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Why PM warm to the North

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Prime Minister Harper shoots a .303 rifle while taking part in demonstration by Canadian Rangers near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, on Tuesday.

SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Prime Minister Harper shoots a .303 rifle while taking part in demonstration by Canadian Rangers near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper landed at the tiny airport in Hay River, N.W.T., on Aug. 19 to kick off his annual week-long tour of the North. The Ottawa press corps flatters itself with notions that Harper heads to the Arctic to hide from their scrutiny but they couldn't be more wrong.

Harper's Arctic excursions are about old-fashioned nation building.

Harper loves North of 60 both for its resource potential and its increasingly global significance.

The three northern territories -- the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut -- are nearly four million square kilometres in size or about 40 per cent of all of Canada. B.C. would fit four times into it. So could half of the lower 48 states of America.

Yet only 100,000 people live in the three territories and 40,000 of those are located in two communities -- Whitehorse and Yellowknife.

There is gold, diamonds, copper and other valuable minerals in the ground, along with oil and coal. Most of the region's natural resource potential remains untouched and there is little doubt there are further undiscovered reserves. Significantly more oil is available offshore in the Beaufort Sea.

Finally, the N.W.T. is home to some of the most plentiful sources of freshwater on the planet, centred around Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake, the 10th and eighth largest lakes in the world.

Climate change is opening up the region to business as the permafrost slowly melts and the winters shorten to the point that the prospect of a permanent trade route by sea through the Northwest Passage becomes plausible.

Harper has no doubt looked at a globe by gazing down at the North Pole and is dismayed by what he sees. The Arctic Ocean is actually the smallest ocean in the world, almost completely surrounded by land and the distance over the pole from Canada to Russia is about 2,000 kilometres or roughly the same distance as Prince George to Winnipeg. While Sarah Palin couldn't see Russia from her house if she lived in Alert, on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, that's plenty close enough, especially when national and international waters are factored into the equation.

Furthermore, that perspective shows a Canada that is boxed in by the United States on one side and Russia on the other. The United States already has an Arctic presence in Alaska. Should these two superpowers decide to make significant claims to land and water in the Arctic, there is little Canada could do militarily to prevent it.

Instead, Harper is trying to solidify the Canadian lines on the Arctic map with frequent visits, economic development and steady activity by the military, the Coast Guard, scientists and others. He's kicked in $200 million to build an all-season extension of the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, an extraordinary amount of money for a 150-kilometre road to link two communities with fewer than 5,000 residents between the two of them.

Paranoia or folly on Harper's part?

Neither.

Any student of Canadian history knows that Western Canada would have fallen into American hands without the Canadian Pacific Railway to link B.C. to Eastern Canada, bringing trade and new residents west. Building a railway into the Arctic makes no sense but the Mackenzie pipeline from the Beaufort Sea to Alberta has been the dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) of many for half a century.

Harper doesn't make the long journey to the Arctic to win political seats -- the entire region is represented by just three seats, one for each territory. Nor does he do it to appease Leona Aglukkaq, the MP from Nunavut and a member of his cabinet.

The Canadian North is an important part of the country, both culturally and historically. Harper sees the region becoming an economic force in the coming decades and he rightly worries about interest in those territories from powerful neighbours.

His investment of both time and money in the region now will bear dividends in the not-so-distant future.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2013 A13

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