Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just completed his ninth annual summer tour of Canada's North.
These trips are fine in and of themselves. They draw attention to the North, in all its complexity. Mr. Harper announces programs. No one can gainsay that he is interested in the North – his recurring presence there testifies to that interest, even though some of his promises, especially military procurement ones, are way behind schedule and, in some cases, destined to never happen.
Of course, the tour is also designed as a television extravaganza, with every step crafted for its visual impact in the South, where the voters are. But such is the way the Harper government does everything – usually capped off, as in this case, with a stirring episode of 24/7, the weekly video (done at taxpayers' expense) of the Prime Minister's doings.
Worthwhile though these trips have been – credit to the Prime Minister for taking them and for thinking through some policies that might help Northerners, such as better Internet access – there is also something surreal about his voyages in the North.
Nowhere in Canada is the impact of climate change more increasingly evident than the North. And yet, the words "climate change" are never heard from Mr. Harper in the North, as if the idea they connote are so distasteful that he cannot bring himself to utter them.
Every summer, surrounded by the evidence of Northern climate change – melting ice, widening sea lanes, disruption of traditional hunting patterns, shifting tundra, increased sun reflection, changing weather patterns – the Prime Minister spends a week in the region without ever drawing attention to the impact and challenges of climate change.
The surreal disjunction between ubiquitous evidence and prime ministerial silence has never been more apparent than during this particular visit, which coincided with news of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's draft report ahead of the next international conference on climate change.
The IPCC draft, which documents the current and future impacts of climate change, illustrates that of all the places on the planet where climate change is and will be felt, the Canadian Arctic is at or near the top of the list, as any Inuk can attest.
The surrealism of a Harper visit is like that of an explorer who lands in an unknown place, takes careful note in his diary of the animals, flora, fauna, rocks and trees but misses all the human inhabitants. Mr. Harper's refusal even to speak the words "climate change" in the North cannot be from ignorance or inadvertence; it must be by design, like everything he does.
That design is evidently to draw as little attention as possible to an issue he has found uncomfortable since even before he became Prime Minister.
As an economist, Mr. Harper believes most measures to combat the problem of global warming will be too costly. As a Conservative politician, he believes no votes are to be gained by resolute action, given that so many of his core supporters are doubters and deniers of the reality of climate change. As an Albertan, he will protect the fossil fuel industries, and in particular bitumen oil, at all costs and by all means. As an international leader, he sees some other countries talking a better game than they play, and does not wish Canada to be made the fool by doing anything dramatic.
Mr. Harper's environment ministers have been uniformly hopeless on the climate-change file – from Rona Ambrose to the incumbent, Leona Aglukkaq. But who can blame them, when their marching orders are essentially to say and do as little as possible?
So these summer tours proceed, heavy with symbols of sovereignty, replete with military exercises and references to Russian threats, laden with bows to history (this time, the Franklin expedition), peppered with announcements of programs, but oblivious to what is literally changing the entire region.