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

The North

Myth versus reality in Stephen Harper’s northern strategy Add to ...

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.

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