Arctic security group returns to Nunavut for first meeting in a decade
"Those relationships are crucial"
It’s a scenario that few can really imagine, but some people have to: what happens when an Arctic community’s critical infrastructure breaks down?
Imagine a Nunavut community’s power plant going down, or a major fire at a tank farm threatening the lives of residents. It may be unlikely, but that’s when the territory’s Emergency Management Organization has to step in.
Community evacuations were just one item on the two-day agenda of the Arctic Security Working Group, a network of officials from territorial and federal governments, military, universities, and Inuit organizations that met in Iqaluit May 9 and May 10.
Ed Zebedee, a special advisor on emergency management with the Government of Nunavut, co-chaired the meeting, alongside Joint Task Force North Capt. Steven Thornton.
“[Community evacuations] are probably a last resort,” Zebedee said. “Just the logistics in that are massive. What we’re looking at is how many people can be absorbed into a regional centre, and how long can we absorb them?”
The GN has previously studied a scenario where at-risk communities in the Kivalliq or Kitikmeot regions could be temporarily relocated to their closest major centre, Rankin Inlet or Cambridge Bay.
The study looked bringing in 500 additional people to either of those communities for a 72-hour period, Zebedee said.
“At what point do we start to overwhelm the infrastructure, and where would we need to come in to bolster those services?” he said. “It’s that first 72 hours that are critical.”
Iqaluit is a whole other story, Zebedee noted; even with the assistance of two 700-series Boeing 737 jets, it could take two weeks to evacuate the community’s roughly 8,000 residents.
Of course, these scenarios are only hypothetical, but Zebedee said this is the first time all the different departments and agencies that would be involved in such an operation had a chance to sit around the same table to discuss it.
As its name suggests, the Arctic Security Working Group collaborates on human security and safety issues across the North. The theme of this most recent meeting was environmental security and stewardship in the Arctic.
Some of the other issues which the group discussed included:
• dedicated shipping lanes for commercial traffic in the Arctic.
• the expansion of the Coast Guard auxiliary to communities across Nunavik and Nunavut.
• the replacement of equipment used to clean up fuel spills, set to be replaced across Nunavut in 2019.
• the opening of the Canadian Arctic’s first inshore rescue response station, expected to be in operation by the summer.
• how and when to request federal assistance, given that emergency response issues typically fall to the territorial and provincial governments.
The Arctic Security Working Group has been in place since 1999. The group meets regularly between the three northern territories, although this was its first meeting in Nunavut since 2008.
It was also the most highly attended meeting Zebedee has participated in.
“It allows us to sit with these people who you interact with, often just by phone,” he said.
“Those relationships are crucial.”
The ASWG is known for a 2011 study it led called the Arctic Communications Infrastructure Assessment, which flagged major gaps in the quality and accessibility of telecommunications services across the North.