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Canada's window to defend the Arctic is closing, MP warns

Canada’s window to defend the Arctic is closing, MP warns


An MP who has been looking into the militarization of the North warns that if Canada doesn’t act now, it could slowly lose its grip on the Arctic.

Liberal John McKaythe Canadian co-chair of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence with the U.S., says he fears Canada isn’t ready to defend its territory as the threat from Russia slowly expands.

“We are not very well prepared,” he said.

Russia already has missile launchers and air defence systems dotted along ice roads at various military outposts in remote areas along its northern coast.

In the last five years, the Kremlin has poured vast resources into revamping Soviet-era bases in the Arctic.

“There is a very dramatic buildup of Russian military capability right across the top end of Russia, starting with Norway, working right across, right through to Alaska,” McKay said Friday in an interview with Chris Hall airing today on CBC Radio’s The House.

Russia isn’t the only country expanding its command of the north as climate change opens access to resources and shipping lanes. The U.S., Canada, Denmark and Norway are all nudging their way into the polar region as well. 

This map shows the locations of Russian military outposts in the far North. (John McKay/Supplied)

However, Russia seems to be moving in quickly. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his goal to lay claim to a large portion of the Arctic, citing the estimated value of minerals in the north at $30 trillion.

The speed of Russia’s expansion is making other nations nervous.

Last month, the American commander of NORAD called on U.S. and Canadian policy makers to think about whether they’re doing enough to counter Russian threats in the far North.

“We haven’t seen this sort of systematic and methodical increase in threats since the height of the Cold War,” Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy told the group.

Missiles, ships, troops

McKay shares those concerns. “It’s not just simply the presence of significant numbers of troops but it’s also missiles, and ships, and ballistic missiles, and low altitude cruise missiles,” he said.

McKay recently attended a meeting of the joint board where participants discussed the rapid expansion of Russia’s military presence in the region.

McKay said he’s still not convinced the White House understands what’s at stake.

A Russian military Pansyr-S1 air defence system leaves a garage during a military drill. (Vladimir Isachenkov/Associated Press)

“Clearly there is a certain indifference on the part of President (Donald) Trump.”

But McKay said he also wants to see Canada ramp up Arctic defence.

“I would like to see more resources applied to what has become a security issue for us, primarily driven by the fact that climate change has opened up the sea lanes.”

He also cautioned that the government needs to act quickly and decisively, before things get worse.

“I think the window of opportunity is closing quickly. And I’m not sure that many Canadians are actually aware how quickly it is closing.”



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Canadian Arctic has all the mineral ingredients for prized blue gemstones

Canadian Arctic has all the mineral ingredients for prized blue gemstones


Baffin Island holds some of its treasures in plain sight with rocks that produce rare gems sitting exposed to the elements, scientists say.

A new study from the University of British Columbia shows the area is home to a mineral that is prized by jewellers and collectors.

Study co-author Philippe Belley said in an interview that cobalt-blue spinel, “which is a ridiculously rare gemstone” gets a lot of interest from gemologists and jewellers but there’s not enough supply.

The most significant source of the gems is Vietnam, and even then production is limited, said Belley, who’s a PhD graduate within the department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences.

He and report co-author UBC mineralogist Lee Groat conducted the first scientific study of the cobalt-blue spinel in Canada.

Research campsite on Baffin Island. (Submitted/Lee Groat)

Easy to spot on the island

Baffin Island is “really unique” because it has all the “right ingredients” needed to produce coloured gemstones but the area is “virtually” unexplored, Belley said.

“The rock is extremely well exposed so not only is it easy to see if you have a gem occurrence by just walking on the surface and doing geological mapping, but its also suitable for remote detection methods using drones and satellites to collect data on the rocks.”

Using remote detection can’t be done in most other gem-producing areas because of plant cover or challenging terrain, Belley said.

The researchers analysed 14 occurrences of spinel on Baffin Island, including two of cobalt-blue spinel, to better understand how it forms.

“It’s finding the right chemical components in the right concentration,” he said. “We found that most gem occurrences on Baffin Island were formed from the transformation of a mixture of mud and magnesium-rich limestone under high temperature and pressure.”

Almost 2 billion years old

They found it was formed 1.8 billion years ago at temperatures of about 800 C, but cobalt was only present in high-enough concentrations to produce gem-quality stones in small, localized areas.

Baffin Island spinel contains up to 500 parts-per-million of cobalt, giving it a vivid blue colour comparable to the best sources worldwide, Belley said in the news release.

Spinel also comes in red, pink and violet, Belley said.

Other gems found on Baffin Island include beluga sapphires, used in the Queen’s sapphire jubilee brooch, and lapis lazuli, a rock used as a gemstone by the Egyptians, he said.

Mining for the gems on Baffin Island wouldn’t necessarily leave a large geographical footprint, he said.

“Most gemstones are either mined from a relatively small mine and a lot of them are mined by one or a few people or families around the world, which is called artisanal mining.”

Baffin Island, Nunavut





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Russia revamps Arctic military base to stake claim on region

Russia revamps Arctic military base to stake claim on region


Missile launchers ply icy roads and air defence systems point menacingly into the sky at this Arctic military outpost, a key vantage point for Russia to project its power over the resource-rich polar region.

The base, dubbed Severny Klever (Northern Clover) for its trefoil shape, is painted in the white, blue and red colours of the Russian national flag. It has been designed so soldiers can reach all of its sprawling facilities without venturing outdoors — a useful precaution in an area where temperatures often plunge to minus 50 Celsius during the winter, and even in the short Arctic summer are often freezing at night.

