Harper's Northern tour is about politics as much as policy

The prime minister's trip to the Canada's North will see him push the Conservatives' resource-development agenda, but it's equally a tour about photo-ops.

Prime minister will pose for an opportune photo or 2 amid announcements

Stephen Harper began his eighth Northern summer tour Sunday with a stump-style speech to Conservative supporters at a reception in Whitehorse.

Although, the prime minister's staff insisted it was not a fundraiser.

It was roughly the same model in place as last year, when Harper's first event after arriving in Yukon (and taking an ATV ride across the Carcross desert) was a dinner speech to another roomful of Conservatives.

The policy followed later, as it will this year, with an announcement Monday morning expected to focus on skills training to support employment in the North's vast natural resources sector.  

Drawing attention to this chunk of the Canadian economy will be the prime minister's key effort over the next few days, just as it was last year, and the year before.

In 2011, the prime minister spent the night at a fly-in gold mine near Baker Lake, Nunavut, and last year he held a news conference on the edge of the open-pit Minto mine in Yukon.

Stephen Harper's trip to the North is just as much about tapping into the near-universal Canadian love of the Arctic as any policy considerations, James Cudmore writes. Pictures of the prime minister being greeted by singing, parka-clad Inuit children still make it into papers even when the words he says do not. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In each year, Harper made the point that economic opportunities in the north are as vast as its resources. As he said in Yukon last August: "Such is the magnitude of the North's resource wealth that we are only, quite literally, just scratching the surface."

In the Conservative view, the development of natural resources is not just good for companies — it's good for people, too. When a mine goes up, jobs come to town.

And that's why the government says it is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in programs like the one to geo-map Canada's natural resources. Those maps make it easier for exploration to occur and, eventually, exploitation.

Then there's the riff on former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker's 1960s Roads to Resources Program that brought vehicle traffic all the way to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.

Harper's Northern tour

Here’s a brief look at Harper’s official itinerary, provided by the government:

  • Monday: Announcement at Yukon College, Whitehorse.
  • Tuesday: Hay River, N.W.T.
  • Wednesday: Visit with the Canadian Rangers in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.
  • Thursday: Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
  • Friday: Northern Quebec.

In addition to a small delegation, Harper is accompanied by some cabinet ministers with key northern roles: Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson is expected in Gjoa Haven, where he will join Harper to observe a small group of Canadian Rangers as they participate in a training exercise.

In this year's budget the government pledged $200 million to complete that dream and link Inuvik — and the rest of Canada — by an all-season road to Tuktoyaktuk on the shores of the Beaufort Sea.

Yes, it will reduce costs and make life easier for those who live and work in Tuktoyaktuk, but the road will also likely spur on the search for oil and gas in the Mackenzie Delta region, both on land and under the sea.

Skills gap

In much of the north, it's difficult to do the hard, dirty work of searching for resources and digging them up without the involvement of either aboriginal or Inuit communities. But there is a skills gap that businesses have had a hard time addressing on their own.

This, it seems, is where the federal government sees its own role growing.

The Conservative budget this year earmarked  $241 million over five years "to connect First Nations youth between the ages of 18 and 24 with skills training and jobs." Expect to hear more — much more — on this over the next few days.

The government points out it promised $100 million this year and next to build 250 new houses in Nunavut. But that's probably the limit of what you might hear this week on the softer, social development side.

That's likely because of the prime minister's own trickle-down view of social development in the North.

Last year, he was asked whether the government's focus on economic development and business came at the expense of a focus on social development and people. Harper said he didn't think so.

"Those things become so much simpler if we can get economic development driving some wealth accumulation here," he said.

It's a case of a rising tide floating all boats, under that view.

Image is important

But it would be unwise to become too bogged down by policy. Politics always plays its part.

No matter what may be in his announcements over the next week, the prime minister is captive to the media's questions, which, given the apparent countrywide interest in Pamela Wallin's expenses, will see Harper forced off his Northern message — likely more than once.

Tuesday, while the travelling media have their heads down in Hay River, N.W.T., processing another announcement, likely about education, the prime minister will meet again with Conservatives at a lunch hour event at the Hay River Golf Club.

But the trip north is not just about politicking, or shoring up support in the three Northern ridings, ridings that have a history of changing hands.

It's about tapping into the near universal Canadian love of the North, the Arctic and its very wild spaces. Pictures, video and audio of the prime minister surveying an Arctic landscape, or being greeted by singing, parka-clad Inuit children still make it into papers and onto TV and radio even when the words he says do not. 

It's a point not lost on the prime minister's soon-to-be-former director of communications, Andrew MacDougall.

"The North is a fundamental part of our Canadian heritage, our national identity and is vital to our country's future prosperity," he said in a statement Friday.

"Our government recognizes the tremendous opportunities – as well as the many challenges – that exist in the North today. This is why we have made the North a priority."

But there is a somewhat satirical point being made about the extent of that priority and the fact, from a communications perspective anyway, it seems to match the easy summer season. Sunday it was being made on Twitter by one of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's top advisers, Gerry Butts.

"You know what would be truly impressive?" has asked rhetorically. "An annual Arctic tour in January."