This means upgrading infrastructure and encouraging economic development that benefits Northerners. The challenge is that Canada is so far behind – even compared to other Northern nations – in providing Arctic communities, in particular, with the means to thrive.
“We’re interested in the sovereignty part of it. It doesn’t really bother us that we’ve got 12 Inuit people living in a house designed for four,” Prof. Coates says. “That doesn’t get us really agitated. Canadians get agitated when the Russians fly planes along the claimed Canadian boundaries and when they present opposing claims to the North Pole.”
Prof. Coates says he would rate the government’s Arctic efforts a C-plus. “I think they have done more than other governments to keep [the Arctic] on the front burner. But the reality of it is that the North frequently disappoints its promoters and fans. It’s a very expensive place to operate.”
The uncertain steps ahead
It’s not clear how many years Canada has left before the Northwest Passage becomes a more well-travelled thoroughfare for vessels.
The chief executive of Maersk, a major container shipping line, opined publicly last October that he doesn’t believe Arctic sea routes will carry much volume in the next 15 to 20 years. Others say that if global warming continues apace, the Arctic Ocean itself could open to shipping, rendering debate over the Passage moot.
Mads Boye Petersen, a partner and managing director at Nordic Bulk Carriers, which sent a vessel through the Northwest Passage last year, says that while forecasts call for less ice in the Arctic, the reality is not as straightforward: “When you talk to scientists, they will tell you that gradually over the next five to 10 years, 20 years, there will be less ice. ... When you are actually in the area, you will see that things vary.” For now, companies like his will have to improvise year to year.
David Jacobson, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada, takes a longer view. “While there is much discussion of ‘sovereignty,’ to me the issue is less a fear of territorial integrity and more a question of ownership interest,” he says. “The real threats in the North do not come from other nations. They come from the two challenges that have existed since man first set foot in that region: hostile weather and vast distances.
“And the only way Canada and all other affected nations are going to deal with those challenges is the way that indigenous people have dealt with them from time immemorial: co-operation.”
Editor's Note: The headline on the original online version of this article misspelled Mr. Harper's first name for a brief period of time. This online version has been corrected.