Stephen Harper takes to the tundra with a .303 Lee Enfield rifle

Stephen Harper took up arms — albeit antique arms — on the Arctic tundra late Tuesday in a round of target practice meant as a show of solidarity with Canadian Rangers.

GJOA HAVEN, Nunavut – Stephen Harper took up arms — albeit antique arms — on the Arctic tundra late Tuesday in a round of target practice meant as a show of solidarity with Canadian Rangers.

Both the prime minister and newly appointed Defence Minister Rob Nicholson went shooting with the First World War vintage .303 Lee Enfield rifles.

They are the standard-issue weapon for the aboriginal reservists — the part-time soldiers comprising the Rangers who spend their days patrolling the vast, desolate tundra.

Harper clearly relished the bonding exercise, firing from several different positions, including laying down.

Shots from the rifle demonstration reverberated for kilometres over the empty limestone and sand landscape.

But it was as much a political statement as a chance to share the rigours of northern life for a prime minister whose mantra has been to assert and defend Canada’s claim to the Arctic.

“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it,” Harper said in a July 2007 speech that helped lay the foundation for the Conservative government’s northern strategy.

The tough rhetoric and thundering military photo-ops, however, have gradually faded with each successive summer tour of the Arctic, which Harper has undertaken religiously since becoming prime minister.

His latest trip has led him to this wide-open, chilly nook of Nunavut’s King William Island, infamous as the potential resting place of the lost Franklin Expedition of the 1800s.

With four cabinet members in tow, Harper and his outdoors-loving wife set up camp on a remote stretch of beach about 20 kilometres from Gjoa Haven, birthplace of Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

A group of enthusiastic Rangers helped him build an inukshuk, the stone landmark synonymous with the Inuit. They also showed him how to erect a traditional tundra shelter made of animal hide.

As the sun set close to midnight, Harper inspected drying Arctic char hung on string between wooden posts, and watched a demonstration of the lighting of qulliq, an Inuit oil lamp that is set ablaze using the spark of two flint rocks.

The army has been trying to replace the Lee Enfields for years because there are so few manufacturers left who make spare parts for the rifles, first introduced to the British Army in 1895.

The fact that they don’t freeze up or jam in the Arctic is part of their charm.

At a stop in Hay River, N.W.T., prior to arriving in Nunavut, Harper acknowledged National Defence was still looking for an appropriate replacement.

“I am told there is no difficulty in servicing the weapons at this time, but this is a concern and we believe it is time,” he said. “The Department of National Defence is in the process of scoping out the program for replacement and I expect that to happen over the next few years.”

The weapons the Rangers are currently using were purchased in the 1950s.

Public Works put out a tender last fall for 10,000 replacement rifles, but defence industry sources have said that the program has been held up over concern about who holds the design rights on certain weapons.

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