At 5 a.m. last Monday, a giant C-17 Globemaster transport took off from CFB Trenton carrying Governor-General David Johnston on a six-hour flight to the Canadian Forces station in Alert, Nunavut – the most northerly location in the world that permanently inhabited.
Over two days of darkness, the Governor-General toured Alert inside and out, chatting with its 77 military and civilian personnel, presiding over a change-of-command ceremony, laying memorial wreathes in the minus-34 chill and being briefed on the small station's operations and activities – from high-level signals-intelligence intercepts and climate-change monitoring to the heightened daily challenges of pumping water, fighting fire or managing medical care in Canada's most remote location. We spoke to the Commander-in-Chief at the end of the tour when he was still dressed in the military green camouflage he wore.
Why did you go to Alert?
Well, it's very strategic, the most northerly inhabited place on Earth, right at the top of the Pole, connected to our circumpolar neighbours. If we truly believe in the idea of Canada as a country stretching sea to sea to sea, that's the top point. It's our most northerly military operation: There was a change of command, and we like to piggyback on these operations when we can to salute our men and women in uniform.
Why did you pick January, when it's in darkness?
I have never been really north in winter. I was delighted that I could come when there was no sunshine and have a sense of how people lived. I think you have to see it to believe it – both visually and in terms of the challenge and the conditions and the vastness of it all. Champlain was right when he said you really don't know Canada until you've wintered over. It's hard to get your mind round that authenticity.
Our government has been asserting Arctic sovereignty for some time. How does it look on the ground?
I'm very conscious of it, and think it's an appropriate mandate of this office that we establish a Canadian presence and not just leave it to be neglected. That's the defensive measure: This is a part of Canada and let's be sure the world knows that. But I guess the positive feature is that since we have this land and this coast, let's understand it and let's learn from it and let's collaborate in learning from it so we share the lessons for the world. It might be a virtual connection of universities of the North and we could undertake a much more ambitious set of scientific programs. The one takeaway I have that's more prominent in my mind is what a fascinating laboratory this is for learning.
For what, in particular?
In the environment lab, we've been collecting data since 1950, and what are we doing with it? Are we sharing with others, what are the Russians doing, how big a bridge can we build with them? Not on sovereignty, not on security, not on intelligence, but how do you learn to live in the North?
What did you make of Alert just as a place?
First of all, I was trying to figure out what was land and what was sea. And I still find that confusing in terms of the North Pole and our land claims and the extension of the continental shelf underneath. I suppose you have a little better sense of that during the daylight time of year. I guess I was very conscious you had to build things that could survive and last, and confront nature and deal with it in a satisfactory fashion. I was struck by how conscious they were about preventive maintenance and possible breakdowns. One of the senior leaders said what worried him most was fire because fire could spread very quickly in the place and be devastating. We experienced a fire alarm – I know that wasn't staged for us – and I was quite conscious of people moving promptly, getting out, ensuring that the issue is looked after. There's a lot of fuel oil, and you don't want it getting too hot.
Despite our Arctic ambitions, Alert still feels like a remote outpost in a very precarious environment. Is there a dream quality in the way we envision the future of the North?
When I look about the North, I have a sense of the idea of Canada – the coast-to-coast-to-coast vision is very much a part of that. The reality on the ground is that it's hard and tough, with some disappointments. Good leadership makes a big difference. As I read the book Champlain's Dream, I discovered that he was a very good leader. I had thought of Champlain as a conquistador; I had no appreciation of the man as a builder of a new order. He was always fighting for support, recognition, trying to finance another voyage, it was an uphill battle. He had to change from Protestant to Catholic to stay onside with the regime.
Do you see an analogy with Alert?
I suppose that's the challenge for all the exploration of Canada. We've always been in that situation of aspiring to understand, to settle, to develop, to advance, and yet drawing back from it. It's been a series of checks and balances, step forward, step back. With Alert, the question is why that northern outpost, at what cost, and at what value? My sense is that its presence is pretty well established, and I do think the North will become more important to us and that northerly frontier will become an important anchor point.
Where do you see new opportunities?
The one I'm most excited about is science. I just saw that as a magnificent laboratory for a way of advancing knowledge – including, I suppose, how do you keep a big C-17 four-engine plane overnight and make sure you get it started in the morning.