It is easy to be skeptical about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's annual jaunts to the Arctic, the latest of which he has embarked upon this week. For all the photo opportunities in front of spectacular backdrops, and northern-sovereignty rhetoric that fits neatly into the Conservatives' political brand, little progress has been made toward many of the commitments that Mr. Harper has announced during them, including military procurements and the building of a "High Arctic research centre."
To entirely dismiss these trips, however, would be to sell Mr. Harper short. Before he took office in 2006, the Far North was barely on the national radar, largely because the federal government had not made it a priority. That has dramatically changed – partly because climate change is opening up the Northwest Passage as a commercial shipping route, greatly enhancing its strategic importance, but also because Mr. Harper has made a sustained effort to instill pride in an enormous swath of the country where most Canadians have not actually ventured.
The question, now, is how best to channel that focus. On Mr. Harper's past trips, the words and imagery have centred around defence, enough to give the impression that Canada boasts sole ownership of the Northwest Passage – which few other countries agree with – and that it is prepared to defend this claim by force. In reality, conflict with far bigger military powers such as Russia or the United States (not to mention China, which is showing an increasing interest) is not a serious option, and territorial disputes will need to be resolved through diplomacy.
While a strong military presence is important, infrastructure and human resources – both long neglected – offer our best chance of asserting ourselves on our northern frontier. Mr. Harper has already taken some small steps in this regard, including the establishment of a regional development agency and expansion of adult-education programs. Yet as with the military investments, other promises, such as the building of new all-weather roads, have moved slowly.
Before this week's trip, the Prime Minister's Office said it would have more of an economic focus than previous ones. If so, that is encouraging. The more that Mr. Harper raises the profile of attainable goals, the more that his government – and its successors – will be pressured to follow through.