08/21/2011 04:15 EDT | Updated 10/21/2011 05:12 EDT

Resolute Bay Plane Crash Casts Pall On Harper's Arctic Tour


OTTAWA - The fatal crash of a jetliner in Resolute Bay on Saturday has cast a pall over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's annual Arctic tour scheduled for this week.

The Prime Minister's Office has delayed his departure by 24 hours to Tuesday morning, and a planned two-night stay in the tiny hamlet of Resolute has been scrubbed.

Instead, Harper will fly into Resolute for a brief visit Tuesday to pay his respects before continuing on to Baker Lake, Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Haines Junction.

Click here for crash site video

Twelve people died in the weekend crash just outside Resolute's airport, with only three survivors.

The crash serves as a graphic illustration of why a greater government focus on the High Arctic is needed as the region opens to increased traffic, research and mineral and gas exploration.

"Our thoughts and prayers remain with those affected by Saturday's tragic plane crash," the prime minister said Sunday in a news release.

"Thanks to the herculean efforts of first responders, including members of the Canadian Armed Forces, lives were saved that otherwise might have been lost."

A major joint military exercise, Operation Nanook, is in its third week in the Resolute region along the Northwest Passage and Harper had been expected to frame his tour with the military backdrop. Instead, Canadian Forces personnel were responding to the crash of the chartered Boeing 727 that plowed into a hillside in thick fog two kilometres from the runway.

In a cruel irony, the military exercise had scheduled a mock air disaster later this week.

This will be Harper's sixth consecutive summer visit to the Far North and the tour usually marks a high point of the prime minister's year, as well as a touchstone of his Conservative government's brand of nationalism.

It's all part of a high-profile government effort to exert Canadian territorial control over the rapidly melting Arctic, where a warming environment invites increasing international ship travel, mineral and gas exploration and scientific research

"Canada's North is a fundamental part of our heritage and national identity and it is a cornerstone of our government's agenda," Harper was quoted in the PMO release.

"Since forming government, we have made significant progress on economic and social development, asserting our sovereignty, providing good governance, and protecting the northern environment."

But nothing comes easy in Canada's unforgiving Far North.

The First Air crash prompted a lightning quick response from the nearby assembled military exercise, a response that only highlights the usual lags in reaching remote northern crises.

Distance, cost, an unforgiving environment and lack of political will have always hobbled northern development.

Even with the Harper government's ambitious northern agenda, delays — and critics — are endemic.

An $81-million High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, promised in 2007, won't be in operation until 2017.

The Canadian Press reported in May that an Arctic naval port in Nanisivik — considered crucial to enforcing Canadian control of the Northwest Passage — is years behind schedule due to environmental and funding concerns.

And a briefing note for Defence Minister Peter MacKay dated July 29, 2010, shows that the procurement of Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships also has been pushed back, in large part because of problems implementing a national shipbuilding strategy.

"Cumulative slippage since (project) approval has delayed the first ship delivery from 2013 to 2015 with (operational readiness) delayed from 2014 to 2016," says the document, obtained under Access to Information.

Harper announced in July 2007 that the navy would buy six to eight ice-capable ships to patrol the Arctic almost year-round.

The moving targets, coupled with a steady stream of Conservative rhetoric on the North, have not gone unnoticed by the international community.

"Conservatives make concern for 'the North' part of their political brand ... and it works," said a January 2010 diplomatic cable from U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson, leaked by WikiLeaks earlier this year.

The cable suggested "the PM's public stance on the Arctic may not reflect his private, perhaps more pragmatic priorities...."

There's little question the stirring Arctic photo-ops are a boon to Harper's domestic standing, but they're also part of an international air war exhibiting Canadian northern sovereignty.

Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary's Centre for Strategic Studies says Harper's Arctic commitment shouldn't be underestimated.

"No other Canadian prime minister, ever, has put the Arctic target on his back every year," Huebert said in an interview.

Huebert notes that as soon as a prime minister heads north, "everyone asks, 'where's the beef?'"

Although Huebert harbours deep cynicism about governments generally, the academic believes "the overall plan that they have in motion — and there's been no sign they are deviating from it, it's just taking longer to implement — is actually a sound one .... There's actually a pretty good set of pieces being put together, if we follow through."

A spokesman for the prime minister says that commitment "remains steadfast and true."

"The projects announced by our government will be completed," said Andrew MacDougall.

The shipbuilding strategy, added the PMO spokesman, "is well-underway and will provide for jobs and economic growth right across Canada."

A parade of Conservative ministers have toured northern communities this summer and, despite budgetary cutbacks across government, there's been no signal Arctic funding is on the chopping block.

MacKay issued a news release last week touting Operation Nanook and boldly asserting the Canadian Forces "have the resources, training, professionalism and dedication to conduct operations in every corner of the vast Arctic region and stand on guard for our great country."

While many in the scientific community complain about an over-emphasis on militarism and commercial research, some believe the Conservative commitment to Arctic funding matches their florid rhetoric.

"In many ways it does, there's been a real shift in capacity," said David Hik, the president of the International Arctic Science Committee and a member of the Canadian Polar Commission.

"The reason why the prime minister and ministers should be spending time in the North is because of all of the international interest," Hik said in an interview by satellite phone from "the middle of Yukon" where he's doing field work.

"Whether it's Russia or Norway or the European Union or Japan or Korea — India has just applied as the newest member of the International Arctic Science Committee — all of those countries are putting dollars and people, resources, infrastructure and logistics into the North," said Hik.

By Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press