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Ships in Frobisher Bay in Iqaluit.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada lacks a complete picture of who is entering or traversing Arctic waters and the naval station set up to help with surveillance can only operate four weeks each year, a federal watchdog has found.

A report from Auditor-General Karen Hogan said Canada has significant gaps in its ability to detect foreign or domestic ships in the Arctic. This means the country can’t stay on top of threats to national security, illegal fishing or pollution from ships entering the region.

That’s a problem, she cautioned, because vessel traffic through the Arctic has tripled in the past two decades and is poised to keep growing as a warming climate renders northern passages ice-free for longer periods each year.

What’s more, Ms. Hogan warned, the government is so slow on replacing aging icebreakers, patrol aircraft and satellite infrastructure to monitor the north that some of these tools “will likely be retired before they can be replaced.”

The long-delayed Nanisivik naval refuelling station set up on northern Baffin Island will be of limited help, the report says. “As a result of the decision to scope down the project, the facility will not be equipped to heat its fuel tanks. This will reduce its period of operation to about four weeks per year.”

This means new Arctic patrol ships will have to rely on foreign allies or private enterprise for refuelling outside of that four weeks. “This leaves the navy at risk of not getting replenishment for its ships where and when needed,” the report said.

Ms. Hogan’s report comes just a few weeks after the country’s top soldier warned MPs that this country’s “tenuous hold” on its Arctic territories will come under increasing challenge in the decades ahead as China and Russia expand their presence in the region.

General Wayne Eyre, the Chief of the Defence Staff, making a pitch for new submarines and monitoring devices, said the military needs better underwater presence in order to track foreign activity entering the region, as well as an increased capacity to move troops there if necessary.

The Canadian Arctic has more than 162,000 kilometres of coastline.

Over the past 50 years, average summer sea-ice coverage in the Arctic has declined by 40 per cent because of climate change. This decline in sea ice, combined with new technologies, is making the region more accessible to ships.

Marine traffic in the Arctic rose from more than 100 voyages in 1990 to more than 450 voyages in 2019 before travel bans during the COVID-19 pandemic reduced activity, the Auditor-General’s report says.

Ms. Hogan found foreign vessels even ignored COVID restrictions and entered Arctic waters in 2020 despite the ban imposed by the Canadian government to safeguard northern communities from infection.

“During that summer, a foreign sailing vessel entered the Canadian Arctic without approval or exemption. It was identified in the vicinity of Cambridge Bay by an Inuit monitor,” the report found.

Ms. Hogan’s report warned that foreign interest in the Arctic will only grow as climate change makes it increasingly easy to navigate northern waterways. Less sea ice will mean more opportunities for commercial fishing and tourism. But it will also mean more interest from foreign countries and increased risk of illegal fishing and marine pollution, it said.

No single government entity is responsible for surveillance of Arctic waters. A range of departments, including national defence, fisheries and oceans, environment and transport, as well as the Canadian Coast Guard, play a role.

There is increasing foreign interest in the Arctic region for strategic and military purposes, and decisions about surveillance of Arctic waters today may have long-term effects on our sovereignty.

In August, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Canada’s Arctic with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and warned that Russia’s reopening of its Arctic bases, as well as China’s keen interest in a growing role in the region, cannot be overlooked.

“Climate change is making the High North more important because the ice is melting and it becomes more accessible – both for economic activity and for military activity,” Mr. Stoltenberg, the top civilian leader at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said.

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