Not any more

Harper must deliver more than rhetoric on Arctic visit: expert

In Canada on August 23, 2010 at 11:38

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels to Canada’s North on Monday bearing gifts and waving the flag for a week-long burst of patriotism.

But beyond banging the drum to assert Canada’s ownership of the Arctic, say experts, Harper will be under pressure to show there’s more to his promises than just political rhetoric.

Harper begins his journey Monday — his fifth straight summer trip to the Arctic — with a stop at Churchill, Man., known as the "polar bear capital of the world."

The prime minister will make an "announcement" in Churchill, just as there will be further promises made along his journey throughout the week.

Last Friday, Harper said it’s all part of building the "four pillars" of his Arctic strategy: Asserting sovereignty through a stronger military and border control; fostering economic and social development; protecting the environment; and giving northerners more control over their own affairs.

"Every time I visited the region, I have made announcements with respect to those four priorities, but the No. 1 priority is the protection of and promotion of Canadian sovereignty, and that will not change," said Harper.

University of British Columbia Prof. Michael Byers said Harper has been smart to identify Arctic sovereignty as an issue close to the hearts of Canadians — and one which the Tories can use to their electoral advantage.

Byers is the author of the book Who Owns the Arctic? and ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in the 2008 election.

He cautioned that Harper is entering a political danger zone.

"That electoral dimension risks being undermined unless he actually delivers on the promises he has made for five years now. There is a certain sluggishness on that front. We haven’t seen any contracts signed for Arctic ships. There’s no construction yet for a new naval facility."

During past Arctic trips, Harper promised a new icebreaker, to be named after former prime minister John Diefenbaker, by 2017, and a deep-seat port by 2015 in Nanisivik, a former mining town.

"He is gradually becoming open to the criticism that this is just political rhetoric and he doesn’t mean what he says," Byers said. "And only time will tell on that front."

Harper’s emphasis on Arctic sovereignty dates back to his time as Opposition leader. During the 2005 election campaign, he promised three icebreakers and said it was worth the cost, attacking the Liberals for starving the military of funds.

"You don’t defend national sovereignty with flags, cheap election rhetoric and advertising campaigns," he said. "You need forces on the ground, ships in the sea and proper surveillance."

Some highlights from his trips North as prime minister:

– 2006: He travelled to Alert, Canada’s northernmost point, and emphasized military capabilities;

– 2007: He announced the expansion of the Nahanni National Park Reserve and plans for a new army training centre and a deep-seat naval port;

– 2008: He announced plans for the new icebreaker and revealed new regulations (which came into effect this summer) requiring ships entering Arctic waters to notify Canadian authorities; and in

– 2009: He watched a military training exercise and announced the creation of a new economic development agency for the North.

Harper’s trip to the North this week will bring him to all three territories.

On Tuesday he will visit Cambridge Bay, a small community on Victoria Island, before proceeding to Resolute, Nunavut, where hundreds of members of the Canadian Forces are participating in the annual Operation Nanook training exercise. They have been joined this year by ships from the Danish and U.S. navies.

Harper will deliver an address to the members of the Canadian Forces and, on Wednesday, will witness an exercise in which the soldiers respond to a simulated fuel leak — an emergency response plan experts say is critical as ships increasingly navigate the Arctic waters.

Later on Wednesday, he flies west to Inuvik, N.W.T., in the Mackenzie Delta, and on Thursday morning he makes the short flight to the small community of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., on the shoreline of the Beaufort Sea.

Community leaders in both towns are hoping Harper comes with a chequebook from the federal treasury to boost local development.

In particular, the local mayors are hoping for federal funding to build a dirt and gravel road connecting Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik. They say the road — at an estimated cost of $200 million — would boost tourism, enhance development, and represent an important step forward in staking sovereign claim to the North.

On Thursday, Harper travels to Whitehorse. He makes an announcement there Friday morning before returning home to Ottawa that afternoon.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

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