HMCS TORONTO – The military put on a thunderous display of naval and air prowess in the Arctic for Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday in an unmistakable exercise of political and international power.
Relaxed and wearing sheepish grin, Harper stood on the deck of HMCS Toronto and watched three CF-18 Hornets skim the calm, icy waters of a Baffin Island inlet near Iqaluit. The fighters roared over a small flotilla of ships taking part in a summer sovereignty exercise.
Harper arrived aboard the frigate sitting in the open doorway of a Sea King helicopter, his feet dangling over the side, after being briefly allowed to pilot the obsolescent aircraft.
Not to be outdone by the air force, the navy let Harper take the helm of the frigate Toronto and conn the submarine HMCS Corner Brook, which took the prime minister below the surface for part of the exercise.
The prime minister, who spent the previous few days talking down the military aspects of their northern strategy in favour of economic development, aimed to dramatize Canada’s claim to the Far North.
In a speech delivered beside the warship’s forward gun, he told the crew that protecting the country’s borders is the “first and foremost responsibility of a national government,” one that has often been neglected in the past.
“Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in our Arctic.”
In a thinly veiled reference to recent Russian air force flights and submarine patrols, Harper said the northern borders have been probed by air and sea.
“We must never forget, that just as the eyes of southern Canadians gaze northward, so too do those beyond our borders,” he said as the coast guard icebreaker Pierre Radisson drifted lazily behind him in the bright Arctic sunshine.
The scramble for resources in the North means sovereignty protection “has never been so important.”
His message was echoed by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who was ferried aboard in a coast guard helicopter to join the prime minister and senior military commanders at the start of the summer military exercise.
“Sovereignty is not a passive state of being,” MacKay said. “It’s an active state of being.
“There’s no one that does active better than the Canadian Forces.”
The sharp political rhetoric stood in contrast to the country top military commander, who said the threats to the country’s dominion over the Arctic are more run-of-the-mill.
“There is no conventional threat to the Canadian Arctic, no conventional military threat to the Arctic,” Gen. Walter Natynczyk told reporters before Harper’s arrival.
“There are security threats with regard to criminal activity.”
Smugglers are more and more choosing northern routes, rather than risk running the patrol pickets along the East and West Coasts, he suggested.
A number of security reports have said that illicit drugs are finding their way to Baffin Island, where the cargo is off-loaded and then flown south.
Natynczyk said the war-fighting and surveillance training going on the Arctic is invaluable regardless of the threat.
Last year, a record 48 ships sailed through the region’s waterways, channels and inlets along a passage which was once choked with ice almost year round.
The potential for an environmental or even humanitarian tragedy is ever-present.
“If they go up on the rocks somewhere, you’ll have a significant environmental spill, but you’ll also have a search-and-rescue mission,” the general said.
The military exercise, involving over 700 sailors, aircrew and soldiers, is among the largest the country has ever put on in the Far North and is expected to continue for days.
Moments after Harper’s helicopter lifted off to take him back to Iqaluit, the Toronto resumed training in Frobisher Bay, hunting the submerged Corner Brook.