Mr. Chair, I am grateful for this opportunity to address the committee of the whole and to add my voice to those who have already expressed their support for the men and women of the Canadian Forces. It is good to be here with my colleagues, the Minister of National Defence and the Associate Minister of National Defence, as well as General Natynczyk. Perhaps the greatest honour in my young political career came when I joined the general in Esquimalt to welcome home the HMCS Vancouver and her crew from their deployment in Libya. I thank the general for being there for that.
As we know, the primary responsibility of the Canadian Forces is to protect and defend Canada. This is a vast country, covering 10 million square kilometres and bordered by over 200,000 kilometres of coastline. These numbers are staggering, and it is awe-inspiring to think that roughly 40% of the land mass and 75% of the coastline is contained in our rugged Arctic.
This region has an important historical and symbolic significance to the cultural makeup of our country. As we know, with each passing year more and more northern Canadians are affected, one way or another, by their changing environment. As waterways are becoming increasingly navigable, traffic into and through their region is on the increase. The potential for new transportation and trade routes is becoming a reality, just as the desire, from both inside and outside of Canada, to access the vast resources found in the Arctic increases.
Obviously this is a time of tremendous and, some would say, unequalled opportunity. Mindful of that opportunity, in 2009 our government released its northern strategy on behalf of all Canadians, from the north and the south, to ensure that together we could carefully monitor and protect our Arctic environment, promote and support both economic and social development in the north, improve and devolve governance so that more decision-making is in the hands of northerners and continue exercising Canada's sovereignty in the north so that we can deliver on these goals.
To achieve this vision, our government is working through provincial, territorial and local governance structures. Our government is working with northern Canadians so that they can achieve sustainable improvements to their economic, environmental and social well-being over the long term and exercise the same kind of control over their own future as Canadians do in any other part of the country.
The National Defence team plays a valuable supporting role in the north, collaborating seamlessly with northern communities and with other government departments such as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and learning from northern residents about how to work and survive in this beautiful and often forbidding part of our country. They have tapped into this fountain of knowledge and experience through the Canadian Rangers program. The Rangers, made up of over 4,000 Canadians of mostly Inuit, first nations and Métis descent, give the Canadian Forces an important and permanent presence in the north. They exercise our sovereignty by reporting unusual activities, collecting local data in support of the Canadian Forces and patrolling our country's Arctic.
Just last month, they and a number of their military colleagues wrapped up Operation Nunalivut, which saw them conduct sovereignty patrols over thousands of kilometres in some of the most remote and inhospitable land on earth. The Rangers also play a valuable role in mentoring and educating troops from the south about how to manage, respect and, ultimately, care for the north. Clearly, they are crucial to Canada's Arctic. This is why our government has taken steps to give them new equipment—including new GPS units, radios, binoculars and survival equipment—to help them better perform their important role. It is why we are committed to expanding the Canadian Ranger program to over 5,000 members, a target our government has made great progress on in the last five years and one that it is now close to meeting.
We are also looking beyond our borders for partners, because we have learned that partnership is not only a way of life in the north, it is the key to success. That is why we recently worked through the Arctic Council to establish a legally binding Arctic search and rescue agreement, something the Canadian Forces continue to lead on, including through a multinational tabletop exercise hosted by Canada last fall. It is why the Chief of the Defence Staff recently hosted a meeting of his counterparts from other northern countries to discuss issues of common interest, particularly support to civilian authorities, and it is why we regularly invite our Arctic neighbours to participate in some of our military training in the region, most notably Operation Nanook, our largest annual Arctic exercise.
This exercise showcases our sovereignty as the Canadian Forces brings together local, territorial and federal stakeholders and it highlights the need for co-operation in a place where no one can hope to succeed alone.
This fact was tragically reinforced during last year's Operation Nanook when First Air flight 6560 crashed near Resolute Bay and the Canadian Forces, working with civilian authorities and other partners, were able to rescue the three survivors and quickly get them to the hospital.
Initiatives like Operation Nanook allow lead departments and the Canadian Forces to combine traditional indigenous knowledge and know-how on the ground with more modern capabilities like aerial patrols conducted by the Royal Canadian Air Force, maritime patrols in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard and even space-based satellite systems to provide detailed surveillance and monitoring of the north on behalf of the Government of Canada.
Our government recognizes what advanced equipment and facilities can make possible in the north. That is why it is carrying through on measures to increase the Canadian Forces' capabilities and infrastructure in the region.
Six to eight Arctic offshore patrol ships, the first of which we can expect to take to water later in this decade, will provide an important presence in the area as ice-bound passages become navigable. We are also continuing the development of a berthing and refuelling facility in Nanisivik and of an Arctic training centre in Resolute, which will reinforce our presence in the area and, just as important, serve as a place where our men and women in uniform can learn to operate effectively in the north, availing themselves of both the wisdom of the Rangers and of modern technology and approaches.
The Arctic lies at the heart of our identity as Canadians. For decades, its remoteness and severe weather kept it immune from much of the change and many of the dangers affecting the rest of Canada and the world. An increased interest in the Canadian Arctic has brought with it real challenges to this precious part of our country and its inhabitants. The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces play an important and even vital role in Canada's Arctic. Canada's armed forces have developed knowledge, partnerships and capabilities that make it especially suited for work in Canada's north. This government is committed to building on these so the Canadian Forces continues to be a valuable contributor to our Arctic security.
I have a question for the associate minister. Our Conservative government made a commitment to rebuild the fleets of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Coast Guard and, as a result, launched the national ship procurement strategy for which our government was widely commended. While much of the focus has been on the shipbuilding contract award process, what has not been as clear is the impact this will have on the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Forces as a whole. Could the associate minister explain the benefits that this will have for our Canadian Forces?