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Trudeau ends Harper's tradition of attending Arctic military exercise

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the media in Sudbury, Ont., on Sunday, August 21, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
August 29, 2016 - 1:10 AM

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is flying to China on Monday, adding to the long list of countries he has visited since winning last year's federal election. Yet there's one place closer to home that Trudeau hasn't set foot in since forming a government: Canada's far north.

Officials maintain that despite the lack of a prime ministerial visit, the Arctic remains one of the government's top priorities. But opposition critics and experts say the Liberals have been noticeably absent in a number of ways when it comes to Canada's northern reaches.

The Canadian Forces launched its annual Arctic exercise, Operation Nanook, last week. In this year's iteration, hundreds of soldiers are helping respond to a simulated earthquake in the Yukon while hundreds more scour Nunavut with the help of ships and aircraft to retrieve a lost object.

First conducted in 2007, Operation Nanook is viewed as the most important for asserting Canadian sovereignty over its northern reaches while giving the military and other federal departments experience operating in the region. It also marked when Stephen Harper would conduct his traditional tour of the Arctic.

The Arctic trips were a highlight of Harper's annual calendar, and while they were often derided as glorified photo opportunities, experts say they were important for sending a signal to other countries and drawing rare public — and government — attention to the region.

"The first thing that occurs when a prime minister goes up north is all the other departments have to get their acts together," said Arctic expert Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary. "Deputy ministers crack the whip to make sure they can show what has been done since the last time he visited."

Trudeau's office would not say when the prime minister plans to visit or tour the Arctic. However, they confirmed he has not visited since the federal election, and that he will not attend the current military exercise.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he is disappointed Trudeau will miss it. He said having the prime minister participate tells Canadians and the world that the government is serious about protecting Canada's northern sovereignty. It also shows support for the military.

Trudeau spokeswoman Andree-Lyne Halle said in an email that the Liberal government is committed to securing and defending Canada's Arctic. It also recently appointed Inuit leader and former Canadian ambassador Mary Simon as a special representative to work with northern communities.

"The Arctic is among the highest priorities for this government," Halle said.

If that is the case, said Michael Byers, an Arctic expert at the University of British Columbia, why hasn't the government said more about an American company's recent decision to close the port in Churchill, Man., Canada's only Arctic deep-water port. The government said it's monitoring the situation.

Byers, who ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in 2008, said the government has also been largely silent on the potential environmental concerns associated with the Crystal Serenity, a luxury liner that is attempting to traverse the Northwest Passage this summer, or Russia dumping spent booster rockets into Baffin Bay.

"What we have seen is a silence on some fairly significant developments which previous prime ministers would have commented on," Byers said. "The approach seems to be that the Arctic is not a priority."

Experts say so far the only policy direction from the government about the north is a joint statement issued by Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama during the prime minister's visit to the White House in March, which included broad promises on the Arctic environment and sustainable development.

Jerald Sabin, an Arctic expert at the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation, said it's clear the Liberals will focus more on the Arctic's social challenges, particularly as they related to indigenous communities and climate change, whereas the Conservatives spent their energy on sovereignty and natural resources.

"But I would say it's still very unclear what the vision of the Liberals is for northern Canada," Sabin said. "And that's with, until recently, three Liberal MPs."

The Liberals swept Canada's three territories in last October's election. Afterward, Trudeau tapped Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo to be his minister of fisheries and oceans.

But Tootoo resigned and left the Liberal caucus in May, saying he was seeking treatment for alcohol addiction. He later admitted to an inappropriate workplace relationship.

That left the territories without a seat in cabinet.

Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna's spokeswoman, Yasmina Pepa, said the territorial government has enjoyed good access to federal ministers, including Bennett, even after Tootoo's resignation. But experts believe Trudeau had planned to rely heavily on Tootoo to represent the Liberals in the north.

NDP northern affairs critic Charlie Angus, who also lamented Trudeau not having visited the Arctic, questioned whether Trudeau hasn't travelled the north this summer because he doesn't want to face questions about Tootoo. The prime minister's office said there is no link.

- Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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