It’s strategically located on Kotelny Island, between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea on the Arctic shipping route, and permanently houses up to 250 military personnel responsible for maintaining air and sea surveillance facilities and coastal defences like anti-ship missiles.

In this photo taken on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, Russian military’s Bastion missile launchers are seen moving toward the Severny Klever (Northern Clover) Russian military base. (AP Photo/Vladimir Isachenkov)

The Russian base has enough supplies to remain fully autonomous for more than a year.

“Our task is to monitor the airspace and the northern sea route,” said base commander Lt. Col. Vladimir Pasechnik. “We have all we need for our service and comfortable living.”

Russia is not alone in trying to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic, as shrinking polar ice opens fresh opportunities for resource exploration and new shipping lanes. The United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway are jostling for position, as well, and China also has shown an increasing interest in the polar region.

But while U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has seen the Arctic through the lens of security and economic competition with Russia and China, it has yet to demonstrate that the region is a significant priority in its overall foreign policy. The post of special U.S. representative for the Arctic has remained vacant since Trump assumed office.

Russia, however, has made reaffirming its presence in the Arctic a top goal, not the least because the region is believed to hold up to one-quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas. Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited estimates that put the value of Arctic mineral riches at $30 trillion.

Russian troops conduct training with a Bastion missile launcher. (AP Photo/Vladimir Isachenkov)

Neighbours worried

The move has alarmed Russia’s neighbours, analysts say.

“In Russia, the Northern sea route has been described as a bonanza with lots of potential of economic development,” said Flemming Splidsboel Hansen of the Danish Institute for International Studies. “And that’s why there is a need for military capacity in the area. It is likely meant as defensive, but it is being interpreted by the West as offensive.”

Kristian Soeby Kristensen, a researcher at Copenhagen University in Denmark, said the problem of Russian hegemony in the Arctic was most obvious to Norway.

“Norway is a small country, whose next-door neighbour is mighty Russia, which has placed the bulk of its military capacity right next to them,” Soeby Kristensen said. “Norway is extraordinarily worried.”

Russian solders stand as Pansyr-S1 air defense system is seen in the background on the Kotelny Island. Russia has made reaffirming its military presence in the Arctic the top priority amid an intensifying international rivalry over the region that is believed to hold up to one-quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas. (AP Photo/Vladimir Isachenkov)

In 2015, Russia submitted to the United Nations a revised bid for vast territories in the Arctic. It claimed 1.2 million square kilometres of Arctic sea shelf, extending more than 650 kilometres from the shore.

As part of a multi-pronged effort to stake Russia’s claims on the Arctic region, the Kremlin has poured massive resources into modernizing Soviet-era installations there.

The military outpost on Kotelny Island fell into neglect after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but a massive effort to build a new base began in 2014 and took several years.

A Russian military’s Pansyr-S1 air defense system leaves a garage during a military drill. (AP Photo/Vladimir Isachenkov)

Rare look at expansion

A group of reporters brought to the island by the Russian Defence Ministry on Wednesday were shown Bastion anti-ship missile launchers positioned for a drill near the shore and Pantsyr-S1 air defence systems firing shots at a practice target.

The Russian military has kept Western media from visiting its Arctic facilities, so the trip offered a unique opportunity to watch the Russian expansion up close.

This photo shows a radar facility on Kotelny Island. (AP Photo/Vladimir Isachenkov)

A big radar dome looms on a hill overlooking the coast, underlining the base’s main mission of monitoring the strategic area.

In contrast with drab, Soviet-era facilities, the pristine new base features spacious living quarters, a gym and a sauna. Putin’s words about the importance of the Arctic for Russia dot the base’s walls and a symbolic border post sits in a hallway.

Soldiers at the base say they are proud of their mission despite the challenging Arctic environment.

“Proving to myself that I can do it raises my self-esteem,” said one of the soldiers, Sergei Belogov. “Weather is our enemy here, so we need to protect ourselves from it to serve the Motherland.”

Extreme cold and fierce winds often make it hard to venture outside, and even winterized vehicles may have trouble operating when temperatures plunge to extreme lows and even special lubricants freeze.

A Russian military snowmobile moves on Kotelny Island. Missile launchers ply icy roads and air defense systems point menacingly into the sky at this Arctic military outpost, a key vantage point for Russia to project power to the resource-rich polar region. (AP Photo/Vladimir Isachenkov)

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin in December that the military has rebuilt or expanded numerous facilities across the polar region, revamping runways and deploying air defence assets. He said renovation works were conducted on a long string of Arctic territories.

The expanded infrastructure has allowed the Russian military to restore full radar coverage of the nation’s 22,600-kilometre Arctic frontier and deploy fighter jets to protect its airspace.

The military also has undertaken a cleanup effort across the region, working to remove tens of thousands of tons of waste from the Arctic territories, most of it rusty fuel tanks left behind by the Soviet military.

The Russian soldiers share the island with polar bears, arctic foxes and wolves.

Officers said that, soon after the base opened, curious bears regularly prowled near its walls, sometimes even peering into its windows. On some occasions, soldiers had to use a truck to spook away a particularly curious bear wandering nearby.

Soldiers interviewed at the base said they marveled at the area’s wildlife and its majestic Arctic landscapes.

“The nature here is extremely beautiful,” said Navy Lt. Umar Erkenov, who came from southern Russia. “Meeting a polar bear is an experience that fills you with emotions. We have established friendly ties with them from the start. We don’t touch them, they don’t touch us.”

He said he’s missing his wife and daughter, whom he can only see during his leave period once a year, but is proud of his mission.

“Few people do their job under such conditions,” he said. “I feel proud that I’m here with my unit, doing my duty and protecting the Motherland.”



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