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Politics Senate group urges Ottawa to invest in Arctic as climate change threatens northern infrastructure, sovereignty claims

A group of senators is urging the federal government to invest in infrastructure funding to help Arctic residents adapt to a landscape that is being rapidly altered by climate change.

Conservative Senator Dennis Patterson and Independent Senator Patricia Bovey, the chair and deputy chair, respectively, presented the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic’s recommendations at a news conference on Wednesday, saying the report is a wake-up call for the government.

A special Senate committee has called for increased infrastructure spending, defence in the Arctic as retreating ice brings increased foreign interest in northern resources and navigation.

CLEMENT SABOURIN/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Patterson said many problems in the North are related to infrastructure, such as melting permafrost’s impact on housing, roads and airport runways.

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The report states that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the global average, and that melting permafrost threatens all-season and ice roads in the Northwest Territories, as well as housing and community facilities throughout the Arctic.

“The need to improve infrastructure is top of my mind for many northerners, but funding priorities are often controlled by Ottawa-based bureaucrats and politicians, even, that don’t truly understand the needs of the North,” Mr. Patterson said.

Ms. Bovey said that melting permafrost is affecting communities all over the Arctic, adding that southern building codes don’t work in the North. She said Indigenous knowledge needs to be used in combination with scientific research in the Arctic to properly address these issues.

“I was very impressed with some of the scientists who were working in the North in the way Indigenous knowledge is included in some of their research, but what we’re calling for is much more,” she said.

Ms. Bovey said scientists can measure melting sea ice, but Indigenous knowledge allows them to look at ice and understand the texture, depth and safety of the ice.

ARCTIC SEA ICE EXTENT

Area of ocean with at least 15 per cent sea ice,

in millions of square kilometres

18

1980

16

2000

14

2010

2019

12

10

8

6

4

2

0

J

F

M

A

M

J

J

A

S

O

N

D

CARRIE COCKBURN / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: NATIONAL SNOW AND ICE DATA CENTER

ARCTIC SEA ICE EXTENT

Area of ocean with at least 15 per cent sea ice,

in millions of square kilometres

18

1980

16

2000

2010

14

2019

12

10

8

6

4

2

0

J

F

M

A

M

J

J

A

S

O

N

D

CARRIE COCKBURN / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: NATIONAL SNOW AND ICE DATA CENTER

ARCTIC SEA ICE EXTENT

Area of ocean with at least 15 per cent sea ice, in millions of square kilometres

18

1980

16

2000

2010

14

2019

12

10

8

6

4

2

0

J

F

M

A

M

J

J

A

S

O

N

D

CARRIE COCKBURN / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NATIONAL SNOW AND ICE DATA CENTER

Melting ice has also led to an increase of international vessels through the Northwest Passage, particularly in the eastern waters of Nunavut, which threatens Canada’s sovereignty, Mr. Patterson said.

The report outlines these challenges, with specific reference to China’s Xuelong voyage. Witness testimony in the report said the Chinese government received consent to travel through the waters after asking for permission to conduct marine scientific research, rather than asking permission for its state vessel to enter Canadian waters, as Canada’s position would require.

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In another example, the report cites U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement in May of 2019 that Canada’s claim of the Northwest Passage is “illegitimate.”

Mr. Patterson said the government must increase its presence in the North to investigate potential security threats and ensure emergency preparedness.

Adam Austen, press secretary to Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, said in an e-mailed statement that the government is firmly asserting itself in the North and that Arctic sovereignty is well established.

“Canada will continue to exercise the full extent of its rights and sovereignty over its land territory and its Arctic waters, including the Northwest Passage,” Mr. Austen said.

An overarching theme of the report is it empowers regional governments to deliver services and programs to its residents.

Mr. Patterson said that while federal funding is needed, northern communities should be responsible for choosing their own path forward. He said northerners have been experiencing the changes in the Arctic first-hand and can most efficiently respond to them.

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“The devolution of decision-making responsibilities to northerners is something that I have been advocating for my entire political career,” he said.

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