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The Nordic Orion.

The historic journey this week of the ship Nordic Orion through the Northwest Passage and into Baffin Bay has highlighted the urgent need for the Harper government to act on its much delayed plans to strengthen Canada's infrastructure in the North, with ships and ports to assist what could become a new northern shipping industry.

The Nordic Orion, loaded with coal bound for Finland, became the first bulk freighter to complete a passage through the fabled northern shipping route, at some point late Sunday or early Monday, shaving about 1,000 nautical miles from the usual southern route through the Panama Canal. While an increasing number of smaller ships have been passing through the northern route over the past six years, this journey was a step toward proving that the Northwest Passage could become a usable commercial shipping route for large cargo ships.

The question, however, is whether Canada has the capability to monitor these ships – while providing adequate environmental safeguards in a sensitive environment – or to service them, if safety issues arise in these notoriously dangerous and remote waters.

The Harper government laid out a northern strategy in 2007 that promised six to eight new armed icebreakers and a new deep-water port to service them. But funding for the ships has been delayed, and plans for the northern port were scaled back this year to a more modest refuelling station. A separate project announced in 2006 to purchase new search-and-rescue aircraft has also stalled.

Beyond the practical benefits of being able to service ships that need help in the North, a commitment to northern infrastructure would also bolster Canada's disputed claims over the Passage; many other countries have asserted that these are international waters. Mr. Harper himself said in 2007 that the "first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: Use it or lose it," yet Canada's actions since then have signalled an opposite message.

Budget constraints have undoubtedly been a factor in delaying the development of the promised new services, but the projects should not be delayed indefinitely, until they fall off the agenda. Better ships and modern planes are urgently needed in the North, even if bulk carriers are not plying those waters. The need will become even more acute as traffic grows.