"Canadians need to understand what I believe the military already understands," said Adam Lajeunesse of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. "They recognize that their role up there is not traditional military."
In a report released Tuesday, Lajeunesse said too many Canadians believe other countries look to shows of military force when considering who controls northern waters — especially in light of mammoth Arctic military exercises staged recently by Russia and the Scandinavian countries.
"They need to understand that presence does not equate to sovereignty," said Lajeunesse. "We could have 50 icebreakers sailing back and forth and it does absolutely nothing."
Sovereignty, he said, is reinforced by control over day-to-day activities.
"Forces in the North contribute to sovereignty by doing something useful. "A warship sailing back and forth isn't really exercising authority.
"Controlling foreign shipping is exercising authority. Providing services is exercising authority."
Lajeunesse gives the military good marks for using its Arctic exercises to get better at working with government departments such as the RCMP or the coast guard that have the job of enforcing Canadian law and keeping people safe in the Arctic.
Most of the simulations run during so-called "sovops" have more to do with responding to a civilian emergency than with a military attack, he said. New Arctic patrol vessels may be only lightly armed, but will be highly flexible ships for transporting police or fisheries officers.
"They're never going to fight with the (Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships)."
The Canadian Arctic is in a much different situation than the area around the Barents Sea, north of Norway, Lajeunesse suggested.
"No one in NATO, I am sure, actually expects any fighting in the Canadian Arctic."
Still, the message of soldiers defending Canada's borders is what comes across when the military goes North.
"Part of that is the government's own making," Lajeunesse said. "The easiest thing to show is warships and airplanes."
What those soldiers, sailors, police and park wardens are really learning to do is work together.
There's been progress, Lajeunesse said, but the Forces still need to improve their operational capabilities, especially as climate change makes the North increasingly accessible to everyone from miners and drillers to tourists. To do that, the military needs consistent, long-term support from the government.
"Canada's interest and investment in the North comes in surges," he said. "Canada has to approach the North in an entirely different manner. "It can't be a 10-year surge, then apathy for another decade.
"This is something we're going to have to keep an interest in and maintain a continuous investment in."
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