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The Harper government has been strong on symbols but short on substance in protecting Canada’s claim of control over the Arctic archipelago, including the Northwest Passage – a claim the United States does not recognize.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

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Many tried, and many died trying, to find a passage across the top of North America. The dream was that ships would one day ply the route, shortening the distance between Europe and the Far East. That dream is now one step closer to being realized, and it poses a serious challenge for the Harper government.

As Wendy Stueck reports, the freighter Nordic Orion, carrying coal from Vancouver and bound for Finland, is plying the Northwest Passage, highlighting the dispute over who controls that passage and whether Canada is able to assert its claim of sovereignty.

The Harper government has been strong on symbols but short on substance in its Arctic strategy. The Prime Minister visits the region annually, pledging or renewing pledges to construct a deepwater harbour; to build a small fleet of patrol ships and one heavy icebreaker; to install satellites and sensors to moniter the region; and to construct a northern military training centre. All this to protect Canada's claim of control over the Arctic archipelago, including the Northwest Passage – a claim the United States does not recognize.

But then comes budget time, and everything gets pushed back. The ships are years from completion, the deepwater harbour exists mostly on paper, new search-and-rescue aircraft are nowhere to be seen, and on and on.

There have been achievements: The Dempster Highway extension connecting Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk is under construction. The military training centre is finally up and running.

But Canada remains woefully ill-equipped to project force in the North. The Nordic Orion is complying with Canadian regulations and requirements. But if other ships began testing the will of the government by entering the passage without permission, it's uncertain whether and how Ottawa could respond.

One definition of sovereignty is that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. But Canada is unable to effectively patrol and police the waters of the Arctic archipelago, including the Northwest Passage, undermining its claim to sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the Russians have revived northern installations abandoned after the fall of the USSR, and a fleet centred on the cruiser Peter the Great is traversing Russia's northern passage.

That said, words do matter. Stephen Harper's repeated declarations that Canada will defend its claim to the Arctic waters, and to the seabed beneath them, at least gives notice to other nations that Ottawa is serious about the North. His annual visits reinforce that claim. And beyond words, the now-routine annual Canadian Forces exercises in the Arctic add at least some military muscle to the bones of Canada's claim.

But the transit of the Nordic Orion offers an acute reminder that as the North grows steadily warmer and the passage remains ice-free for longer each year, some form of internationally recognized oversight is vital, to protect the fragile Arctic environment from the consequences of an oil spill or other maritime disaster.

Whether through bilateral agreements, the Arctic Council, the United Nations or some other means, there must be an internationally recognized protocol on the Northwest Passage, and Canada must have a pivotal role in enforcing that protocol.

Getting the ships built, the planes purchased and the infrastructure in place to assert control over the passage is the necessary though not sufficient condition for Canada to play that role.

The message from the Nordic Orion is emphatically clear: No more delays.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.