Canada Kicks Ass

Forces to 'flex muscles' in north
Date: Tuesday, March 30 2004
Topic: Military, Security, and Defence

Canada is sending one of its largest warships, a squadron of helicopters and 200 ground troops to the high Arctic this summer in an exercise designed to show the flag -- and a little military muscle -- in the North.

And while the military says the three-week-long exercise, code-named Narwhal, has nothing to do with Denmark's claim to a tiny island in the far North, it will be the largest Canadian Forces exercise ever in the Arctic.

"This is a first," Colonel Norris Pettis, commander of the Canadian Forces northern area, said yesterday.

This is the first time we'll have a joint naval, air and land force operating this far north. And it's sending a message that this land is important to us ... that we can put troops, and aircraft and ships, on the ground to respond to whatever we might be called upon to deal with.

"It's putting a military presence up here ... flexing our muscles."

The patrol frigate HMCS Montreal is to sail sometime in August to the Arctic, where it will be joined by five CH-146 Griffon helicopters and two companies of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, the largest combined force that has ever operated in the North.

Col. Pettis said such a "robust" military presence in the desolate tundra of Baffin Island will not go unnoticed.

"It sends a message, first of all to the people of the North, secondly to all Canadians and certainly to whatever other countries out there may be watching that we are here and that this place is important to us," he said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Yellowknife. "This is an attempt to demonstrate that we are here and we are paying attention to what happens in the North."

Meanwhile, Canadian diplomats are considering an offer from the Danish ambassador to negotiate the future of Hans Island, a three-kilometre-long stretch of rock and ice in the Nares Strait between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Svend Roed Nielsen, the Danish government's top representative in Canada, told the National Post this week that he is willing to start "negotiating" with Canada.

However, he added that his government is not backing down from its claim that the barren and uninhabited island is in Danish territory.

Reynald Doiron, a Foreign Affairs spokesman, said Ottawa is considering a response to the ambassador's offer, but added that Canada is not backing down either. "Our position is that the island is ours; their position is that the island is theirs," he said.

"As far as Canada-Danish relations are concerned we have tried to keep this low-key [but] we have agreed to disagree."

Hans Island does not even appear on most maps, but it has become a focus of challenges to Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago, where islands and waterways long claimed as Canadian are facing challenges from foreign governments.

Danish warships showed up off its coast in the summer of 2002. A group of sailors disembarked and reportedly hoisted the Danish flag, actions which Canada considered a violation of its sovereignty.

Dr. Richard Gimblett, a former Canadian navy officer who is now a research fellow with Dalhousie University's Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, said the upcoming exercise will send a significant message in the North.

"If you're laying claim to a piece of land you have to use it -- you have to show that you can go there, stay there and control it," he said. "The Canadian Forces is a good way to help establish that."

However, Dr. Gimblett said that the Canadian navy is limited in what it can do in the North since its front-line warships -- patrol frigates like HMCS Montreal and its Iroquois-class destroyers -- cannot venture into even loosely packed ice in Arctic waters.

"It would be nice if we had ships that could go up there year-round, but we don't," he said.

And with global warming making the northwest passage through Canada's Arctic navigable for longer stretches every year, he said we will need a naval capability in the North very soon.

"Within 10 or 15 years the passage could be open year-round," he said. "It has the potential to become a super-highway for shipping between Europe and east Asia."

Exercise Narwhal will cost an estimated $5-million and the logistics of transporting and supporting so many soldiers, sailors and airmen to such an isolated area will be formidable, Col. Pettis said.

"It's going to be a challenge just getting them here," he said. "It's just a few hundred kilometres from Iqaluit, but there aren't any roads. So it's an achievement just getting them where they're supposed to be going."

The exercise will be the "cap stone" in a series of military moves in the North designed to bolster Canada's claim over the vast stretches of the uninhabited Arctic, Col. Pettis said.

Canada has launched a five-year plan to increase its military presence throughout its uninhabited Arctic territory, including satellite surveillance and far-reaching patrols of soldiers riding snowmobiles.

A patrol of Canadian Rangers is to leave next week on a long-distance trek to Alert.

Chris Wattie | National Post

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