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HomeCanada’s Role on the Global StageToward Greater Cooperation in the North: Selective Engagement in Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy

Toward Greater Cooperation in the North: Selective Engagement in Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy

Image credit: Tatiana Pichugina

By Alexandra Slobodov

An abridged version of this article was featured in the Hill Times.

A rapidly evolving Arctic environment has turned the North into a new frontier of international economic, political, and environmental importance, intensifying geopolitical rivalries in a region that is in many regards a microcosm of the increasingly multipolar international system. This complicates Canada’s foreign policy in the North, particularly toward Russia, as many Canadian policymakers continue to view Arctic geopolitics through the familiar lens of competition and conflict with Russia that defines Russo-Canadian relations in other regions. Nevertheless, despite adversarial relations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Ottawa and Moscow have continued to selectively engage and cooperate as core members of the Arctic Council. As the two largest Arctic states and neighbours via the Arctic Ocean, both nations face shared challenges in regard to sea route claims disputed by the United States, health crises among their Indigenous populations, as well as providing search and rescue and oil spill cleanup services in the North. Following a Northern strategy that is rooted in selective engagement—prioritizing engagement and cooperation in the Arctic region while also permitting strategic competition elsewhere—stands out as an especially promising approach to Canada’s Arctic foreign policy.

At a Glance: Moscow and Ottawa in the Arctic

Canada’s investment in the Arctic largely began in the Cold War period, when it jointly established the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the Distance Early Warning System with the United States. While Canada has invested in political self-determination for Northern territories in recent decades, it has largely lagged in terms of overall investment in infrastructure and military capabilities. For years, Canada’s attempts to build a new icebreaker, the John G. Diefenbaker, which would join its existing fleet of 18 icebreaker ships, have been largely unsuccessful due to a myriad of delays and budget cuts. More recently however, the melting of icecaps brought on by climate change has resulted in the increased accessibility of the Northwest Passage as a potential trade route, bringing renewed importance to Canada’s Northern front.

In 2019, Canada released the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, which outlined the federal government’s new priorities, investments, and activities in the Arctic. Yet, Ottawa must still do more to fully adapt to the new and changing strategic context in the North. As Arctic researchers Peter Kikkert and Whitney Lackenbauer note, the Framework has not offered concrete budgets and timelines to adequately address the pressing challenges in the remote and sparsely populated region. Overall, it is not clear whether Canada is ready for the added international interest that its Northern border is expected to receive over the coming years as the Arctic continues to grow in strategic importance. Given that Canada considers the route to be within its internal and territorial waters, Ottawa could be expected to conduct  search and rescue operations as well as provide oil spill clean up services to vessels travelling through the Northwest Passage. At the moment, Canada’s inability to provide such necessary services could discourage potential investment and travel in the region. In order to guarantee safe passage to vessels and achieve the Arctic Framework’s central objectives such as strengthening “bilateral cooperation with Arctic and key non-Arctic states and actors,” Canada will have to cooperate with its largest neighbour in the North, Russia.

While the Arctic has long been considered to be economically and militarily critical for Russia, the increased viability of Arctic resource shipping and growing Chinese investment have further accelerated development in its Northern regions. According to the Arctic Institute, Russia’s Arctic and sub-Arctic regions constitute “90 percent of Russia’s natural gas production and 10 percent of its oil production”—sectors upon which the Russian economy depends. In 2019, Russia’s Representative in the Arctic Council Nikolay Korchunov stated that “the Arctic regions in the country account for around 10% of GDP and almost 20% of Russian exports.” Earlier this year, Russia announced that the Arctic would be the centre of its new liquefied natural gas (LNG) development plan, “which aims to boost Russia’s annual LNG production to 140 million tons by 2035.” Russia also possesses a fleet of over 40 icebreakers and maintains a local population of approximately two million in its large Northern coastal cities such as Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. Prioritizing the Arctic has also allowed Moscow to develop the Northern Sea Route, a rapidly developing Arctic passage that may be used as a shorter alternative to the Suez Canal shipping route.

Currently, much of the discourse on Arctic geopolitics focuses not on possible areas of engagement between Canada and Russia, but rather on the risk that Russia poses to Canada in the region. Russia’s development of its own resources and military capabilities has been cast by Western media as a zero-sum threat and a “scramble for the Arctic.” In response to such concerns over a military confrontation with Russia, Ernie Regehr, Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence, has observed that “there is no realistic situation in which the [Royal Canadian Armed Forces] will have to engage hostile aircraft in the region,” and that Moscow would have “little to gain” from such “a shooting war.” Rather, it is important to carefully assess Russia’s strategy and posture in the North to recognize that Moscow does not stand to gain from adopting an aggressive approach to the Arctic. It is also important to note that despite Canada’s tense relations with Russia following its annexation of Crimea, the two have continued to cooperate on Arctic matters through the Arctic Council, the leading organization for cooperation on circumpolar issues and especially designed to avoid “hard” security matters.

