An interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the past, present and future of Canada's North
By The Royal Canadian Geographical Society
|Nááts’ihch’oh, or Mount Wilson, in the newly named national park reserve|
On the Prime Minister’s seventh
annual northern tour in August,
Mary Jane Starr of the Royal Canadian
Geographical Society (RCGS) sat down
for an interview with Stephen Harper
at a picnic table on the grounds of the
Norman Wells Historical Society in the
Northwest Territories. The following is an
edited transcript of the conversation,
which touched on the past, present and
future of Canada’s North.
RCGS: The tour’s five-day itinerary
includes Whitehorse, Norman Wells,
NWT, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and
Churchill, Man., with additional stops in
the newest national park and the oldest
settlement on Hudson Bay. What is
behind this ambitious agenda?
PM: As a Canadian, I’ve always been
interested in this country’s history and
geography. I find it fascinating.
Geography is one of the things Canada is
about, particularly northern geography.
RCGS: This is your seventh northern
tour. What draws you back each year?
PM: I love the North. It is really very
diverse and it defines our country in
many ways. I wish Canadians could see
the extent, the diversity and the wealth
of the North.
RCGS: In addition to your summer tour,
you have been to innumerable communities
in the North on other occasions.
Do you have any favourite places?
PM: As I said earlier, the North is
a diverse region that encompasses two
distinct areas, the boreal forest and the
Arctic, another land altogether. I would
describe Yellowknife, for example, as
a small city that is very habitable, not
unlike small cities in the south. At the
other extreme is Alert, Nunavut, literally
an outpost and, as such, life there is
more dangerous and difficult. Norman
Wells represents yet another kind of
community, one that is more frontierish.
RCGS: You recently announced a new
national park, the Nááts’ihch’oh
National Park Reserve in the Northwest
Territories. Why create another
PM: National parks are part of our
identity and our priceless inheritance.
This new park is breathtaking and
has tremendous natural and cultural
importance. Any day there is a park
announcement is a good day.
RCGS: The new park is about the
same size as Vancouver Island and can only
be reached by float plane or canoe. Given
the inaccessibility of some national parks,
how can more Canadians experience them?
PM: I think it’s a broader question and
it does concern me: how do we get more
Canadians to experience our country?
When I was a boy, we drove a lot in
Canada, visiting a lot of conservation areas.
It was how we did our family vacations,
and we probably did it more than most.
Now the common thing is to hop on a
plane to somewhere else. It’s an expensive
country to get around but we still can get
around parts of it quite reasonably.
RCGS: Our Society’s motto is “Making
Canada better known to Canadians and to
the world.” Is this consistent with your
PM: I wish Canadians would see
more of their country and get a greater
appreciation of the extent of it, the
diversity and the wealth that the land
has given us historically and that is
still the basis of much of the country’s
economy today. There are a group of
Canadians who have become more and
more passionate about the wilderness
and about seeing the country. At the
same time, a wider swath is seeing less
and less of the country by choice.
Anything we can do to give Canadians a sense of the breadth, perspective and
nature of the country, the better.
RCGS: Part of Canadians’ connection with
the North derives from its past — from its
incomparable geography and history.
During the northern tour, you announced
a renewed investment in the search for the
missing ships of the Franklin expedition.
Why the continuing interest?
PM: The Franklin expedition is a tragic
story. It represents a seminal moment in
Canada’s history and a key component of
our Arctic sovereignty. The HMS Erebus
and the HMS Terror are together
a national historic site that to date is
undiscovered. Searching for Franklin’s
ships may seem like looking for a needle
in a haystack but the ships will be found.
We have an obligation to do so.
RCGS: Before Franklin set sail in search of
the Northwest Passage, there was already
a settlement on the shore of Hudson Bay
at York Factory. What was its
PM: York Factory is one of the geographical
treasures of the country. It was
the capital town of Western Canada for
200 years. At one time, it was a bustling
community and a centre of commerce
and immigration. In fact, modern
Western Canada begins at York Factory.
Now there are only a couple of main buildings, some artefacts and a cemetery.
The challenge currently is to ensure
that the site is not further eroded.
RCGS: York Factory appears to be
isolated and far removed from other
communities but isn’t there a connection
to the Franklin expedition?
PM: That’s right. Inscribed on a post
on the ground floor of the interior of
the main building at York Factory is
the name John Rae. Rae, of course, was
a leader of the overland expedition that
searched for Franklin.
RCGS: Readers of Canadian Geographic
have a high degree of interest in
Canada’s North. Does this surprise you?
PM: Not at all. Canada’s North is an
incredibly vast and still harsh environment.
You can fly for hours and hours
and never see any indication of human
settlement or activity. Yet Canadians are
attached to this part of the country.
Someone said, “I’ve never been to James
Bay part but it’s part of my identity.”
The North is imprinted on the imagination
of Canadians. It is central to our
identity. The land is endless and so are
the possibilities. I always say our biggest
dreams are at the highest latitudes.