Harper's golden opportunity in the Great White North

Souveraineté dans l'Arctique

The Prime Minister's trek through the Arctic this week could hardly have been more splendidly timed. The Russians provided the perfect political prelude, planting their flag in the Arctic seabed and posting a direct challenge to Canadian sovereignty.
Their act sets the stakes high for the Great White North. Exterior challenges to sovereignty come rarely to our country. When they do, they provide the governing party with an opportunity to gain public favour. Foreign threats, real or imagined, are what U.S. presidents have thrived on. They are a great unity catalyst.
In Canada, we recall Brian Tobin's fish war against the Spaniards in the mid-1990s. Patriotic blood was stirred, and the government of Jean Chrétien lapped it up.
In the case of Stephen Harper, he stands to benefit from more than just the coincidental timing of the Russian challenge. The whole issue of the development of the Far North has landed in his lap like manna from heaven. Mr. Harper happens to be in office when the North finally looms high in the public consciousness, when it has taken on major significance, when it has become the new frontier.
Previous governments have tried to stake a claim to a northern vision, but the timing was always premature. But now, with the combination of climate change, sovereignty challenges and renewed focus on resource riches, the moment is right.
The North as the new frontier is the issue that can drive the public imagination, raise the patriotic pulse and give the Harper government a shot at a big legacy.
The sovereignty challenge requires the broadening of Canada's defence capability, which was a Harper priority in the first place. Now he has not only the Afghan conflict to justify it but the defence of the polar regions. There is the challenge of northern resource development. An estimated 25 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves, as well as untold other riches, lie in the thawing tundra. There is also the challenge of building new transportation networks to help populate the northern regions and reach the Arctic shores.
Thus far, the Conservatives have been somewhat slow on the uptake, hesitant to see the opportunity they have been handed. On the sovereignty issue, they ordered a new fleet of Arctic patrol vessels when most experts were advocating the armed icebreakers they had initially promised. They have not taken up the call of Northwest Territories Premier Joe Handley to build a highway - the road to Tuktoyaktuk - to the Arctic Ocean.
But developments, none more important than the challenge from Moscow, are forcing the government's hand. The seriousness with which the Russians view the Arctic was shown by the hero's welcome President Vladimir Putin gave the explorers who placed the flag on the ocean floor.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay got off a good retort, saying you can't just go around dropping flags hither and yon and saying it's yours. "This isn't the 14th or 15th century." Ottawa has since dispatched a 600-member joint forces team to the Bering Sea to help stake its claim.
Michael Byers, an academic expert on northern sovereignty issues, likens the events to a space race. "We need to think of this as our moon mission, and that requires the same degree of political commitment," he said. "We're playing with the big boys here."
The Prime Minister is expected shortly to name the site of a long-promised deep-water port in the region and possibly a military training centre as well. He doesn't want to move the dispute far beyond the political realm where Canada, militarily, would be obviously disadvantaged.
Mr. Harper's big coup to date has been according nation status to Quebeckers. It came out of the blue and thus far - though it's going to get more complicated now that Quebec is demanding he give the phrase meaning - it's been a singular success.
With the challenge of securing and developing the North, Mr. Harper now has the opportunity to move the country's focus further from the tired old Quebec and east-west wrangles to the new frontier - the realization of our identity as a northern nation.
He has been handed a compelling vision. His challenge is to seize it.

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