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Strengthening Canada’s Arctic: Why Canada Needs to Prioritize Dialogue and Cooperation in the North

Image credit: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard

By Alexandra Slobodov

This article was first published by the Hill Times.

As the second largest Arctic state, Canada is uniquely positioned to play a major role in an area where great powers converge, as well as to assess the extent to which great power competition will spill over into the Arctic.

Despite the Arctic comprising 40 per cent of Canada’s landmass, the government has long lagged in efforts to address the region’s domestic and foreign challenges. For much of Canada’s history, the Arctic took a back seat to other policy priorities. It was only the dawn of the Cold War that ultimately prompted Canada and the United States to jointly establish military bases and radar systems spanning the length of the North in order to detect incoming Soviet missiles. Though the region became vital for North American security, the local Indigenous communities continued to face challenges such as a lack of housing, clean water, and modern infrastructure–which remain critical challenges to this day. Recently, Canada’s 2019 Arctic and Northern Policy Framework attempted to address these issues but stopped short of outlining specific budgets and timelines to make their goals possible. Now, with climate change drastically altering the Arctic environment and COVID-19 exacerbating existing inequalities, it is critical to re-examine Canada’s Arctic policy to address both long-standing domestic matters and evolving international security concerns.

Canada’s primary ally, the U.S., has long played a key role in Canada’s Arctic affairs. Throughout the Cold War, the two worked to establish the North American Radar Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) and the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line to act as a frontier of deterrence. Despite this collaborative relationship, the U.S. refused to recognize Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage, and still considers the route to be international waters in order to avoid setting a precedent for important channels elsewhere. For decades, the two “agreed to disagree” on the status of the Passage rather than come to a formal resolution. However, this political standstill finally came to a boil under the Trump administration when secretary of state Mike Pompeo called Canada’s claims “illegitimate.” The Trump administration also nearly allowed the New START nuclear arms reduction agreement to lapse, which could have resulted in the increased militarization of the Arctic as part of a renewed arms race. While U.S. President Joe Biden has so far embraced a much less aggressive and a more collaborative approach to foreign policy, the possibility of future deadlock and strained relations between Ottawa and Washington could be reason enough to reassess Canada’s relationship with the U.S. in the North.

Notably, Russia, the largest Arctic state, has long “passively supported” Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage, which mirrors its own claims over the Northern Sea Route. In contrast to its actions in Ukraine and Syria, Russia has continued to demonstrate a preference to follow international law and prioritize cooperation in the Arctic–contradicting sensationalized reports of the Kremlin waging a new Cold War and scramble for territory in the region. Currently, Canada and Russia form part of the eight Arctic Council states which meet regularly to discuss and cooperate on Arctic matters exclusively, aiming to avoid any discussion of larger political issues. In addition to such multilateral cooperation, Canada would benefit from bilateral engagement on Arctic issues. As Russia has long prioritized the Arctic and invested in developing its northern territory, Canada could learn from Russia’s successes and challenges in this area. The two could also further engage on matters such as search and rescue and oil-spill cleanup operations in the Arctic, which often prove difficult given the harsh and remote conditions.

Over the last decade, the North has also received increased international attention from non-Arctic states due to melting sea ice opening new trade routes, with China one of the states most engaged in the region’s future. In 2013, China joined the Arctic Council as an observer and in 2018 released its own Arctic policy that outlined its role in the region as a self-proclaimed “near-Arctic state.” Its icebreaker, the MV Xue Long, traversed the Northwest Passage in 2017–a seven-day shorter alternative to the Panama Canal route. Last year, the Chinese state-owned company Shandong also put in a bid to purchase TMAC Resources Inc. and its mine in Nunavut’s Hope Bay, a move that was considered to be part of China’s expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative into the Polar Silk Road. However, the bid was later rejected on national security grounds. While the current climate in Canada is wary of Chinese investment and thus of its growing presence in the Arctic, some have called for Canada to allow China to engage in “resource development, shipping, fisheries, and climate research.” While China’s Arctic policy has emphasized following international law and strengthening regional cooperation, it is critical to engage with Beijing to better understand the role it intends to play in the region moving forward–rather than blocking any and all of its involvement in the Arctic.

Any re-examination of Canada’s relationship with the U.S., Russia, and China in the Arctic must also recognize the interests of the Inuit and Northern communities in order to ensure the concerns of the region’s Indigenous populations are taken into account. Though the Inuit Circumpolar Council currently hosts a forum for Inuit from across Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia, further engagement is necessary to address the interconnected and complex challenges that Inuit face. This includes working toward sustainable development and addressing the impact of climate change on Northern communities, such as permafrost thaw. Achieving Arctic security must be integrated with addressing the region’s ongoing domestic challenges, such as a lack of internet access and road and air connectivity, inadequate infrastructure, as well as a lack of clean water and affordable housing.

As the second largest Arctic state, Canada is uniquely positioned to play a major role in an area where great powers converge, as well as to assess the extent to which great power competition will spill over into the Arctic. It is therefore imperative for Canada to identify possible partners for cooperative action and to determine the methods to be used in achieving its domestic and international goals in the region. This can only be done by employing a collaborative and balanced approach that prioritizes engagement and recognizes the sovereignty and security needs of the territorial Arctic states, while taking into account the perspectives of Indigenous and northern communities, and the various Arctic and non-Arctic actors that have become an increasingly important part of the Canadian Arctic sphere.

Alexandra Slobodov is a Research Associate at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor