The Canadian North is hot. Sovereignty, climate change, social conditions, spectacular scenary – the media is brimming with Arctic coverage. Peter Mansbridge has gone North to tell Arctic “road stories”; the Prime Minister, clearly struck by the Arctic, has been a frequent visitor, bringing with him many of his cabinet ministers.
Most Canadians have never played hockey, but they are passionate about the game, especially when Team Canada is involved. In much the same way, few Canadians have actually been to the North, but it’s in our hearts.
As a boy, my heroes were the explorers and adventurers of the polar regions: Shackleton and Amundsen, Franklin and Rae, brave men who struggled to overcome the remoteness, the harshness and the sheer vastness as they prospected for minerals and other natural resources. I have had the good fortune of being able to follow my passion into my professional life. I have spent much of the past 25 years as a systems engineer, designing and developing computer-based systems to chart sea ice coverage around Canada’s coastlines, to track and plot icebergs drifting down from the Eastern Arctic, to detect and track submarines sailing through chokepoints in the Arctic archipelago, and to track the position of ships in the far north.
During that time, several incidents occurred – a U.S. supertanker, the SS Manhattan, sailing through the Northwest Passage in 1969, sightings of foreign submarines, Denmark planted its flag on Hans Island – that each prompted a flurry of headlines and concern over threatened sovereignty. In each case, crisis meetings were convened in Ottawa and sometimes big announcements were made – “we’re going to build a Polar 8 Icebreaker.” I must admit I got excited, too. As a systems engineer with Arctic experience, I could imagine my own engineering solutions to these sovereignty threats.
But each event was soon followed by another news headline and quickly faded from the front page and the public conscience. The Polar 8 and other solutions were never built.
Why should it be any different today? Unlike some of those incidents, climate change is real, and it will not go away. Sea ice is receding, making accessible water that has not been navigable in recorded history. Glaciers are melting, uncovering land and minerals that have never before been seen by human eyes. The Arctic is literally opening up, and will continue to do so. This is no longer hypothetical – it’s happening today.
The opening of the North provides both opportunities and challenges. On the positive side, consider that Canada derives its wealth from natural resources; revenue from those resources drives our economy and our high standard of living. The previously inaccessible North comprises almost half our land and three quarters of our marine environment. It holds rich deposits of diamonds and iron ore; it is estimated that the Arctic Ocean contains 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves. The natural wealth of the land – and its natural beauty – offers the promise of greater prosperity for all Canadians, but especially jobs and development opportunities for those living there.
On the negative side – which is where the headline writers tend to dwell – we read about threats (real or perceived) to our sovereignty and security, be it from the Russians, the Americans, or multinational corporations. But beyond those, there are the more banal threats and the stewardship responsibilities that come with increased activity in the North. Among them, the environment needs to be protected from damage, and cleaned up when it is damaged; a robust search and rescue capability is needed for the inevitable accidents; and so on.
The government has announced a Northern Strategy, replete with pretty pictures and numerous announcements (we’re going to build a new icebreaker!). What seems to be missing, however, is a comprehensive vision. Provinces and territories, companies, interest groups and individuals are of course eagerly pitching their own solutions – a road, a fleet of armed icebreakers, to name a few. But why would a government accept any of these proposals without first articulating an overall vision? While some of these may win votes in the short term, they will pour tax dollars down a money pit. It is little wonder projects are loudly announced only to be quietly cancelled later.
Yet, it doesn’t need to be like this. There is a comprehensive solution to be had if we take a structured, top-down engineering view, driven by fundamental requirements as opposed to impulse buying. Prime Minister Stephen Harper captured the essence of those fundamental requirements very nicely in August of 2008 when he said: “To develop the North, we must know the North. To protect the North, we must control the North.”
That statement defines for us the two key objectives for a Northern Strategy: 1) know the North; and 2) control the North.
With that in hand, it is quite straightforward to indentify the strategy’s components. For instance, to know the North, we must have up-to-date, accurate maps (topographic, thematic, and so on). Likewise, we need modern, fit-for-purpose charts of the Northern waterways to allow visiting and resident mariners to safely and confidently navigate through them. We must also know what is happening throughout the region, otherwise known as situational awareness. For that, we need surveillance systems covering the air, the land, the sea and the subsea. And we need to know not only what is there today, but what conditions we will face tomorrow, with such elements as accurate weather forecasts and climatology predictions.
To control the North, we must have a presence (on the land, the ice and the water), an ability to respond to incidents and threats – military, humanitarian, search and rescue, or environmental. And we need the sort of command and control infrastructure to be able to put together an accurate, understandable picture of what’s going on to support decision making by those who must respond.
What becomes apparent is the need for a true “system of systems.” For instance, it does not make sense to solve the presence issue with ships if we can’t communicate with them or if there are no charts with which they can safely navigate. The solution is a sum of the interrelated parts. The innovation challenge is to come up with the most cost-effective solutions for each of those parts, while ensuring that they will work in the vast, remote and harsh Northern environment. If the parts are coordinated, waste and duplication can be reduced.
All of government
That said, there is no single federal government department that can build this Northern Strategy, at least not without a huge reorganization. Maps, for instance are the responsibility of Natural Resources Canada, forecasts that of Environment Canada, and jurisdiction of our waterways is spread among National Defence, the Coast Guard, the RCMP and others. Responsibility for other elements depend on how they are implemented, for instance surveillance by the Canadian Space Agency or by Defence, depending on the approach.
If a truly comprehensive, cost-effective Northern Strategy is to be built, and the components of that strategy are the responsibility of several federal departments and agencies, who has overall responsibility for carrying it out and coordinating the elements? And will that department have the sophisticated engineering know-how to coordinate the building and roll-out of such a system of systems? It needs both a champion and a team with the necessary skills and experience for such a project. The current champion, or at least the visible one, is the current Prime Minister. The coor