Shared Challenges in Northern Trade Routes

The Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route are the backbones of both Canadian and Russian respective Arctic policies. In the past, Russia has informally recognized Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage, reflecting its own claims to the Northern Sea Route. Canadian experts have noted that Russia and Canada have “identical legal perspectives on the Northern sea routes.” Notably, the U.S. has refused to recognize either Canada’s or Russia’s claims to the routes in order to avoid setting a precedent that could restrict its access to strategically vital waterways in other regions.

While Russia’s recent moves to expand its claim in the Arctic Ocean to around 200 nautical miles off of Canada’s coast has prompted concern, these actions remain consistent with Russia’s preference to follow international law and prioritize cooperation in the Arctic. Since it first ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1997, it has submitted all territorial claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. As such, Moscow’s cooperative strategic posture in the Arctic stands in stark contrast with its unilateral projection of force in Ukraine.

Cooperation on “Soft” Security Issues

Russia has signaled that it looks favorably upon the prospect of bilateral Arctic cooperation with Canada. In an interview earlier this year, Nikolay Korchunov reaffirmed Russia’s interest in cooperating on matters relating to the “environment, transport, telecommunications, scientific activities, financing of infrastructure and socio-economic development, responding to potential emergencies, or providing contacts between people.” This sentiment was also reflected in a recent statement by the Russian Charge d’Affaires in Canada Vladimir Proskuryakov, who described the prospects for Arctic cooperation as “generally positive” despite acknowledging the “political difference” between Ottawa and Moscow. Proskuryakov identified specific areas for cooperation as the exchange of knowledge on the “implementation of educational, medical, including anti-coronavirus, programs and socially important projects” as well as “cooperation in environmental management.” 

From the Canadian perspective, the 2019 Framework report urged Ottawa to “take steps to restart a regular bilateral dialogue on Arctic issues with Russia in key areas related to Indigenous issues, scientific cooperation, environmental protection, shipping and search and rescue.” Most recently, at the first Arctic Council Ministerial meeting chaired by Russia, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and released a statement that Ottawa will “continue to work with all Arctic states” on economic, social, cultural, and environmental issues in the region.

While it is prudent to remain vigilant about Moscow’s motives, pragmatic engagement and cooperation on issues that are vital to Canada’s Arctic strategy could enhance Ottawa’s evolving role in the North. The two have already signed various bilateral treaties for Arctic cooperation and become party to multilateral agreements on search and rescue and marine oil pollution, as well as initiatives on oil spill cleanup. They could further engage in both search and rescue and oil-spill cleanup operations in the Arctic, which often prove difficult given the region’s harsh and remote conditions. 

Mirroring Crises for Indigenous Peoples across the Circumpolar North 

One major social policy concern in the Arctic is the disparity in living standards between Indigenous communities in the North and inhabitants in the rest of Canada. This difference in quality of life can be attributed to the fact that the region is often treated as peripheral with its relatively small Indigineous population often neglected by policymakers and officials in Ottawa. Among other issues, this has led to major health crises in the North, with the incidence of tuberculosis in Inuit communities more than 290 times higher than in the non-Indigenous population. In its 2021 pre-budget submission, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representative organization for Inuit in Canada, called for “broad infrastructure investments” to improve health and safety, housing affordability, economic development, transportation, and connectivity.

This is not a challenge unique to Canada, with Russia’s Indigenous peoples also facing a dire situation worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a statement by the Inuit Circumpolar Council made in 2020, “overcrowding, food insecurity, lower life expectancy, and a high prevalence of tuberculosis are among the inequities experienced by [the Inuit] people that are linked to poor infrastructure,” with the mortality rate of tuberculosis some 450 percent higher than the Russian national average in regions inhabited by Indigenous peoples. As both Canada and Russia have neglected improving the living conditions for their Northern Indigenous populations, groups such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council (representing the Inuit community from Canada and the Chukotka region of Russia) are well positioned to collaborate and identify policy priorities for the federal governments.


There is a growing consensus among both Canadian and Russian scholars and policymakers that selective cooperation on Arctic issues is necessary to maintain cordial and peaceable relations in the North. As Russia assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an opportunity for a “reset” and a more productive Canada-Russia bilateral relationship in the Arctic presents itself. Disagreements elsewhere are not doomed to spill over into the Arctic, and Moscow and Ottawa both benefit from coexistence in the North.

In furthering Canada’s engagement with Russia, the foremost challenge will be balancing this pragmatic approach to Arctic affairs while making clear that this does not compromise Canada’s national security interests. It is possible to cooperate with Russia on Arctic issues, which are both critical and advantageous for Canadian security, while also remaining vigilant about Russia’s more adversarial geopolitical moves in Ukraine and elsewhere. Selective cooperation on Arctic matters must also not be interpreted as an endorsement or appeasement of Moscow and the security challenges it poses to the liberal international order. 

“The fact is Canada and Russia have 75 percent of the Arctic coastline. I think there’s a huge challenge for both countries dealing with Indigenous peoples, dealing with development, dealing with pollution,” notes former Canadian ambassador to Russia John Sloan. In other words, without developing a constructive policy vis-a-vis Russia in the Arctic, Canada effectively lacks an Arctic foreign policy. It is time for Canada to broaden its strategic approach to the North by confidently engaging a range of Arctic actors, including Russia, to address the serious domestic and international issues it will face in the region for the foreseeable future.


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