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This week, on his eighth annual northern tour, Stephen Harper continues to stake his claim as Canada's most Arctic-minded prime minister. There will be displays of the military's Arctic capabilities, announcements (at least recycled ones) of federal investments for the region and reiteration of commitment to the government's "northern strategy" and its four pillars: exercising sovereignty, protecting the environment, devolving Northern governance and promoting social and economic development. The words sovereignty and development will flow freely, packaged in a celebration of Arctic opportunities and Conservative advances to seize them.

The Prime Minister will stress continuity in his government's efforts to fulfill its Arctic platform, introduced in 2005 – but its priorities have quietly changed. Mr. Harper's team built its initial strategy around the problematic idea that Arctic sovereignty boils down to "use it or lose it" – a simple way of differentiating his plans from the Liberals' supposedly misguided emphasis on co-operative diplomacy and environmental stewardship. Accordingly, he announced a spate of measures to give the Canadian Forces the purported tools of sovereignty assertion: more ships, "boots on the ground" and flag-waving exercises. A promised Coast Guard icebreaker, quickly named the John G. Diefenbaker, conjured up an image of long-standing commitment to the North.

Now, it seems, things have changed. Mr. Harper and his cabinet ministers have eschewed the "use it or lose it" phrase since 2009. The northern strategy, published that year, highlights polar peace and development guided by and for Northern Canadians. The Canadian Arctic Foreign Policy statement, released in 2010, emphasizes circumpolar partnerships and stability. The Arctic Council is touted as the pre-eminent forum to promote Canada's international vision of the Arctic as a "stable, rules-based region with clearly defined boundaries, dynamic economic growth and trade, vibrant Northern communities and healthy and productive ecosystems."

And the government's flagship projects have taken form slowly. This should not be surprising. The challenge of northern strategies has always been that returns are long-term, while political attention spans are short. The most enduring and important aspects of Mr. Harper's Arctic program are likely to be in education, skills development, science and streamlining regulatory regimes to lay the foundation for a viable resource economy. With Nunavut slated to receive $1.4-billion through major federal transfers this year – more than $41,000 per capita, in contrast with Alberta at $1,015 per capita or Ontario at $1,457 – the national incentive for economic activity is obvious.

Mr. Harper's government obviously embraces a development model rooted in the idea that improved social indicators will follow economic development, particularly in sectors such as oil, gas and mining – on Monday, the Prime Minister announced a $5.6-million federal grant for a mining innovation centre in Whitehorse.

The decision to frame Canada's chairmanship of the Arctic Council until 2015 around the theme of "development for the people of the North," with a focus on "responsible Arctic resource development," "safe Arctic shipping" and "sustainable circumpolar communities," is a logical extension.

Nevertheless, critics insist that the overall emphasis is misplaced. Canadians should invest more in Northerners to improve social conditions and create healthier communities before priming the pump for resource developers. Territorial premiers cry out for housing and essential infrastructure, from ports to telecommunications. Despite the fanfare around the Canadian High Arctic Research Station slated for Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, the government has taken flak for muzzling federal scientists and cutting funding for other research programs. Some pundits have even questioned the government's intent to follow through on Arctic military commitments, given the much-publicized delays in its ship-building program, the scaling-back of the Nanisivik and Resolute facilities and other more general budget cutbacks.

Furthermore, Canadians are unlikely to hear the Prime Minister speak on the broader environmental implications of his development model. His government will pledge to uphold federal regulations, of course, and it will continue to invest money in regional and local adaptation initiatives. Nevertheless, Canada's pathetic stance on global climate change has become our international Achilles heel, and a cacophony of international voices continue to remind us that the state of our Arctic is inextricably linked to the rest of the world.

As Mr. Harper completes his tour, announcing new investments, visiting Canadian Rangers and zooming around on four-wheelers to show his softer side, he is well aware that his coveted reputation as nation-builder hangs in the balance. His government's recent emphasis on the central importance of northern social and economic infrastructure, largely replacing messaging fixated on sovereignty, is a step in the right direction. In giving substantive meaning to the notion of "responsible development" for the primary benefit of Northerners, he may find the answer to his critics and establish his strongest legacy.

P. Whitney Lackenbauer is an associate professor and chair of the department of history at St. Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo.