How to tame a vanishing wilderness

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One item that seems conspicuously absent from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s wilderness kit, as he tromps across the Canada’s vast Arctic expanse this month, is a well-thumbed copy of Farley Mowat’s 1956 children’s classic, Two Against the North, also known in some publishing quarters as Lost in the Barrens.

The story tells the tale of a white boy, Jaime, and his Cree companion, Awasin, who overcome enormous odds to survive a season stranded on the brutal tundra. (Think Australian outback, except colder). During their sojourn, their cultural differences dissolve and heir friendship deepens. So does their respect for nature.

What’s not often mentioned in the literature reviews is that the book is also a pretty good survival guide for anyone who suddenly finds himself, say, needing to pitch a tent or light a pot of seal oil.

As the Globe and Mail reported last week, “An Inuit elder and Ranger dressed in traditional animal skins taught (Mr. Harper) how to build an inuksuk, the famous northern stone figure. They later erected a traditional animal skin shelter. Mr. Harper set up the pole inside the structure under direction from his wife, Laureen Harper. The Prime Minister was also instructed how to light a traditional carved bowl lamp – which uses seal oil – but was unable to set it afire. Mr. Harper remarked wryly: ‘I guess I’d die in the wilderness.’”

Sure, but what a way to go. Canadians’ – especially southern Canadians – love affair with their great boreal region grows more ardent in late summer, when the mug and grime of the urban landscape tests all but the most stoic, the Northern Lights crackle and dance in the imagination and the call of the wild is a primal scream.

“There is nothing worth living for but to have one’s name inscribed on the Arctic chart,” the 19th century English Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once remarked. Mr. Harper might well agree. Every summer, the glaciers continue their relentless retreat and the polar ice recedes into memory. Every summer, the prime minister is there to bear witness to both loss and opportunity, as if to say the north isn’t what it used to be and likely never will be again. But is that, he is wont to query, necessarily a bad thing?

“We recognize that the Arctic is growing more accessible to international shipping,” he said in Churchill, Manitoba, two years ago. “The various circumpolar countries are pressing claims that may conflict with our own. The global demand for northern resources is growing. . .The first and highest priority of our northern strategy is the protection of our Arctic sovereignty. And as I have said many times before, the first principle of sovereignty is to use it or lose it.”

Of course, the federal government’s commitment to the region depends on an essentially dialectical arrangement with the truth: Global warming is mostly hype, but that doesn’t mean we can’t exploit it. In this, the environment takes a back seat to geopolitics and whispering ski-doos.

“The Canadian military has been secretly test-driving a $620,000 stealth snowmobile in its quest to quietly whisk troops on clandestine operations in the Arctic,” reports The Canadian Press. “The Department of National Defence even has a nickname for its cutting-edge, covert tool: ‘Loki,’ after the ‘mythological Norse shape-shifting god.’”

The Arctic, today, is not only a proving ground for the armed forces; it is the site of previously undreamt economic development. Or, as Mr. Harper’s northern strategy declares, “From the development of world-class diamond mines and massive oil and gas reserves, to a thriving tourism industry that attracts visitors from around the globe, the enormous economic potential of the North is on the cusp of being unlocked.The Government is taking action to encourage future exploration and development by improving Northern regulatory systems and investing in critical infrastructure to attract investors and developers to the North.”

So much for the pitching of tents and the igniting of lamps. So much for the sentimentalities of the south. Soon, the brightest of the northern lights will belong to the derricks and diggers of industry.

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