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The plans for expansion at the Nanisivik wharf have been scaled back and delayed.Steven Chase/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation into the unprecedented change to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth.

Since the zinc mine closed in 2002, the High Arctic company town of Nanisivik has been gradually wiped off the map.

The indoor pool and skating rink are gone from the once-thriving community at the northern tip of Baffin Island, some 3,100 kilometres north of Ottawa. So are the former residents and their houses – all of them. The church was dragged across the sea ice to the neighbouring hamlet of Arctic Bay (pop. 820).

Yet it was here, in August, 2007, that Stephen Harper made one of his regular stands for Canada's sovereignty in the North. The Prime Minister travelled to Nanisivik's wharf – the only deep-water port in the Canadian Arctic – to announce with great fanfare that he would build the first permanent Arctic naval facility here.

Only a few weeks earlier, Mr. Harper's then-18-month-old government had unveiled plans to build as many as eight military vessels specifically designed for the North, "Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships" (AOPS), a purchase the Conservatives called the "the most effective way to assert Canada's authority, independence and sovereignty" in northern waters.

So far, the reality has proved much more modest.

Mr. Harper is hardly the first prime minister to pledge more than he's delivered for the North. Brian Mulroney and John Diefenbaker offered northern promises, too. But Mr. Harper has gone further, making polar sovereignty a foremost priority.

Climate change has heightened the stakes, as many nations now campaign for influence in the warming Arctic, with its potential for shipping and resource development – even countries such as China, with no territory in the region. The surge of interest has raised the profile of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum currently chaired by Canada. And Canada is concerned about keeping control of the Northwest Passage as it becomes a more viable trade route between Europe and Asia.

"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic: Either we use it or we lose it," Mr. Harper said as he announced the AOPS vessels. "And make no mistake, this government intends to use it, because Canada's Arctic is central to our identity as a northern nation: It is part of our history and it represents the tremendous potential of our future."

Mr. Harper returned to this theme in recent weeks, when his government announced its aim to claim the North Pole as part of an international bid for seabed rights. Last week Mr. Harper broke ground on the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway, the first year-round thoroughfare to connect the Arctic Ocean coast to the rest of Canada's road network.

Yet nearly 61/2 years after Mr. Harper stood on the dock at Nanisivik, construction of the Arctic naval facility has yet to begin. A portable trailer with a Government of Canada sign that reads "Interim Site Office, Nanisivik" is one of the few signs of a federal presence at the High Arctic wharf.

The rock-strewn terrain by the rusted dock is barren except for mounds of gravel, piles of rebar-filled concrete, a few shipping containers and a blue porta-potty.

In early 2012, military planners significantly scaled back what will effectively be a summer-season filling station for vessels, delayed until at least 2017. Another series of delays has hit the patrol ships, which will also be less Arctic than their name suggests: They'll only operate in the region for four to five months each year and will otherwise patrol in the South.

Southern Canada's concern with sovereignty and presence in the High Arctic doesn't always resonate with the people, largely Inuit, who live in the Far North and must cope with massive infrastructure deficits in housing and transportation as well as the high price of making one's home in a remote land.

Retelling the Canadian story

Within days of winning office back in 2006, Mr. Harper used his first news conference to reproach the U.S. ambassador for comments that appeared to criticize Conservative campaign pledges to increase Canada's military presence in the Arctic.

It was a notable gesture for a man whom political rivals had cast as too friendly with the United States and an early indication that Mr. Harper planned to cultivate a legacy as a champion of the North. It is a well-thought-out strategy, say people who've worked in the Prime Minister's Office – a blend of opportunism and statecraft, shoring up both his party and Canadian unity.

A former senior PMO insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that top Conservative strategists have long been bothered by the fact that the rival Liberal Party owned the flag. In most Western democracies, right-of-centre parties tend to own the patriotic vote, but in Canada "Liberals had effectively defined being pro-Canadian as being for the social-welfare state [and] for the CBC," with a dose of anti-Americanism thrown in.

Mr. Harper's Canada-first approach to the Arctic is part of an effort to fashion a conservative nationalism, which also includes the celebration of soldiers as part of a Canadian martial tradition, rather than as peacekeepers, and the heavy promotion of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

"This is politically useful to the PM, but it goes beyond that," the former aide says. "There's a danger in a country that absorbs immigrants at the rate we do that if you don't have a set of norms, a set of stories about yourself, the kind of myths and narratives that create a national identity, that you cease to be a nation. … The Prime Minister's a big believer in the idea that nations are built by narratives – stories they tell themselves."

The Arctic file also allows Mr. Harper to stand up to the Americans – generally a crowd-pleaser among Canadian voters – not on ideology but over national interest, such as access to the 1,500-kilometre-long Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which the U.S. insists is an international strait.

"It allows him to tweak American noses, but do it on a file where he can't be accused of anti-Americanism. It's not a criticism of capitalism, the West or liberal democracy or free enterprise," the former PMO insider says.

