The Yukon’s infrastructure can make for a more “agile and sustainable” defence presence when it comes to Arctic security, according to Premier Sandy Silver, while northern Yukon First Nations demand inclusion on the topic.
Silver gave Canadian Senators a glimpse at what he describes as essential to Arctic security: “healthy, vibrant, thriving and safe communities in Canada’s North.”
He appeared as a witness before the Standing Senate Committee on National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs on Dec. 5. The committee is examining and reporting on issues relating to security and defence in the Arctic, including Canada’s military infrastructure and security capabilities.
As part of the undertaking, the committee has heard some other Yukon perspectives on the matter including RCMP Supt. Lindsay Ellis and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation Chief Roberta Joseph.
Northern First Nations demand inclusion
Joseph testified Nov. 28 on behalf of the northern Yukon First Nations in proximity to the Arctic Ocean and the Alaska border: Vuntut Gwitchin Government, the Na-Cho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondëk Hwëchin Government and citizens.
“We cannot predict the future; however, we can acknowledge that the Arctic Circle is a site of conflict, potential international unrest and may become, without foresight and preparedness, a major shipping thoroughfare and an area of civil conflict,” Joseph said in her opening remarks.
“All of these aforementioned concerns will have a significant and lasting impact on us, the First Nations who live on and cared for these lands since time immemorial, and our people will do so in perpetuity.”
She said it is important to keep their voices and sovereignty in international discussions on this topic, particularly given the civil unrest in Russia, the possibility of the Northwest Passage of Canadian internal water routes opening due to ice melting and climate change and the ongoing contested sovereignty claims over the waters.
Joseph put forward a formal request for greater consultation to include First Nations in the northern Yukon in all discussions.
“Our lack of inclusion to date has been an oversight, and we ask for this to be rectified,” she said.
Joseph made reference to the construction of the Alaska Highway in the 1950s, which forced the dislocation of Indigenous Peoples from the land and into communities.
“It is not acceptable that we may face military and/or other security forces coming into our communities without input from us as First Nation governments,” she said.
“We have seen in the past what can occur when there is military intervention and a security presence on our lands and in our community without our implicit permission.”
Silver told the committee about how at the Council of the Federation meetings, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, premiers from across the country came to a consensus on the importance of strengthening Arctic sovereignty and security.
“We believe that healthy, resilient communities are the foundation for a secure and sovereign North, and investments in security should help develop strong communities,” he said.
Silver said the premiers have called on the feds to identify new money to support sovereignty in the North.
“Having diverse, robust and secure energy, transportation and telecommunications infrastructure will increase Yukon’s and Canada’s resiliency to threats,” he said.
Silver said stacking infrastructure will give the Department of National Defense the ability to defend against various threats while limiting impacts on local communities. He said improving the Yukon government’s airport runways and highways will increase “resilience” and provide “more robust and secure” supply chains for deployment.
Silver commented on “periodic” telecommunications and internet outages experienced in the Yukon.
“The Yukon is interested in multiple purpose infrastructure that can provide long-term benefits to both the Canadian Armed Forces and local communities.”
Silver told the committee the Yukon plays an “important and unique” role in this conversation, with the Pacific Ocean being key to Yukon’s mineral exports.
“The Bering Strait is one of the places we can see incursions from Russia or from China into the North American Arctic,” he said.
Silver said North America’s security and the Yukon’s prosperity are tied to a “secure supply of critical minerals.” He nodded to the federal government’s Critical Minerals Strategy and the territory’s access to tidewater.
“Now is the time to develop these critical minerals and for the governments to establish favourable conditions to enable that,” he said.
In June, Canada’s Minister of National Defence Anita Anand announced billions of dollars for Canada’s continental defence capabilities.
But Silver is predicting the bulk of the North American Aerospace Defense Command modernization money will not go to the North — it will go to southern firms for specialized equipment and services.
“We ask that those developing the programs look closely at the assets that can be left in the northern communities for future use — not only infrastructure and equipment but also experience, training and capacity building,” he said.
Silver pointed to the Canadian Rangers as an example.
“Rangers can be quickly mobilized, participate in coordinated responses with our other agencies, facilitate engagement with communities, and the skills that they develop through national defense programs support other community safety activities such as search and rescue,” he said.
Silver also repeated his request for funding towards the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework. The Yukon has not yet released its own chapter for the framework.
On the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program, Silver said that while the federal government has listened over the past six years since he has been in power, massive federal programming is designed for big cities like Toronto and Vancouver as smaller jurisdictions like the Yukon are “lost in the shuffle”.
“There’s times where we see setbacks,” he said.
“We’ll give a grain of sand every time that we have to remind the federal government how unique and special the Yukon is.”
He indicated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agrees with him that the people of the North are at the heart of Arctic security and sovereignty.
In opening remarks on Dec. 5, Ellis noted the RCMP’s history as the Northwest Mounted Police during the Klondike Gold Rush, which she described as being the first notable foreign interest in the Yukon, up to today.
“The uniform frontline members in detachments in the Yukon are the first responders to most northern security and sovereignty issues,” Ellis said.
Ellis said nine RCMP officers in the federal investigations unit are responsible for looking into foreign actor interference, border integrity and national security alongside the Canadian Border Service Agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, U.S. law enforcement, Yukon government departments and Yukon First Nations governments and communities.
Ellis said foreign actor interference is often under-reported and difficult to detect.
High levels of foreign interest in mining and access to mineral in the Yukon is a risk area that warrants monitoring, she said.
Ellis described challenges to policing in a growing territory with all communities, with the exception of Old Crow, accessible by road from Alaska and British Columbia.
“Serious and organized crime group activity in the territory, in the Yukon, exposes northern and First Nations populations to increased levels of violence, crime and access to illicit substances,” she said.
“Yukon is anticipating improved low-level satellite wireless capabilities and new fibre technology. Both will enhance and extend the Yukon’s reach within many communities, but will also increase exposure to cyber threats, economic or otherwise.”
Ellis spoke of the RCMP’s close relationship with the Rangers.
“Operationally, joint deployments with the Rangers are a little bit more difficult in that the RCMP in the Yukon has oversight of all search and rescue on the land,” she said.
“Rangers are always trying to come out, whether they’re coming with their red sweatshirts on and in a Ranger capacity or on their own time. If it’s going to be a full Ranger deployment, I’m sure this committee is aware that the RCMP has to exhaust all of our requirements out on the land before we can make a request for assistance from the Rangers.”
The Canadian Armed Forces are in the same boat, she said.
When asked what she wanted to see in the report, Ellis said she wanted the Yukon to be recognized.
“Having a recognition of the Yukon and the other northern territories — some of the amazing opportunities but also the challenges — highlighted in your report is something that I would like to see,” she said.
“I would like to see an observation or a recommendation that this recognition be continued. I would like to see a continued focus on the North and a continued focus on the people and the land, as well as the security and the sovereignty of the North.”
The committee will report to the Senate before June 30, 2023.
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org