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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to media on the Historic Kinsol Trestle a wooden railway north of Shawnigan Lake, B.C., on Jan. 7, 2014. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to media on the Historic Kinsol Trestle a wooden railway north of Shawnigan Lake, B.C., on Jan. 7, 2014. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The North

Q&A with Harper: No previous government has ‘delivered more in the North’ Add to ...

On a personal level, I’ve always been fascinated by Canadian history and I’ve had an interest in d’Iberville fighting the Hudson’s Bay Company and Henry Hudson and Frobisher and all the great explorers. So I have kind of a personal fascination with it but as I say, both in terms of a positive vision of nationalism and as a concrete set of opportunities and obligations for the country, Canadians respond well to it. And I think it’s really something worth doing.

Is there anything you might want to add?

We will make sure we give you a list of where we’re at on everything. I think overwhelmingly, in terms of our work in the North, overwhelmingly, we are in fact on schedule, on budget. We’re certainly not backing off anything. In terms of the suggestion there’s more to do. Or that even as big as the government’s plan is, it’s not big enough, I would say that’s actually the better criticism.

But the fact is that –and this is another thing in terms of my own understanding of the history. Canada’s investment, historically … the government of Canada took over the northern and Arctic territories in the 1870s and 1880s and our presence and investments for much of our history have been shockingly minimal. Shockingly. Frankly until the – when one gets into the Arctic [because] a lot of Canadians confuse the North with the Arctic, the true Arctic, Nunavut and the northern part of the Northwest Territories, Canada had almost no presence until the 1950s. Like almost none. There were periodic explorations, Captain Bernier and the Arctic expeditions. These were important things but they were largely one-offs. The first real infrastructure development occurred largely through the American military in the Second World War – which in and of itself should tell you something about the risk that our long neglect was actually creating.

So compared to Greenland or northern Norway, to this day, even with everything the government is doing, our relative, you know, just infrastructure presence is still minimal. Compare Russia. Compare Siberia. We have a long way to go. But you know we’ve got to start it somewhere.

I think getting our first functioning fishing harbour in Pangnirtung, getting our first actual road in Arctic territory. It’s the first actual road of any significance…the [all-season] road to Tuktoyaktuk. Obviously, getting better housing. … We are so far behind. We are decades behind.

I guess the hope is the commodity super-cycle can help.

It can but the reality is that a lot of these [private] investments are really impeded by the lack of infrastructure: there is no airport, there is no road, there is no port. There is none, anywhere near. And these are really serious impediments to even the most lucrative potential venture. And of course on top of that, often no trained people and other things.

So we’ve got a long way to go. I think what we’re doing is important. I think it’s big. It’s important and I think notwithstanding some delays it’s going ahead pretty well.

I will hope this will be a vision that will outlast my prime-minister-ship. Because to be effective it will need to. It needs to be – You asked me about the vision? – over another generation. It needs to be at least that long.

In 25 years, do we expect more people living there? What will be the hallmarks of this?

There are going to be more people because birth rates there are high and in some cases this is a bit of a concern. But really what there has to be is not simply more people; there has to be more people employed. And more activity for those people. That’s the fundamental thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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