Starting the year he took office, Mr. Harper has devoted a week each August to a tour of Northern Canada. The Prime Minister is not one for grand or sweeping gestures, but up North he has stood atop a submarine as jets roared overhead or sat in a fighter cockpit for the cameras. Each year before the trips, the Privy Council Office also assembles an update on northern initiatives from across the government.

"It was largely politically driven at the beginning, and then he was intent to keep doing them so it wouldn't be dismissed as something Southerners do as a once-or-twice, window-dressing thing," the former PMO staffer says. "To be frank, he can't stop doing them now. It would be very symbolic."

'Generals January and February' weaken their firepower

In the past, federal leaders have typically been able to leave it to frigid weather to inhibit foreign intrusion – as military historian Charles Perry Stacey has put it, "Generals January and February mount guard for the Canadian people all year round." But with climate change, Ottawa can't rely on that protection any longer.

"Other prime ministers didn't have to deal with … the disappearing ice, with the potential increase in shipping," says Michael Byers, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Global Politics at the University of British Columbia.

In 2013, ships made 22 full transits of the Northwest Passage, according to the Canadian Coast Guard. In 2012, there were 30. Thirty years earlier, in 1983, vessels made only three voyages all the way between the Beaufort Sea in the west and Baffin Bay in the east. In 1982, none did.

However, legal experts say the talk about sovereignty incorrectly leaves the impression that Canadian territory is at risk. Realistic threats to Canada's ownership in the North are small. There are two international disputes: one over the ownership of tiny Hans Island between Canada and Greenland, and one between the U.S. and Canada over about 6,250 square nautical miles of seabed rights in the Beaufort Sea.

Canada, meanwhile, has an opportunity to claim expanded seabed rights to potential energy or mineral resources in the polar region. But it depends first and foremost on geological evidence – whether it can prove to a United Nations commission that this area is a legitimate extension of the continental shelf.

In all three instances, as well as with the Northwest Passage, "use it or lose it" – the idea that presence is relevant to claims to land territory – has effectively no legal impact, says University of Ottawa law professor Donald McRae.

The Harper administration sees it differently, says its former staffer. "This Prime Minister is a believer that the facts on the ground are really important in sovereignty up there rather than just what treaties or agreements say.

"If the Northwest Passage becomes a commercial shipping route and people are dumping bilge oil or fishing up there or there is a rupture of someone's oil tank, ultimately the government feels it has to have some way of monitoring that and enforcing those laws," he says. "It's a long way from having that today."

In 2008 Ottawa announced it would require all vessels entering Arctic waters to notify the Canadian government. As well, the Conservatives are turning Lancaster Sound at the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage into a marine conservation area. This would enable Ottawa to set more rules about how ships conduct themselves in the region, known for its rich wildlife.

Rob Huebert, an Arctic affairs expert at the University of Calgary, says Mr. Harper deserves credit for an unrelenting focus on the Arctic, even if he's fallen down on some of his pledges: "If you go down the checklist in terms of what he's promised and what he's delivered on, there's nothing that has been abandoned yet."

'Living the sovereignty'

Speak to the residents of the High Arctic, however, and you'll find ambivalence about Ottawa's sovereignty measures.

"When we talk about security up North … we still have to keep in mind that the human dimension has to be front and foremost," says Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna, who took office last November. "Sovereignty is best advanced by building healthy communities."

Clare Kines, a retired Mountie and the hamlet of Arctic Bay's economic development officer, argues that the $8-billion cost of the patrol ships over their lifetime could be more profitably spent reducing the cost of living and doing business in the North – "for the people that are living the sovereignty. … The idea of 'use it or lose it' is a moot point, because it is used."

Nunavut, Canada's northernmost territory, is overwhelmingly dependent on air travel because there are no roads connecting it to the rest of the country and because sea ice prohibits shipping much of the year. Plane fares drive up the cost of living enormously for the territory's 35,600 residents and lead to exorbitant prices for food and other goods.

Mr. Kines says the AOPS money should subsidize air travel instead. "It's our 'last spike.' The cost of bringing B.C. into Confederation was the CPR. The cost of bringing Nunavut fully into Confederation should be transportation costs on par with the rest of Canada. … How much more exploration and viable mining would we have if it didn't cost you as much to get everybody up here?"

Many others say Ottawa should be spending the patrol-ship funds on speeding up the replacement of aging Coast Guard icebreakers that help sealifts carry food and other goods to Nunavut communities each summer.

In Arctic Bay, 350 kilometres south of Resolute, Inuit elder Martha Naqitarvik shares Ottawa's concerns about more Northwest Passage interlopers. She's concerned about traffic through Lancaster Sound, often referred to as "the Arctic Serengeti" or "the Inuit larder" for its animal life. She doesn't want to see naval vessels lingering: "As soon as they gas up, they should take off."

Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy in Saskatchewan, says Mr. Harper has shifted in recent years away from symbolic sovereignty – showing the flag – to what he calls developmental sovereignty, or trying to incorporate the North into mainstream Canada.

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.

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