Time to put Russia-Canada tensions in the deep freeze

The Trudeau government recognises that climate change is the real threat to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

A polar bear wanders across the ice floes in the Canadian Arctic [Getty]
A polar bear wanders across the ice floes in the Canadian Arctic [Getty]

The world’s most dangerous zone lies not in the Middle East, nor in Crimea, nor in the South China Sea. 

The real hot spot is the Arctic.

That’s where global warming may lead to global warring, between Russia, the United States and Canada. The fight would be a contest for control of shipping lanes emerging out of the melting ice, lanes that could cut the distance between the Atlantic and the Pacific by days. It would also be a battle for the exploitation of the 13 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 per cent of its natural gas believed to be beneath the seabed.

Inside Story: The Arctic drilling controversy

This new Cold War is what Canada’s most pessimistic pundits predict while touting Canada’s “Arctic sovereignty” and detailing Russia’s investments of billions of dollars in northern military and missile bases, nuclear ice-breakers and fighter jets.

As if Canada could even begin to compete with all that, not to mention with the US’s might and materiel. It can barely afford to meet its NATO commitments, let alone buy cutting-edge, ice-ready military equipment.

The cold shoulder

And yet Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, toppled last October by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, continuously gave Russia the cold shoulder – and not just over events in Ukraine. Harper wanted to plant the maple leaf firmly in the North – which represents 40 per cent of Canada’s land mass and two-thirds of its coastline – to stake the claim on its riches, most especially its oil reserves.

OPINION: Trudeau’s global brand is a hot commodity

As prime minister, he trekked north every summer, a Captain Canada for the three quarters of citizens who believe the Arctic – and whatever lies beneath it – is historically theirs.

Now that the coveted waters may become navigable, at least for some of the year, Canada has to chart a new future in the Arctic.


After all, if it weren’t for early European explorers’ often-fatal quest for the fabled “Northwest Passage” to the East and its spices, Canada may never have happened, or become the country it is. But, now that the coveted waters may become navigable, at least for some of the year, Canada has to chart a new future in the Arctic.

The thing about climate change and “the True North, Strong and Free”, as the Canadian national anthem goes, is that it’s about much more than starving polar bears. The region is complex, with diverse indigenous peoples, many of whom suffer from extreme poverty and alarming murder and suicide rates.

Colonised, isolated and marginalised for centuries, Canada’s northern nations are just starting to become realised – and making demands to protect their culture, traditional hunting grounds and fishing waters.

But what the scaremongering pundits neglect to mention is the social, environmental and economic threats to Canada’s north. Larger still are the threats to the planet, from melting ice caps and rising sea levels. These, not Russian submarines, are the real threat to Canada.

The prospects are chilling – and they put the Trudeau government at polar opposites with those who want to draw battle lines in the snow.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [Reuters]
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau [Reuters]

Profound disapproval

Yes, in Ottawa there may be profound disapproval of events in Syria and Eastern Europe. Yes, Canada is deploying 450 troops to Latvia. Yes, Canada maintains a military training mission in Ukraine. Yes, Trudeau has called Russian president Vladimir Putin a “bully” who is “unduly provocative” in the Arctic.

And yet the Trudeau government is looking to thaw its relations with Russia, despite objections at home and from Ukraine.

The fact is that Canada and Russia are neighbours, laying claim to 75 percent of the Arctic. (The rest is divvied up by other members of the 21-year-old Arctic Council: the US, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.)

OPINION: Is having anti-Canadian values a Canadian value?

As neighbours, they have common interests. Both have indigenous populations in the north. Both are prone to environmental devastation, from pipeline ruptures to pandemics in vast and remote areas. Both run the risk of losing control of their “internal waters”, as ships from all over the world bypass Panama and the Suez Canal for the shorter, lock- and inspection point-free Northwest Passage.


It’s already happening. This summer, the 700-passenger, 13-storey luxury liner Crystal Serenity cruised Canada’s north, raising fears that more giant holiday ships would come through, polluting the water, blackening pristine shorelines and harming wildlife.

There is little that Canada can do to stop that – unless parameters are set with its partners at the Pole.

The process has begun. Last month, despite differences over Syria and Crimea, Pam Goldsmith-Jones, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, told academics at an Ottawa conference that Russia and Canada would hold joint talks on the Arctic at the end of November.

“More than ever, the world will count on Canada as a responsible steward of this great barometer of our planet,” she said, standing in for Dion who was at the funeral of Israel’s former president, Shimon Peres.

“Northern resources, explored responsibly, offer huge potential for increased economic development. But if these resources are exploited irresponsibly, it will be a disaster not only for us but for all of humanity. To sever the links with Russia, our neighbour, serves the interests of no one. Neither Canadians nor Russians nor Ukrainians. No one.”

Which is why armchair Cold Warriors must put their old-fashioned notions of military-enforced security and territorial sovereignty in the deep freeze.

Canada should be building a strategic alliance with Russia to protect the North Pole – and the planet. On this point at least, the Trudeau government is sailing in the right direction.

Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star and the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.