Harper North trip to highlight agriculture, Arctic sovereignty

Stephen Harper during a visit to the Arctic.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves for his ninth annual trip north today — a visit that has become a bit of a summer ritual.

Soon after he was elected in 2006, Harper went to the military base in Alert, Nunavut and has made a point to go back north every summer.

- ANALYSIS | Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes another northern tour

This year the Prime Minister will visit all three territories to meet with the party faithful and to announce money for research into northern agriculture and telecommunications and to wave the Canadian flag from the deck of naval ship that is travelling in the High Arctic.

He'll also highlight what his office calls "new partnerships and technologies that are a part of the 2014 Search for Franklin Expedition."

The north is changing from being out-of-sight and out-of-mind and into a region that is playing a growing role in the country's sovereignty and economic development. And with it, there are growing expectations from northerners about what Harper will announce during his trip.

Roads, airports vital for growth, say business leaders

The Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut account for 40 per cent of the country's land mass, making roads and airports crucial. So far there just aren't enough of them, according to regional business leaders.

"We have a very rich resource in the territory, but it's stranded because of a lack of access so if we hear something along those lines, everyone would stand up and cheer," said executive director of the NWT Chamber of Commerce Mike Bradshaw.

Bradshaw said the North is on the cusp of another boom, with 20 mining projects in all three territories in the approval stage.

The big oil and gas companies are coming back, too. There are plans to explore offshore in the Beaufort Sea and to frack for oil in the Sahtu region of the Mackenzie Valley where the new Canol Shale Oil reservoir is estimated to be as large as the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.

But Bradshaw said the lack of infrastructure — roads and paved airport runways — could slow that boom to a trickle.

Only 10 paved airport runways

Only 10 out of 65 airports north of 60 have paved runways. That means companies have to use smaller, older planes and make more trips to bring in equipment and people.

"It doubles cost of hauling equipment and people," he said in an interview with CBC. "It's difficult for resource development proponents to make significant fiscal commitments to bring projects online when the cost to operation is as high as it is here in the North."

The federal government has contributed $200 million to the cost of extending the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the edge of the Beaufort Sea.

The Prime Minister's Office is not making any promises specifically about money for airports this trip although it points out in a statement that it continues to invest through the Northern Economic Development Agency.

"Since its creation in 2009, the agency has invested over $196 million in 918 economic development projects. These projects are helping to make living, working and raising a family north of 60 easier and more affordable."

Plans to announce northern agriculture research money

But it is promising more help for northern agriculture and the use of greenhouses to provide food year round. Prime Minister Harper will travel to Fort Smith, NWT to announce some money for joint research being done by Aurora College and the University of Guelph into growing food in remote environments.

The federal government was severely criticized two years ago by the UN special rapporteur, who specializes in peoples’ right to food. Olivier De Schutter found that eight out of 10 people who live in remote communities in Canada were having trouble affording food. It's particularly hard in Arctic communities where the prices of staples like bread, milk, eggs and flour are up to three times higher than in southern Canada.

An official with the Prime Minister's Office said the new money for northern agriculture is designed to "enhance northerners' ability to feed themselves."

Competing claims for Arctic resources

The prime minister's trip also coincides with key developments in Arctic sovereignty. Russia has increased its military flights over the Arctic this year and Canada is continuing to survey the disputed underwater Lomonosov Ridge north of Ellesmere Island.

Several Arctic nations, including Canada, are making claims at the UN to the underwater sea bed right to the North Pole and the resources that may lie underneath.

"We've got to the point where the Danes and the Russians are making submissions," said Rob Huebert who teaches military and strategic studies at the University of Calgary.

"There is going to be an overlap and we're in for a rude awakening. It's not going to be so co-operative as we thought."

Huebert said the Arctic is now hot and Canada is right in the middle of it.

"The Arctic has become a crucial element in the international system," he told the CBC.

Harper to watch military's Operation Nanook

Harper plans to spend a day and a half on board the naval ship Kingston that is travelling from Pond Inlet to Arctic Bay as part of its annual patrol.

He'll also watch the military's Operation Nanook, a military exercise being held near Iqaluit this year

Huebert said the Conservative government has yet to live up to some of its big capital promises in the North, such as the plan to build new icebreakers and offshore patrol vessels.

But he gives Harper full for credit for his trips north.

"This is the only PM we've had to actually make a policy point of going to the North and reminding us that the North exists and reminding us of what he has done and what he hasn't done."