The Canadian military has kicked off a series of training exercises in the Arctic to prepare for situations that may arise as a result of increased traffic in the region.

More than 500 troops -- air, land and sea -- are taking part in Operation Nanook 08, said Brig-Gen. David Millar, commander of Joint Task Force North.

"Our purpose is to exert sovereignty, demonstrate sovereignty and security but also learn how to live off the land and learn more about the operating environment here in the North," Millar told CTV's Canada AM on Monday from Iqaluit, Nunavut.

Millar said the annual exercise is growing in importance because activity in the North is rapidly increasing.

"The Canadian Forces, along with our other government departments, need to be ready to respond to... threats such as environmental accidents, oil spills (and) potentially communicable disease outbreaks on a cruise ship," he said.

As a result, Operation Nanook 08 will simulate three different scenarios:

  • an outbreak of disease on a cruise ship
  • a hostage-taking on a cruise ship
  • a fuel spill and a fire on a Russian cargo ship

Two warships have been deployed for the exercise as well as air force Twin Otters and Aurora surveillance planes.

A record number of civilian agencies, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Canadian Border Services Agency, are also participating.

Harper heading North

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will head North for his fourth visit in three years.

The trip comes as observers say the Tories will likely trumpet their record on Arctic sovereignty in the next federal election campaign.

However, Harper is likely to face tough questions after the Tories axed the navy's $2.9 billion project to replace its aging supply ships.

The government, in a statement issued late Friday, also cancelled a tender call for the purchase of 12 mid-shore patrol ships for the coast guard.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson said Sunday the government views the recent actions of Russia in the Far North "with great concern."

"We've seen much increased activity in terms of Russian overflights of Canadian airspace. The Americans are seeing the same thing around Alaska," he told CTV's Question Period on Sunday.

Emerson said the actions were helping drive the Conservatives' Arctic strategy.

In August 2007, a Russian icebreaker reached the North Pole. Two Russian mini-submarines went down to the seabed and planted a Russian flag there. Russian state television claimed at the time that the expedition would provide the scientific proof for Russia to lay claim to a huge expanse of Arctic seabed.

Emerson described the exercise as "what many thought was a somewhat silly flag-planting incident in Canada's Arctic."

Still, he said Canada is taking responsible steps towards protecting its sovereignty in the Arctic by:

  • Strengthening its Armed Forces, Coast Guard and government services presence in the region
  • Working on territorial disputes through the United Nations
  • Mapping the seabed to support Canada's claim
  • Working with allies like the United States on ways to secure the Arctic

With files from The Canadian Press