Canada’s three northern territories have been spared a national shortage of personnel in the Canadian Armed Forces for the time being, according to Joint Task Force North (JTFN).
Earlier this month, Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of the defence staff, made an extraordinary appeal to the nation to rally behind the military during its staffing crisis, noting that the military is currently struggling to fill some 10,000 posted positions, or about 10 per cent of its total strength.
However, Major Bonnie Wilken of JTFN public affairs, said the North is not currently facing the effects of this shortage.
“It is business as usual in the North, and our operations are happening as planned.”
About 300 military personnel are currently stationed in the territories, the vast majority of them at JTFN headquarters in Yellowknife. About 20 per cent of the positions are unfilled, Wilken said, but this proportion is not unusual.
The next northern operation, Operation Nanook-Nunalivut, will take place from March 1-20, near Rankin Inlet, and will bring together approximately 350 soldiers, mainly from the South.
Wilken thinks the North remains mostly untouched from the shortage because there are fewer permanent members than in some large cities in the South of the country and that working in the Far North requires additional experience.
“Most of us are more senior, we’ve been around for a while. And this is actually a pretty desirable posting,” she said.
‘Extremely ill-prepared’ even without staffing challenges
While the North has been spared from unusual staffing shortages, Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson says the federal government should still be doing more to bolster Arctic defence, especially given the current global political climate.
“Frankly, even if we are at the full regular capacity,” said Dennis Patterson, “northern Canada is extremely ill-prepared to deal with the potential of incursions … to North America from the North.”
“We’re well aware that the Soviet, the Russian North, is bristling with military capability, airfields, hypersonic missiles, submarines, and air bases. In contrast, Canada doesn’t have anywhere near comparable infrastructure in its Arctic.”
Eyre, the commander of the Canadian Armed Forces, told the House of Commons defence committee on Tuesday that while there is no imminent threat, Canada has a “tenuous hold” on the Arctic, which could be challenged by Russia or China.
Eyre also emphasized the need to follow through on Defence Minister Anita Anand’s spending commitment, announced in June, to support the modernization of NORAD and the establishment of an undersea network of surveillance sensors. The Liberal government promised to spend $4.9 billion over the next six years to modernize continental defence.
When it comes to infrastructure in the North, Patterson pointed to the long-awaited naval refueling centre in Nanisivik, Nunavut, which was first announced in 2014 and has been delayed multiple times, most recently, to 2023.
Patterson also decried the fact that Nanisivik, when completed, won’t include an airfield.
He also stressed that there are currently no deep water ports along Canada’s northern coast, the longest coastline in the country.
“So, we’re a long way from being prepared,” Patterson said.
Patterson wants to see more in the plan for NORAD’s modernization that includes northerners. He said right now, there isn’t a “clear role for the people of the North and the Inuit” to establish sovereignty in the Arctic.
Patterson also called the Arctic policy framework that Canada adopted “aspirational” and said it doesn’t include a concrete plan for addressing the North’s “serious infrastructure deficits.”
“The invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy. But it has, in my view, fortunately helped Canada and the United States to realize our vulnerability in the North,” Patterson said.
“I’m encouraged that now, finally, attention is being paid to improving our infrastructure in northern Canada. And I’m determined to make sure that communities and the residents of the North are not left out.”