Northern hubs to be pillar of Canada’s new defence policy, Blair says

By David Lochead, Nunatsiaq News - May 7, 2024
Defence Minister Bill Blair, second from right, says northern operational hubs for the military will create economic opportunities in the North. Blair, along with his parliamentary secretary Yvonne Jones, seated at far left, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, right, spoke to reporters in Iqaluit Monday about the federal government’s recently updated defence policy. (Photo by David Lochead)

Three  federal ministers emphasize infrastructure, people of the North, as key to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty

The introduction of northern operational support hubs for Canada’s military is a key pillar of the Liberal government’s new defence policy, federal Defence Minister Bill Blair says.

The hubs will be places in the North where the Canadian Armed Forces will fly and land airplanes and helicopters, as well as store supplies, Blair told reporters in Iqaluit Monday.

Having those hubs will require government investments in energy, water supply and fibre-optic communication.

“It’s also an opportunity, if we do this right, to help us create real economic prosperity and jobs for people in the North,” Blair said during a roundtable meeting.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal and Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, who is parliamentary secretary to the defence minister, also took part in the meeting to talk about Canada’s recently updated defence policy, Our North, Strong and Free.

The federal cabinet ministers spoke about their new policy’s emphasis on people and infrastructure in the North.

“Every conversation I’ve had with Northerners about Arctic sovereignty and security, they’ve told me it’s really about infrastructure,” Blair said.

Northern operational support hubs will have multiple uses for northerners as well, including providing the host community with a new airstrip, better access to medical flights and new roads, he added.

The Canadian government plans to spend $218 million over the next 20 years on these hubs. But their locations, and when they will be built, is still being determined, Blair said.

It’s part of the government’s plan to spend $8.1 billion on defence over the next five years. Its revamped defence policy, unveiled April 8, comes as the United States is urging Canada and other NATO members to live up to their obligations to the defence alliance by spending two per cent of their gross domestic product on defence.

Canada currently spends about 1.3 per cent of GDP on defence, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

When Blair was in Yellowknife at the end of April, he talked about the defence policy update and broke ground on a new defence facility that will help maintain a “more robust presence in the North,” according to a statement his office issued about Monday’s trip to Nunavut.

The Canadian Armed Forces has four operational support hubs, all of them overseas — in Germany, Kuwait, Jamaica and Senegal.

Beyond infrastructure, each minister emphasized their government’s new policy is about the people who live in the Arctic.

“When we talk about sovereignty of the North, we’re talking about empowering the people that live here,” Vandal said, adding that means investments in areas such as housing and infrastructure.

For housing, Vandal mentioned a $4 billion urban, rural and northern Indigenous housing policy that is being rolled out.

Blair said for issues like housing and infrastructure, the new defence policy is meant to work with other existing policies.

“I don’t think this policy can be looked at in isolation,” he said.

The ministers also addressed working on this policy with northern peoples and organizations, including Inuit and Inuit organizations.

Blair acknowledged Canada’s colonial approach to Arctic defence in the past, but emphasized ongoing partnership with Northern Indigenous leadership, organizations and territorial premiers.

“We have to work together and respect each other’s points of view,” he said.

As an example, Vandal said the federal government has invested over $800 million in Inuit Nunangat.

“I really think there’s been a significant change in the agreements we have with Indigenous nations,” he said.

Both Joly and Blair spoke about needing to have a defence policy to address Russia becoming more of an aggressor in the Arctic region.

“We need to understand that we are nation that is a neighbour of Russia, and Russia has invested in its North,” Joly said.

Another threat mentioned consistently by the ministers was climate change in the North.

“We are seeing the North being far more accessible than it was previously,” Blair said.

He said it has been speculated the Arctic Ocean could be the main trade between Asia and Europe by 2050.

Located in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, Nunatsiaq News is dedicated to covering affairs in Nunavut and the Nunavik territory of Quebec since 1973. It has been a partner to ArcticToday and its predecessors since 2016.