Canada's purchase of Inuvik hangar applauded by northerners and Arctic security experts

The Canadian government has purchased a strategically located aircraft hangar in Inuvik, N.W.T., for $8.6 million — a move that's being met with relief by northerners and experts on Arctic security who were alarmed by foreign interest in the facility.

"I think it's the best idea the government of Canada has had in a long time," said Clarence Wood, Inuvik's mayor.

Wood said he first learned of the sale several months ago, though it wasn't publicly announced.

The 21,000-square-foot hangar, which went up for sale two years ago, was previously leased by the Department of National Defence, a long-standing arrangement that ended in 2021 when the department cancelled its lease. The government reportedly came under pressure from the U.S. to buy the facility after it went up for sale, because of apparent Russian and Chinese interest in the site.

On Wednesday, Daniel Minden, director of communications for the office of the minister of National Defence, told CBC the federal government did an analysis of the hangar's strategic value and "found a clear interest in acquiring the facility" — a marked change from the department's position in April 2023 that the hangar was useful but not essential.

Les Klapatiuk, the former owner of the hangar, said he sees the facility as an important one because of the lack of infrastructure in the North.

"Look at how many hangars [there are] on any airports that are capable of handling large aircraft," he said. "All we have to do is look at our own infrastructure, and we see that we are severely lagging."

Former Nunavut senator Dennis Patterson, long an advocate for better Arctic security, told CBC that during his time on the Senate, he was frustrated by the lack of attention paid to the issue. He pointed to a study of it by a Senate committee that involved a visit to Inuvik, crediting that as something that helped Canada "wake up" to the strategic significance of the hangar.

"I've been shouting into the wilderness on this issue," he said.

"There's an urgency to look at the gaps in infrastructure, and the Inuvik hangar is only one small part of a much larger vulnerability. I'm glad it's finally being addressed, but it took a long time and a lot of work to draw that issue to Canada's attention."

Important for Arctic defence

The hangar is close to the Royal Canadian Air Force's forward operating location in Inuvik and was previously used by the government to support the operation of CC-130 Hercules aircraft, Minden said Wednesday.

It'll also be important for the F-35s Canada is purchasing, according to Rob Huebert, the interim director for the Centre of Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary — as will the federal government's project to extend Inuvik's runway from 6,000 to 9,000 feet.

"We are talking about a very significant strategic asset. And the decision that it is being bought by the Canadian government, I think, is a step in the right direction," Huebert said.

Rob Huebert is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary.
Rob Huebert is the interim director for the Centre of Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary (Dave Brown/University of Calgary)

Huebert pointed to U.S. and Canadian concerns about Russia developing hypersonic missile capability. Infrastructure like the hangar are needed in order for Canada to respond, he said.

Huebert told CBC the significance of the sale comes from several other factors as well: the hangar's proximity to the NORAD base at the Inuvik airport, especially in the wake of pledges to modernize NORAD; the capability it gives the military to house F-35s and other aircraft within the Arctic circle; and the message it sends about the federal government's commitment to defend the Arctic.

"Is this hangar critical to all of that? The answer is absolutely yes," he said.

Huebert said he was never quite clear on why the government cancelled its lease for the hangar in the first place back in 2021.

"You hear about the government saying it takes Arctic security and sovereignty serious, and yet this has been a long-standing problem that the Canadian government has seemingly wanted to ignore," he said.

Wood, Inuvik's mayor, told CBC he's been writing letters to the Department of National Defence for several years about the hangar and other Arctic security-related issues.

"That hangar also stores NORAD equipment. So to me, it was critical that the government buy it," he said.

He said he's also been lobbying for a military base to be established in Inuvik.

"I can't stress enough the strategic location of Inuvik, as far as the Arctic coast goes, environmental change, climate change," he said. He pointed to the satellite farm, fibre optics and soon-to-be 9,000-foot runway as reasons.