PM busting with pride

Sometimes political analysis need go no deeper than a simple image on a screen. Tuesday offered two of them. One, of course, was the stunning image of one of the ships from the Franklin expedition lying on the seabed where it had rested, undetected, for almost 170 years.

Sometimes political analysis need go no deeper than a simple image on a screen.

Tuesday offered two of them.

One, of course, was the stunning image of one of the ships from the Franklin expedition lying on the seabed where it had rested, undetected, for almost 170 years.

But if there was a more stunning image, it was the boyish glee with which Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the find, trying to stifle a grin, almost busting the buttons on his button-down demeanour.

The prime minister’s ship had come in.

Harper’s attachment to the Canadian North has often been dismissed as nothing more than a yearly photo op, derided as an out-of-touch prime minister waving at rocks in exotic locales. His obsession with the search for the lost expedition was characterized as nothing more than a man using a budget and power to engage in his hobby of historical mysteries.

But there was always more at play and Tuesday it all fell into place.

For a prime minister who has tried to put his own stamp on our history — renaming buildings and roads for Tory icons, massaging the events of the First World War and the War of 1812 and reverting to historical names for our navy and air force — this was a day he could actually announce history.

A man who has tried to raise Canadian awareness of the Arctic suddenly had reason to brag of a huge step in our quest for unquestioned Arctic sovereignty, even if it was more symbolic than substantive.

Two years ago in the Arctic, Harper said the modern age abhors a mystery. “Mysteries must be solved,’’ he said, and now much of that mystery has indeed been solved.

It was also a triumph for Canadian science and perseverance, a victory that wraps a Tim Hortons commercial into an international hockey victory on the Canadiana meter.

This probably speaks more to Harper’s legacy than his short-term political prospects.

No political reporter in this country has ever encountered an undecided voter who declared he or she would move to the Conservative fold if Harper could just find those damn Franklin ships.

There has been no shortage of critics who wondered why so much money was being poured into Parks Canada’s search for the ships at a time when its budget was being otherwise pared to the point that the opening hours for parks were cut back.

But this discovery does connect Canadians with their history and particularly their North, something Harper has sought since he came to office.

The technology that went into the historic find is also being used to enhance Ottawa’s ability to ensure the safety and security of the country’s northern borders and the mapping of the sea floor that was essential to the expedition is also key to building the pillars of sovereignty.

Jim Balsillie, the BlackBerry co-founder who has been part of the annual Franklin search with his Arctic Research Foundation, told me he thought Tuesday was a day of nation-building.

Sovereignty can be defined many ways, Balsillie said, but it’s not just how Canada exercises sovereignty but how the rest of the world views the country.

When he began with the Canadian delegation back in 2008, there were other ships trolling the waters off the west coast of King William Island and everyone knew there were other searches underway for the lost Franklin ships, just as they had been since the first searches were launched in the late 1840s.

“We all worried others would make this find and claim that find as their own,’’ he said.

Instead, foreign headlines this week trumpeted a Canadian accomplishment.

The discovery, while historic, is only the beginning, Balsillie believes. It is a catalyst, an opportunity for Canadians to build a stronger knowledge and engagement with the Arctic, and that, too, is a step toward sovereignty.

Others see it as largely symbolic.

John Higginbotham, a former diplomat and fellow at the Centre for International Governance, believes the Franklin find is a powerful symbol but he likened it to any government’s desire to celebrate war and historical accomplishment.

“Every party recognizes the Arctic and celebrates the North and they do it for honest and political reasons,’’ he told me.

Symbolism, however, is a powerful political force and Tuesday was a day when those symbols worked for an often unpopular government.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at

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