When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced back in August of 2007 that National Defence would build a deepwater port at Nanisivik, the site of an abandoned mine near to the Eastern entry of the Canadian Northwest Passage, the news was greeted with much anticipation.

Standing in Resolute Bay on a warmish summer’s day, the Prime Minister famously said, “Canada’s New Government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it. Today’s announcements tell the world that Canada has a real, growing, long-term presence in the Arctic.”

Since then, however, little news has been heard of the Nanisivik project, prompting some to wonder whether the lack of visible progress is indicative of a reduced commitment by the federal government to a northern port and to its Northern Strategy in general. The real story is not quite that simple.

Right from the beginning there were questions and concerns regarding to the project. Northern residents, the legal land owners of most of Nunavut, in particular, took exception to the “use it or lose it” rhetoric. They quite reasonably pointed out that sovereignty begins at home, and the largely Inuit communities of the North that lack so many of the basic infrastructure elements we take for granted in the South, have had a visible presence for centuries. Sovereignty is not something those of us in the South can impose on the Inuit.

There were also many other questions. What environmental impact would the port have? What jobs and economic benefits would the project bring? What would be the lasting legacy of Nanisivik?

Enshrined in our Constitution is an obligation to consult with northern land owners on projects affecting them and their land. When questioned about this, the Prime Minister said, “obviously military decisions have to be made on a military basis, but in terms of decisions we announced on Resolute and on Nanisivik, they’re obviously going to benefit local people, they’ll be involved in construction, hopefully employment as well.”

Perhaps in reaction to the criticism, an environmental assessment process was initiated. But it too lacked some clarity, appearing to many as a murky process with uncertain jurisdictional responsibilities and accountabilities, and a very long, multi-year, and highly speculative schedule to any kind of decision.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, rather than creating the Nanisivik project as a stand-alone program within DND, it was folded into the project charged with designing and building Canada’s new fleet of Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships. And that much more public project was, of course, made part of Canada’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, a major and complex program with a lengthy timetable as the government went through a process of selecting designated shipyards.

However, the Nanisivik project team kept busy while an environmental review and the NSPS selection process ground along. They worked hard at specifying and designing port and associated shore facilities to the southern Canadian standards they knew best.

But building in the North is expensive. Everything that is required must be shipped in during the annual sealift. Furthermore, construction seasons are very short and local, skilled construction labour is in short supply.

Not surprisingly, the first casualty was the estimated project budget. Thanks to the decision to merge the port construction with AOPS, the funds available to build the ships themselves were directly affected.

To its credit, the project management team solved this problem after a fact finding trip to Nanisivik. They quite wisely observed that the locals had found their own innovative and unique ways of handling sealift logistics in the North that do not match Ottawa or Halifax standards, but that still work quite well. The project design was reined in and the project budget (at least for now) was recovered.

However, when news broke that the project concept was being revised, reaction in the press was scathing. The National Post wrote: “Obviously, this will save the government money. That’s good, on the face of it. But there’s a problem here. When a facility is built to be used on an as-needed basis, the government clearly believes it won’t be needed very much. The original plan for the base would have given Canada a real foothold in Arctic waters, and would have forced the government into using the facility lest it be accused of waste … Rather than being a game-changer, this will make what we already do moderately easier. Canada is either going to be an Arctic power or it isn’t. If the government can’t even commit the $100-million bucks it originally wanted to spend on developing a proper naval base in the Arctic region, the answer to that question is clear.”

The newspaper, unfortunately, missed the point. If the project can meet its original function of providing a refueling base for government shipping in the Arctic and keep within its budget constraints, isn’t that what’s required? We don’t need another palatial government facility built in the North.

The project must also cross departmental borders. Nanisivik is a DND-managed project, but other departments should benefit as well. The site is currently used by the Canadian Coast Guard for training. It is expected that the coast guard will have access to the new naval depot and will continue to stage cargo operations from this location. However, it is unclear how much the two departments have worked together on project definition or on operations planning needed to maximize those benefits.

A will and a way
So what lessons can be taken from the Nanisivik project to date? For the public and the press, don’t confuse a lack of progress on any one northern strategy project with a lack of commitment on behalf of the government. The strategy still stands and I am convinced the will is there; the way forward, however, is difficult.

For proponents of the project, recognize that government has more than a duty to consult with the Aboriginal land owners on whose jurisdiction the project will be developed – it has an obligation to partner. Northern residents share the same desire for sovereignty as we in the South, but they see it from a very different perspective. Projects must contribute in a lasting and meaningful way to the sovereignty, security and well being of our northern communities, not just to our notions of what sovereignty means from Ottawa.

We must also acknowledge and seek out cost-effective solutions to building these projects in the North. More often than not, the answers already reside with our Northern partners.

Finally, northern strategy projects span multiple departmental jurisdictions and responsibilities, and therefore require concerted and determined leadership to keep them moving forward and to overcome departmental and jurisdictional stovepipes and process inertia. In the Prime Minister, we have a champion for the strategy’s objectives. But do we have the all important northern strategy program manager?

Lee Carson is the president of NORSTRAT Consulting Inc. and a senior associate at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.