fresh look at the Arctic defense system paying special attention to NORAD which was almost forgotten after the Cold War. Once we got past the 70s scare, radar stations along our northern most coastline manned by the Canadian military were abandoned leaving the water and airwaves open and vulnerable. With improved relations with Russia and cursory attention to China, we dropped surveillance efforts in favor of goodwill and economic development building.

The invasion changed everything. Our American allies are keenly aware of how exposed the north is and acutely aware that it is a gateway to North America and not in a good way.

It was no surprise then when Biden paid special attention to the Arctic air defense during his speech to the House of Commons. While announcing billions in increased funding on surveillance equipment and aircraft, the president said, “we’re working in close coordination to steward and protect the northernmost regions of our world.

Soon NORAD will have the newest next generation radar over the horizon radar to enhance our early warning capacity, upgrade undersea water surveillance systems, modernized infrastructure necessary to host the most advanced aircraft.

I’m looking forward to work in close partnership with Canada as we deliver on these needs so that our people can continue to rest soundly knowing NORAD is on the watch.”

That was not meant for western ears only but to also send a strong message to the East that the days of a casual faire approach to guarding northern borders is over. Indeed, all over North America we are now moving to stand on guard for thee. And we are going to put our money where our mouth is since the world order is at stake in more ways than one.

Similarly, it was not by accident that the governor general and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier travelled to Tuktoyaktuk last week when residents there were able to show them eroded shorelines threatening housing and community stability. We know that climate change is impacting the north four times more than anywhere else on earth – Tuk’s disappearing homes and loss of traditional lifestyle is evidence of a scary trajectory if we do not act swiftly. The Inuit who have done nothing to deserve this are paying a high price for southern ways.

“I want to assure you; we see your reality. We hear your voices, and we take your interests to heart,” Steinmeier said at a community feast during his last night in Tuk.

“Your fight of protecting nature is of highest importance and the projects you’re conducting here, together with German scientists, will help step up international efforts to fight climate change.”

Though we don’t see it, the focus of the international community is on the north. With its sparse population and vast undeveloped open spaces, it is indeed a gateway to North America. It is here that the world relies on Northerners to keep everyone informed about the planet’s overall health.

Knowing how important the North is, and knowing we have an election on the horizon, it is contingent on all of us this time to ensure we have leaders in place to guide us through what will be some of the most trying times ever faced and on the world stage. The attention we’ve seen in the last few months is just the start of what’s to come as changing conditions intensify.

The international community is counting on us — that’s how important we now are.