In July 2009 Chuck Strahl, then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, and Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs, released “Canada’s Northern Strategy,” an integrated plan to strengthen Canada’s sovereignty, protect our environmental heritage, promote economic and social development, and improve northern governance.

A month later, standing aboard HMCS Toronto in Frobisher Bay, Prime Minister Stephen Harper further clarified the goals of the plan. “To develop the North, we must know the North,” he said. “And to protect the North, we must control the North.”

Those two short sentences nicely sum up the strategy. Development of the North represents an enormous opportunity for all Canadians. But it must be done carefully and with full consideration of the cumulative impact of all its pillars, on the northern environment and on the well-being of all who live in it. The strategy, in essence, commits the government to doing its part to establish the necessary infrastructure to facilitate success.

Marking progress
To the government’s credit, much has already been accomplished since the strategy was announced, often in collaboration with industry and northern peoples.

In space, Radarsat II is providing daily, all-weather satellite surveillance of the northern environment, including our shrinking polar icecap. And the replacement to Radarsat II, a constellation of three satellites that will provide even more frequent coverage to aid navigation, is under development. A new satellite mission is also in the design stage, which will provide much needed polar weather data and satellite communications.

On land, the government has begun the design of a new High Arctic research station to be located in Cambridge Bay and has committed to the expansion and the re-equipment of Canada’s northern militia, the Rangers.

On the sea, a huge milestone was reached this past October with the selection of two shipyards to deliver the government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. Seaspan of Vancouver will shortly begin construction of the Coast Guard’s new heavy icebreaker, the John G. Diefenbaker, while Irving of Halifax will begin construction of the Navy’s new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships. Meanwhile, under the sea, government workers, industry and academia have teamed to map the northern extent of our continental shelf using Canadian innovations in subsea robotics.

Beyond those tangible and important milestones, other equally important steps have been taken to lay the foundation for further progress. For example, a public opinion survey conducted by the Munk School of Global Affairs concluded that Canadians from all walks of life and from all regions care deeply about the North and support the government’s efforts and investments in setting the conditions for its sustainable development. And several government departments have “got the message” about the importance of the North and developed their own departmental plans to play their supporting part in the whole-of-government strategy.

Taking stock
While all these accomplishments are significant and laudable, how well do they help us meet the prime minister’s goals of better knowing and controlling the North? A quick glimpse at a framework of the necessary systems to accomplish that suggests we still have a ways to go. For example, “knowing the North” requires:

• Charts of the sea: modern, accurate bathymetric charts necessary to allow mariners safe passage through our Arctic waters and to facilitate prompt rescue or aid when that is needed;
• Maps of the land: topographic and geological, required to encourage exploration and development;
• Surveillance: current knowledge of what’s happening in the Arctic today – in the air, on the land, on the sea, and under the sea;
• Accurate weather forecasting: in an area as vast, remote and harsh as the North, accurate weather and ice forecasting saves lives as well as money; and
• Science: science and knowledge are synonymous, and sound baseline knowledge of the environment is a necessary prerequisite to understanding and monitoring the impacts of development.

Similarly, to control the North requires:
• Presence: not just “boots on the ground,” but also on the ice and the water;
• Response capability: Canada must have the tools and capabilities in place to deal with whatever can and will happen when development occurs in this vast, remote and harsh region, including pollution response and cleanup, conduct of successful search and rescue operations, response to humanitarian crises like that unfolding in Attawapiskat, or response to military threats; and
• Decision support: this includes reliable northern satellite communications and command and control tools.

Progress is being made, albeit slowly, on geological mapping of the North under the Natural Resources Canada GEM project. Wide area surveillance of the air, the land and the sea is in-hand due to a number of systems now in place or under development. Arctic forecasting is expected to improve greatly once the Polar Communications and Weather satellite mission implementation is approved, built and launched. And the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, now in the early design stage, is expected to make a significant boost to Canada’s scientific endeavors in the North.

Meanwhile, on the “control” side, the announced ship projects by the Coast Guard and the Navy will ensure a significant improvement in our ability to respond to incidents wherever they might occur. Expansion to our Polar Continental Shelf station in Resolute and to the Rangers will increase our footprint on the land. And a Royal Canadian Air Force project currently being considered would greatly increase the government’s persistent presence in Arctic skies. Finally, the Polar Communications Weather satellite mission will provide high bandwidth communications across the far North.

Plugging gaps
The biggest remaining gap is under the sea, and this extends across the framework. Navigation charts of Canada’s Arctic archipelago, the largest in the world, are woefully inadequate. Three ships ran aground in a single month last summer, including the Clipper Adventurer cruise ship with Margaret Atwood aboard. Not only do inadequate charts increase the chance of such accidents, they also hinder and increase the risk for rescue efforts.

Similarly, we also suffer an undersea surveillance gap in our situational awareness. It might seem ironic, but although foreign national submarines collected much of our bathymetric chart data, we have no means of detecting when those submarines are operating in our waters today. When Defence Minister Peter MacKay commented in Parliament back in October that “I know nuclear subs are what’s needed under deep water, deep ice,” he acknowledged our lack of undersea presence and response capability. (Whether the only solution to that gap is nuclear submarines is a separate issue).

Great opportunity
Canada’s northern strategy is a necessary response to worldwide environmental and geo-political changes that cannot be ignored. Those same changes represent what I believe is Canada’s greatest opportunity and challenge of the 21st century.

The government deserves much credit for not only announcing a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy to deal with these changes, but also for its strong start, marshalling the support of departmental bureaucracies and the public, and kicking off a sizeable number of important infrastructure projects to help “know and control the North.”

Now is the time to fill the remaining gaps in the suite of projects, notably those that provide knowledge, awareness and presence in the undersea, and to push through the implementation of those already announced and under consideration.

Lee Carson is president of NORSTRAT Consulting and a senior associate with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, helping organizations and companies build components of Canada’s Northern Strategy (