Military hopeful new Arctic port will open in 2022, but 'significant' uncertainty remains

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Montreal passes an iceberg near Nanisivik, Nunavut, during Operation NANOOK, a sovereignty operation in Canada's Arctic in August 2010. (Cpl. Rick Ayer, Formation Imaging Services/DND)

The Canadian military says there are no guarantees that its long-delayed Arctic naval station will finally open next year, prompting defence critics to call the ongoing construction delays confounding and dangerous.

The best-case scenario would see the Nanisivik Naval Station on Baffin Island completed in September and ready to begin operations in summer 2022, approximately 15 years after the federal government announced the project.

“However, there remains significant schedule uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how this may impact the 2021 construction season in the Arctic,” said a National Defence spokesperson who confirmed the construction timeline with CTV News.

But the pandemic can’t account for the years of delays the Arctic refuelling station has faced since blowing its initial delivery date in 2013.

‘HARD TO GET OUR HEADS AROUND’

Former prime minister Stephen Harper announced plans to build the deep-water port on a former Nunavut mine site in 2007, coinciding with the announcement that Canada would build up to eight Arctic and offshore patrol vessels for the military.

While the Navy welcomed the first patrol vessel into service in late June, the ship’s Arctic resupply port is still at least a year away from opening, leaving the ship without a domestic resupply station in the Far North.

Instead, the newly commissioned HMCS Harry DeWolf will likely have to rely on Greenland to refuel for Arctic excursions until the Nanisivik facility is ready, according to one defence analyst.

“At this point, this project is a little confounding,” said David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “We’ve been at it for 15 years, yet it’s still not open. That’s kind of hard to get our heads around.”

It’s especially confounding, Perry said, given that the project is being constructed on existing port infrastructure and has been scaled down dramatically since its original design.

Gone are the airstrip and the year-round site facilities from the initial plan. The station will instead consist of a jetty, a helicopter pad, fuel storage tanks, a wharf operator’s shelter, an unheated warehouse and a site office, according to the defence department.

The entire facility will be staffed by between four and six people during its seasonal operating window of July through October.

‘NAIVE AND DANGEROUS APPROACH TO ARCTIC SOVEREIGNTY’

Canada's struggle to get even a small resupply station up and running draws a clear contrast with the country’s Arctic rivals, according to Conservative defence critic James Bezan.

“The Russian government is opening military bases in the Arctic and the Chinese Communist regime is expanding its Arctic naval fleet beyond the capabilities of Canada and the United States combined,” said Bezan, who co-chairs the House of Commons defence committee, in an email.

Bezan slammed the federal government’s “naïve and dangerous approach to Arctic sovereignty,” accusing the government of mismanaging the Nanisivik project, which he says remains vital to Canada’s security in the Far North.

The difficulties with the Nanisivik project send the wrong message about Canada’s larger commitment to continental security, Perry said, and signal more trouble ahead as Canada and the United States work towards a modernized NORAD defence pact.

“Other countries have invested very big sums of money in lots of different places in their own backyard and done so much, much, much more quickly,” the defence analyst said.

“If we’re thinking about the message that this would be sending to somebody else – Russia, in particular, but also our own allies, the Americans, other NATO allies that have interests in the Arctic – I would think that this sends a particular message about how Canada prioritizes these kinds of investments in the North,” Perry said.

“If it has taken 15 years to get a much-scaled-down version of the Nanisivik deep-water port not-yet built – and I guess fingers-crossed for September – I really do wonder how fast we’ll be able to build anything that we need for a modernized NORAD command to be able to properly defend the continent,” he added.

The latest cost estimate for the Nanisivik naval station is $130 million before taxes, according to National Defence.