Harper’s Arctic tour not without controversy

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is touring Canada’s north this week, on his sixth annual trip to the Arctic. The yearly trek is an initiative designed to promote the region and Harper’s “use it or lose it” philosophy.

This year, his entourage includes wife Laureen, as well as Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan, and Yukon MP Ryan Leef and Senator Dan Lang. Upon arrival, Harper’s trip kicks off with with a rally and summer barbecue in Carcross, Yukon, which is near Whitehorse.

During past trips to the north, the Prime Minister has used the opportunity to announce federal funding and to take part in local, traditional dinners and events.

According to political observers, the annual trip is typically considered a good news story for Harper. It ultimately results in days of positive coverage in picturesque settings. They also say it’s an opportunity for Harper to put into practice his belief that Ottawa risks losing the North if it neglects the region.

Back in 2007, Harper made it clear that Canada’s North would be a focus of his government.

“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic; either we use it or we lose it,” Harper said, speaking at CFB Esquimalt. “And make no mistake this government intends to use it. Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our identity as a northern nation. It is part of our history and it represents the tremendous potential of our future.”

Despite the government’s optimistic view of the north, there is a lot of controversy surrounding Harper’s trip.

Reports say many of the projects Harper has proudly promoted in the past, proving his commitment to the region and making the North more economically viable, are floundering.

For example, a new Canadian High Arctic research station first announced in 2007 has so far failed to materialize. And a research station just outside the gates of Kluane National Park has had its funding cut. Meanwhile, the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory, Canada’s northernmost research lab which was used by scientists from around the world to study northern climates, has also been forced to shut its doors due to lack of funding.

Harper’s chief spokesperson Andrew MacDougall defended the Conservatives. He was quoted in The Canadian Press saying the projects are all important, but that development happens slowly in the North and is often fraught with delays and unanticipated hurdles. He also told CP that the Tories are dealing with the effects of years of northern neglect by previous governments. And that this year’s trip will be a combination of making new commitments and announcing updates on previous projects.

Harper’s tour will wrap up this Friday in Churchill, Manitoba. In between, he plans to visit Cambridge Bay, the Minto copper and gold mine, and the gas and oil exploration hub of Norman Wells, N.W.T. Residents there are pushing for a new all-season road.

Madison is a journalist/media consultant currently working in Toronto.