A Comprehensive Approach to Canadian Security and Safety in the Arctic: Meeting Probable Challenges and Practical Responsibilities in a Whole of Government Context


A Comprehensive Approach to Canadian Security and Safety in the Arctic: Meeting Probable Challenges and Practical Responsibilities in a Whole of Government Context

Project Leaders: Whitney Lackenbauer and Adam Lajeunesse


Climate change. Newly accessible resources. New maritime routes. Unresolved boundary disputes. New investments in military capabilities to “defend” sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, the Arctic has emerged as a topic of tremendous hype (and deep-seated misperceptions) over the past decade, spawning persistent debates about the whether the region’s future is likely to continue along cooperative lines or spiral into unbridled competition and conflict. These debates about regional defence and security remain significant in shaping expectations for the Government of Canada and for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) more specifically. Despite the considerable ink spilled on boundary disputes and uncertainty surrounding the delineation of extended continental shelves in the Arctic, official statements by all of the Arctic states are quick to dispel the myth of a “race” between circumpolar nations, arming in preparation for a resource-fueled conflict. In short, policy trends over the past decade indicate a strong trend toward international cooperation and more closely integrated domestic efforts, as identified in Canada’s Northern Strategy – a trend that external developments in the Ukraine do not fundamentally undermine or disrupt.


Although official Canadian assessments do not anticipate any conventional military threats to the region, they do foresee a rise in security and safety challenges that require an integrated Whole of Government (WoG) or Comprehensive Approach (DND 2010a). During a previous ArcticNet project on the Emerging Arctic Security Environment (led by Huebert and Lackenbauer), conversations and meetings with senior federal, territorial, and military officials demonstrated the need for more academic attention to security issues (which are expected to proliferate as new development projects and trade routes emerge in the region) at the operational level. This requires a more nuanced and multifaceted definition of security than what typically has been a narrow, academic fixation on the possibility of inter-state conflict in the region.


Lasting solutions to complex security challenges (such as natural or human disasters, environmental dumping, increased search and rescue incidents, espionage, organized crime, or pandemics) require a system-wide, multifaceted response that integrates a wide range of civilian and military resources. Flowing from this reality, recent strategic documents situate the military’s role in a broader, Whole of Government context. While other departments and agencies are the mandated leads to deal with most Northern security issues, the Canadian Armed Forces are expected to “lead from behind” in many scenarios given their assets/capabilities and the limited resources of other potential responders in the region. This entails a reconceptualization of the Northern security landscape, moving away from a fixation on the international security environment (which strategic planners assess as low-risk) towards practical questions related to operational challenges and the need for rapid, coordinated responses.


The Whole of Government framework has emerged as a centerpiece of federal policy in the Arctic because it offers a way to rationalize services and leverage capabilities across government(s) and avoid costly redundancies. Emerging under several labels, the concept is predicated on enhanced horizontal coordination between government departments and agencies (and, in some cases, non-government stakeholders) to cut across traditional institutional silos and achieve a shared goal. Although the Whole of Government concept is simple, its implications are significant – and it is very difficult to implement in practice. Given the dearth of infrastructure and limited government capacity in the Arctic, cooperation is a prerequisite to effective regional and local operations. Nevertheless, how the Canadian Armed Forces and other government departments and agencies actually implement and exercise a Whole of Government directive is far from straightforward. Officials have acknowledged the potential value of integrated government approaches since the 1970s, and advanced the concept in the last two decades of the 20th century when federal, territorial, and northern indigenous representatives worked cooperatively to address environmental contaminants. Translating a Whole of Government philosophy into effective planning and operations, however, has always proven difficult. As Major-General Christopher Coates observes, it is easy for departments to stay insulated within their own priorities and mandates because “there is no single focal point for domestic federal arctic efforts.”


Efforts to create inter-departmental synergies to prepare, coordinate, and respond to practical security and safety challenges in a domestic Arctic context remain a work-in-progress. Despite the emphasis placed on Whole of Government in official policy statements, operations over the last decade reveal myriad barriers to effective integration and linking of government, local, and private sector partners. These obstacles include a lack of designated funding for initiatives that cut across departmental or government lines, policy structures that do not align (particularly across the civilian-military divide), and jurisdictional silos that inhibit (or prohibit) collaboration. In the case of the Canadian Arctic, implementation requires fundamentally altering military and public sector cultures, including chains of command, procedures, channels of communication, and even issues of terminology and vocabulary. While interdepartmental deputy and assistant deputy minister committees in Ottawa and the Arctic Security Working Group in Yellowknife encourage collaboration between National Defence, Public Safety Canada (PSC), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA), Transport Canada, and other stakeholders on security initiatives, significant friction and gaps remain that inhibit operational efficiencies and effectiveness. Furthermore, federal stakeholders must collaborate with territorial/provincial, municipal, and Aboriginal governments that have their own priorities and needs.


Project objectives – to address various core questions:


  • What are the most pressing security and safety threats and hazards facing the Canadian North, what government and non-government capabilities exist to respond to them, and which stakeholder has – or should have – the lead?


  • What are the lessons learned from Whole of Government exercises and operations over the last decade, and how can these be better absorbed and integrated into military and government culture?


  • How can existing roadblocks to intra- and inter-governmental cooperation be overcome? When are formal approaches better than informal ones, and vice versa?  Is new government “machinery” needed to advance WoG solutions in the Arctic? What does an “integrated northern operating picture” actually look like and involve in practice?


  • How can governments better engage non-governmental and civil society organizations for partnership, guidance and assistance to produce innovative, affordable solutions and to encourage burden-sharing?


  • How do duties to consult and accommodate Aboriginal peoples apply in the security and safety sectors? How do the priorities of Northern indigenous communities fit with those of governments? How can security and safety initiatives achieve enduring, positive results for Northern communities?


  • What lessons can be learned from Whole of Government practices elsewhere (in/by Canada and other countries) that might be applicable to the Canadian Arctic context?


Discussions with federal, territorial and Northern community stakeholders pursuant to the ArcticNet Emerging Arctic Security Environment project (2010-15) pointed to the need for an in-depth “outside” review of the government’s Whole of Government framework and how it can better contribute to security and safety in the Arctic. Despite the tremendous emphasis placed on Whole of Government in official statements over the past decade, departmental silos remain largely intact and lessons from operations and exercises have not been fully absorbed. In part this reflects established institutional cultures that are resistant to change, and indicates a persistent inability to discern and disseminate lessons through internal government mechanisms. Accordingly, we believe that our empirical evidence and theoretical insights into how to envisage, implement and sustain comprehensive security approaches will have direct, positive policy and practical benefits for governments and for Northern communities. Arctic practitioners are anxious to fix this widely-recognized problem, and our current project reflects their strong desire to work with a trusted group of academics to parse the issues, identify best practices, and suggest areas for improvement.


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