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Election 2021: Competing Visions of Arctic Security

Image credit: Wikimedia

By Adam Lajeunesse

As Canada’s party leaders spread out to campaign across the country, the nation is unlikely to see any deep discussions of Arctic sovereignty and security. Typically a peripheral consideration, the question is distant from most Canadians’ immediate concerns and often glossed over through general pledges to defend the North. Historically, this low prioritization has been supported by the low tensions in – and limited access to – the Arctic region.

Over the next ten years, however, Canada’s government may be faced with a radically new set of security challenges in the North. The time to start preparing for it is now.

A New Security Dynamic

That the Arctic is changing rapidly is well established. The shipping season is growing longer and Canada’s internal waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the North are becoming more accessible. Crucially, both friends and competitors are showing new interest in the North, matched by a concerted effort to expand their operational capabilities. In only the past three years the United States has grasped the strategic importance of the region, with new Arctic strategies cascading out from the US Coast Guard (2019), Department of Defense (2019), Air Force (2020), Army (2021) and Navy (2021). China is expanding its icebreaker fleet to possibly include a third (potentially nuclear) vessel, while Russia has spent decades rebuilding its capabilities in the North. Commercial shipping and cruise activity is also expanding – a trend that is certain to continue.

This growing interest and investment in the region is unlikely to result in armed conflict. Ownership of northern resources is not in question and there are no territorial disputes to speak of. What will soon emerge, however, is a more complex security environment centred around the need to monitor a busier region while managing an evolving set of unconventional security threats.

For instance, as the world’s fish stocks migrate north, Canada’s EEZ will take on new economic importance. While there is currently a moratorium on Arctic fisheries, a commercially viable stock in the region will eventually attract the attention of China’s fishing fleets. Those ships have developed a reputation for rapacious exploitation of the global commons and for brazenly violating national jurisdictions. As has been the case in the waters of the South China Sea and further afield, these fleets – while ostensibly civilian – serve state policy. Their arrival in the Arctic would introduce a new element of complexity to Canadian security and international relations.

Likewise, as Arctic shipping routes become increasingly accessible, new non-state actors will appear. While these are not likely to be anything as threatening as a Russian warship or Chinese submarine, they will need to be tracked and – depending on their nature – perhaps stopped or helped. Right now, a Chinese sailor named Zhai Mo is south of Greenland, attempting a circumnavigation of the Arctic. A private citizen, Zhai is nevertheless supported by the Chinese government and represents a quasi-state actor moving through Canadian waters, the legal status of which China has never explicitly recognized. New cruise ship activity and resource shipping also requires more surveillance and response capacity, while rogue expeditions – like that of New Zealander Peter Smith in 2019 – will complicate Canada’s task of asserting complete control over its sovereign waters. 

Managing this increasing activity will be an important task for both practical and political reasons. From a practical perspective, the region’s fragile environment is at risk – as are the Northern communities that rely upon it. Canada has a robust regulatory framework in place but enforcing it will grow more complicated as more ships from more states move into Canadian waters and the surrounding EEZ.

Politically, Canada will face growing pressure to ensure that its rules and regulations are followed by foreign ships, given that few states recognize the country’s claim to the Northwest Passage as historic internal waters. While an explicit refusal to request Canadian permission to transit our waters (as was the case with the Kiwi Roa in 2020)will not seriously damage national sovereignty, it will create new complications and demand more attention and resources.

Liberal and Conservative Political Visions

While every political party acknowledges the importance of the Arctic, they approach the question of sovereignty and security from very different perspectives.

When coming to power in 2015, the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau pledged a very different approach to the region. In practice, that has meant radically expanded consultations and a renewed focus on community health. The Liberals’ “Arctic and Northern Foreign Policy Framework” is a wide-ranging document, pledging to end poverty, eradicate hunger, reduce suicides, close the gap on education outcomes, provide greater access to skills developments, adopt culturally appropriate approaches to justice issues, and eliminate the housing crisis in the North. It was expansive but short on substance and panned by critics as incoherent and lacking in concrete commitments.

There have been few new “hard security” initiatives from the Liberals geared to monitoring and interdicting activity in the North. The 2021 Liberal platform makes only one mention of Arctic security – and that is simply a renewal of its pledge to modernize the North Warning System. This shortage of big investments is at least partly due to the Liberals having inherited Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s big projects. Some of these have even been expanded: the size of Canada’s Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships and icebreaker fleets, for instance.

The Liberals also approach the Arctic with a conception of sovereignty and security that is different from that of the previous Conservative government. Stephen Harper once said that Arctic sovereignty was secured only with “boots on the Arctic tundra” and “more ships in the icy water.” That state-centric approach is based on a traditional notion of sovereignty, centred around the state’s monopoly of force.

By contrast, the Liberals under Trudeau have approached sovereignty from the community perspective, on the understanding that sovereignty is best expressed through “strong, self-reliant people and communities working together for a vibrant, prosperous and sustainable Arctic.” This assumes that a defence of sovereignty comes from the North, rather than being projected into it. Indeed, even the new security programs initiated by the Liberals are community-based: the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Indigenous Community Boat Volunteer Pilot Program, Inuit Guardians, and the new Inshore Rescue Boat Station in Rankin Inlet.

The Conservative focus on state-centric security remains on display in the current campaign. For the Conservatives, the threat to sovereignty stems less from human security concerns and more from “Russian territorial aggression” and China’s Arctic ambitions. Like Harper before him, O’Toole has promised armed icebreakers and a new naval base (at Churchill). In addition, the Conservative platform has a NATO Centre of Excellence for Arctic Defence at Resolute Bay, as well as a host of smaller initiatives designed to buttress the Canadian Armed Forces’ ability to operate in the North.

Some of these ideas are less sophisticated than they could be: Harper’s government abandoned the idea of armed icebreakers early in his tenure for good reason, while Churchill is not much closer to the Northwest Passage than St. John’s NL. Likewise, expanding the Rangers has long been easier said than done. Still, the Conservative philosophy represents an ambitious desire to ensure that Canada has the resources to meet the projected opening of the Arctic.

A Path Forward

Meeting an increasingly complex Arctic environment will require a melding of the two approaches. Tracking and policing dozens – if not hundreds – of civilian and state vessels across over a million square kilometres of Arctic maritime space will necessitate the kinds of big investments in ships, infrastructure and surveillance that the Conservatives have favoured since 2007. It will also require the kind of focus and support from the top that was more evident with Prime Minister Harper than Trudeau.

Yet a more comprehensive approach to security will also require attention to community-based programs more common to Liberal platforms. There is a limit to the capabilities which can be projected north from the South without support from local communities. Local infrastructure development will become increasingly essential, as will the more dispersed, community-centric emphasis on search and rescue and stewardship activities favoured by Trudeau’s government.

In the years to come the Arctic is going to become a far busier and more complex security environment. Canada will need to pay more attention to who is in the region and what they’re doing. The best path forward may not lie in either the Liberal or Conservative election platforms, but rather in a merger of what is best in each.

Dr. Adam Lajeunesse is the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Canadian Arctic Marine Security Policy and an Assistant Professor at the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government, St. Francis Xavier University.

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