Time to chart progress of Harper’s annual Arctic tour

PM Harper leaves today for a five-day trip that begins with a rally near Whitehorse and ends Friday in Churchill, Man.

OTTAWA — Each of the last six summers, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has journeyed to the North, sprinkling throughout its remote communities promises of federal funding and development.

This year will be no different: Harper leaves today for a five-day trip that begins with a rally near Whitehorse and ends Friday in Churchill, Man.

Harper appears to have the Midas touch about him on these annual visits.

The projects and people he encounters, albeit rarely beyond the bounds of a carefully choreographed photo-op, get money and encouragement.

In return, his government gets to bask in days of positive news coverage, backed by some of the most beautiful images of the country.

But it seems that what Harper tries to turn to gold in his visits up North doesn’t always stay that way.

Many projects he has announced for the region in recent years are behind schedule and some places he stops later find themselves falling on hard times.

Last year, Harper visited the Kluane National Park, home of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest mountain. There, he announced a new visitor’s centre and extolled the region’s “lush valleys, immense ice fields (and) spectacular mountains.”

But a research station located just outside its gates has since had its federal funding cut, and the last federal budget will also see the national park’s services cut as well.

In 2010, Harper pronounced Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, as the home of the new Canadian High Arctic research station. The station had first been announced in the 2007 federal budget.

“Investments in Arctic science strengthen Canada’s sovereignty, foster a more sustainable environment and contribute to a growing economy,” Harper said at the time.

Construction on the new station is behind schedule and while there was a commitment in the 2012 budget to continue supporting it, a formal dollar figure has yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, in addition to the closure of the Kluane facility, Canada’s northernmost research lab was also focused to shut its doors.

The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory was used by scientists from around the world but was unable to secure enough money from both the federal government and other sources to keep operating.

Promises made to beef up Canada’s military muscle are equally behind schedule.

On the same trip in 2010, Harper championed a major new satellite project, the Radarstat Constellation Mission. The production phase was due to begin this month, but the status of the project is unclear.

In 2007, on one of his first trips to the North, Harper announced the construction of a deep water naval port in Nanisivik.

Construction was supposed to begin in 2010. That’s now been pushed back to next year, if not longer.

His chief spokesman acknowledges the various setbacks, but says it’s the reality of life in the Arctic.

“The North hadn’t been paid much attention to for awhile,” said Andrew MacDougall.

“These initiatives are all important, they are all worth doing but they are hard to do and as long as this prime minister is the prime minister the focus for the government will be the North and on completing these projects.”

It’s irrelevant whether they are doing more than previous governments, said Dennis Bevington, the New Democrat’s Northern critic and the MP for Western Arctic.

What matters is actually delivering on what they say they’re doing, he said.

“Who else is a federal government in this country?,” said Bevington.

“How can they compare themselves to any other delivery process?”

This year’s tour will take Harper back to past haunts. He’ll make another effort to visit Cambridge Bay; his planned visit there two years ago was cancelled because of bad weather.

He’ll also return to Churchill, Man., and there will observe part of the military’s annual Operation Nanook exercise.

Stops are also planned for the Minto mine, a gold and copper concern, as well as Norman Wells, N.W.T, a gas and oil exploration hub.

There, residents have been hoping for a new all-season road that would help them get their products more rapidly to market as part of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project.

This year’s Arctic tour will be a combination of making new commitments and following-through on old ones, said MacDougall.

“Part of the purpose of this exercise every year is to demonstrate progress and to update you on where we are on certain projects and progress on them,” he said.

“The Arctic is a vitally important region to the country and is assuming even more global significance.”

Next year, Canada assumes leadership of the Arctic Council, a international body of Arctic states including Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States.

Among the key issues on the table is whether to allow other countries like China to have more of a stake in Arctic affairs.

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