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"I see a new Canada – a Canada of the North." – John Diefenbaker, Feb. 12, 1958

This is the week of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's eighth annual northern tour. He obviously enjoys being in the Arctic (in summer), and it produces great photo ops, but it's not a publicly financed personal holiday or political junket. It symbolizes important issues, although one has to know something about the back story to appreciate them fully.

The North was not a big issue for the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance or the Conservative Party of Canada in the early days after the merger. But for the 2005-2006 election campaign, the Conservatives prepared an ambitious military spending plan, including a lot for the Arctic – three new all-season icebreakers, a deepwater port, eight patrol ships and much more.

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These military expenditures got promoted in the middle of the campaign as a way to fight back against Liberal charges that Mr. Harper would be an obsequious suck-up to the Americans. With the Arctic plan, Mr. Harper could turn the tables and attack Paul Martin for not defending Canadian sovereignty in the North as U.S. submarines were allowed to pass under Canadian ice. Mr. Harper promised to defend the North with "forces on the ground, ships in the sea and proper surveillance."

Like all campaigning, it was mostly political theatre, more stagecraft than statecraft. Our highly polarized parliamentary system makes it almost impossible for opposition parties to test their ideas in advance with government officials, one of many reasons why campaign rhetoric is often detached from reality.

After winning the election, the new Conservative government quickly found out that the Canadian Forces were eager for new equipment to fight a desert war in Afghanistan, not to engage in an arms race in the Arctic. In consequence, Conservative military promises for the Arctic have gradually been scaled back. For example, there will be just one new icebreaker, not three.

That's probably a good thing. The only conceivable military threat in the Arctic would come from the Russians, and we will always have to count on the American eagle to deter the Russian bear. We do have our own issues with the Americans, most notably a Canadian claim to sovereignty over ice and water in the Northwest Passage that no other country, least of all the United States, accepts – but that will eventually be settled by diplomacy, not armed force.

Even as Conservative military policy for the Arctic has been scaled back to reasonable proportions, Mr. Harper has stuck with the North, while shifting his attention to other areas. His government has created huge new national parks in the North and granted devolution to the government of the Northwest Territories, effective next April.

The theme of this year's northern tour is economic development through extraction of natural resources, which makes a lot of sense. The North is indeed a great storehouse of resources, from hydrocarbons in the Mackenzie Valley and Delta to diamonds and minerals in the Canadian Shield. The Liberals and New Democrats also have a valid point when they say Mr. Harper should pay more attention to social issues among native people in the North, but the two approaches are not incompatible. As Bill Clinton said, channelling Ronald Reagan: "The best social program is a good job."

Alberta oil-sands projects are now the largest private employer of native people in the country, and similar things can happen in the North if business is given an opportunity. The rapidly growing native population cannot support itself solely by hunting, trapping and tourism. Jobs in Canada's modern economy are urgently needed, and resource extraction seems to be the most plausible source of them.

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Tom Flanagan is a distinguished fellow in the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.

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