Stephen Harper is not one for grand or sweeping gestures, but the Prime Minister does like to walk tall in the Arctic during his annual northern Canadian tours.
He has stood atop a submarine as jets roared overhead, and sat in a fighter cockpit for the cameras. But this year, Mr. Harper used a visit to the Arctic hamlet of Gjoa Haven to project a more macho side of his leadership – firing multiple rounds from a rifle as part of a Canadian military exercise in the North.
The visuals and the theatre each August give Mr. Harper a pause from the political fracas in Ottawa, which this year means a break from the damaging Senate expenses scandal that has enveloped several of the people he appointed to the Red Chamber.
And, like other political leaders before him, he is also putting his stamp on Canadian values – attempting to change the national myth from one built on Liberal policies to one that is shaped by Conservative ideology. Like Progressive Conservative chief John Diefenbaker, Mr. Harper has a use-it-or-lose it attitude toward northern Canada that in the early years of his government led to high-profile measures to promote Canadian sovereignty in the resource-rich Arctic.
It all comes as Mr. Harper attempts to reboot and refresh his government after nearly eight years in power. While his critics fume about his decision to prorogue Parliament, Mr. Harper continues to road-test campaign themes to persuade Conservatives, and Canadian voters, his government has delivered on its promises.
On Wednesday, Mr. Harper clambered aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier to champion a government-funded search for the ships lost along with the ill-fated Franklin expedition in the mid-19th century.
For Mr. Harper, searching for the Franklin ships is also about asserting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, ensuring that if people are poking around this country’s northern backyard, that Canadians, not foreigners, are leading the way.
“I often get asked why do we do this? It’s part of our heritage, part of the history that makes Canada Canada,” he said.
Mr. Harper noted the lengthy search for Franklin’s ships has itself added to knowledge of the North, yielding updated maps of the region.
The Prime Minister’s northern exploits do not veer into the ridiculous like some of the stunts practised by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He is not hang gliding, scuba diving for Greek relics or swimming in Siberian rivers. Still, there is a demonstrably new “man-of-action” element to this year’s Arctic itinerary that seems clearly aimed at television audiences and social media networks.
The Prime Minister appeared to relish his target-shooting experience with the Rangers, using the First World War vintage Lee Enfield rifles to shoot at a gravel berm in standing, crouching and prone positions.
After the Prime Minister’s shooting exercise, he joined the reservists as they conducted a “sovereignty” patrol by water.
He also slept out on the Arctic tundra on Tuesday night, some kilometres from Gjoa Haven. The town, on King William Island, has a population of about 1,300 people, mostly Inuit.
“It was an honour to patrol with the Rangers ... as they work to defend our territory from potential threats and emergencies and keep our North strong, secure and free,” Mr. Harper said.
The patrol he joined was part of Operation Nanook, an annual Canadian Armed Forces exercise in Northern Canada.
An Inuit elder and Ranger dressed in traditional animal skins taught him how to build an inuksuk, the famous northern stone figure. They later erected a traditional animal skin shelter. Mr. Harper set up the pole inside the structure under direction from his wife, Laureen Harper.
The Prime Minister was also instructed how to light a traditional carved bowl lamp – which uses seal oil – but was unable to set it afire.
Mr. Harper remarked wryly: “I guess I’d die in the wilderness.”