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Harper gears up for another round of Arctic chest-thumping

Next month, as he has every summer since becoming Prime Minister, Stephen Harper will travel to the Arctic, trumpeting his Conservative government's resolve to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Far North against all comers.

Little of what he says will accord with reality. But it will all make for splendid political theatre, which is the whole point.

This federal government employs a two-track policy in the Arctic: noisy confrontation and quiet co-operation. The latter track is the real policy, but it doesn't profit the Prime Minister to acknowledge it much.

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Instead, if past performance is any guide, Mr. Harper will be photographed staring resolutely at the Arctic horizon, where Russian interlopers presumably lurk, as the Maple Leaf waves behind him, a Coast Guard vessel hovers nearby, and CF-18 jets streak noisily overhead.

This display will likely become the prime ministerial portion of this year's Operation Nanook: the largest display yet of Canadian Arctic military muscle, with more than 1,000 Canadian Forces personnel deployed on and around Baffin and Ellesmere islands.

This is unlikely to frighten the Russians, who recently announced plans to deploy two full brigades to permanent Arctic duties in support of their own claims. Nor will it impress the Americans, who reject Canada's assertion of sole control over the Northwest Passage.

As a Wikileaks cable from the American embassy in Ottawa revealed, Washington looks on all this with condescending amusement, noting that, though Mr. Harper is forever making announcements – An Arctic deep sea port! Armed patrol vessels! A new icebreaker! – his government rarely actually cuts a cheque.

But if other nations are undeterred, Mr. Harper's chest-thumping has at least impressed some Canadian voters. You might have noticed that in the last election the Conservatives took two of the three territorial seats. They also took all but two of the northern seats in the Western provinces. Such belligerence also plays well farther south, among voters who support the assertive Conservative promise to stand up to the Americans, the Russians and even the Danes, if need be.

But behind the scenes, the Conservatives are doing what Canada usually does best: talking in forums. Canadian research teams this year will complete the mapping of the Arctic seabed, part of a multinational exercise at figuring out who legitimately can claim what, with the United Nations to act as referee.

The eight member nations of the Arctic Council, to which Canada belongs, signed a treaty in May on co-operation in search-and-rescue operations. The agreement is important on its own, and as a sign that all Arctic nations much prefer to jaw, jaw rather than war, war.

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Canada and the United States are jointly working to settle boundary issues in the western Arctic, while negotiations with the Danes on eastern Arctic boundaries are also underway.

And another Wikileaks cable revealed that Mr. Harper told NATO's leadership not to worry about increasing tensions because "Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic."

This is not to say that the Conservatives' public agenda is purely posturing. The military exercises are, after all, real, giving Canadian Forces valuable experience in operating under severe northern conditions.

The Tories have invested in northern infrastructure. During the trip, Mr. Harper will doubtless reiterate his election and budget pledge to complete the Dempster Highway by linking Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.

And anyone who has travelled with the Prime Minister sees that he genuinely loves the North. These annual forays have the feel of a working vacation for him.

All in all, like so many other aspects of this Conservative government, bellicose and ideological rhetoric often masks a competent and accommodating reality. But that reality doesn't sell nearly as well as a Boy's Own photo op of a prime minister-militant inspecting the northern front.

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So the two tracks, public and private, will both continue, which probably is just fine, as long as everyone understands what's really going on.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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