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Canada’s North

Stronger than thou

When Stephen Harper tours the North next week, he will reiterate his country’s Arctic commitment. It is a message he hopes will carry across the Arctic to Russia

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As he has done each August for the past nine years, Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, will head off on a tour of the North this summer.

Harper’s 2014 visit gets underway next Wednesday when he arrives in Yukon. The week-long trip across Canada’s three northern territories will then take him to the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

There will be plenty to do while he is there. According to the itinerary released by the Prime Minister’s Office today, Harper will take part in the Canadian military’s Operation Nanook, the country’s largest recurring military exercise.

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In addition, Harper will use the occasion of the search for the Franklin Expedition, a failed 19th century British voyage to find the Northwest Passage, to showcase Canadian initiatives, partners and technologies in the North.

Equally important will be the posturing.

Harper has made the North a priority of his party and of Canada in general, and observers say the trip will serve as an effort to bolster his image as the country heads into federal elections next year.

Harper, himself, has framed the trip in more patriotic terms.

“The North is a fundamental part of Canada’s heritage and identity, and is a key to Canada’s current and future prosperity,” he said in a statement. “Our government recognises that the North is critical to Canada’s economic strength and will continue to provide Northerners with the tools and infrastructure they need to take control of their destinies.”

SEE RELATED: Canada and Russia in the Arctic: the tie that binds

While that message jibes with his domestic priorities, it could also be interpreted from a foreign policy perspective, underscoring that, this year, Harper’s movements will be just as closely watched in Moscow as they will by his constituents at home.

Canada has long been a rival of Russia in the Arctic. In the past, the two countries have been able to keep their disputes somewhat professional. For example, both countries are members of the Arctic Council, a body that promotes collaboration between Arctic states, and both have agreed, as part of the Ilulissat Declaration, to resolve disputes in the Arctic in an orderly manner.

Harper, though, has been a hawkish voice that has criticised Russia for its annexation of Crimea and the later hostilities with Ukraine. Even before the dispute broke out, Ottawa had begun revamping its forces to accommodate an increased focus on Arctic operations. In recent months, however, Canada has taken increasingly hard line against Russia, not least by boycotting a Moscow meeting of the Arctic Council, which Canada currently chairs.

Most recently, Canada last week launched an expedition that will seek to map the floor of the Arctic Ocean in order to help it establish its claim to an area Russia also says is a part of its territory.

Critics have labelled the effort as yet another tactic aimed at winning domestic votes. Others, though, say the mission makes sense given Harper’s long-standing focus on the North.

What the Russians think of it remains to be seen.