Image: Inuvik in northern Canada
The sun sets over the Mackenzie Delta near Inuvik, Northwest Territories. The province is one of three that have banded together at the Vancouver Olympics to plug tourism and business.
updated 2/22/2010 6:58:44 PM ET 2010-02-22T23:58:44

If dogsledding were an Olympic sport, Canada's far north might field some medal contenders.

For now, though, the three northern territories — which account for 40 percent of the nation's area and less than a half percent of its population — are making a non-competition splash at the Vancouver Games with a dogsled team roaming the streets and a popular exhibition that's plugging tourism and business.

Since it opened Jan. 15, four weeks ahead of the Olympics, Northern House in downtown Vancouver has drawn more than 100,000 visitors, according to its staff. That's roughly equal to the territories' total population.

"This venue offers an unprecedented opportunity for us to showcase the North — and let people know who we are," said Floyd Roland, the premier of the Northwest Territories.

And that get-to-know-us phenomenon applies to people from southern Canada as well as from other countries.

"We still get asked if we live in igloos," said Roland, the top government official of a vast territory with just 42,600 residents.

Neighboring Nunavut — created in 1999 to give the indigenous Inuit people their own self-governed domain — is bigger still. It has about 30,000 people scattered across the vast region, much of it above the Arctic circle.

Then there's relatively compact Yukon, famed as the site of the Klondike Gold Rush. It has 31,000 residents.

Producing a single Olympian
Together, the territories account for only one member of Canada's 206-athlete Olympic team — biathlete Brendan Green was born and raised in Hay River, Northwest Territories.

"Being from the North, it is almost impossible not to start skiing as the winters are so long," Green wrote in his online profile.

The Northwest Territories' most celebrated Olympians from the past — twin sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth — made a guest appearance last week at Northern House.

Raised in the aboriginal community of Aklavik, they were on Canada's national cross-country ski team for 17 years and competed in four Winter Olympics, from Sapporo in 1976 through Sarajevo in 1984.

Another star attraction in Vancouver has been a team of white huskies from the Northwest Territories town of Inuvik. Except for an occasional rest day, they've been touring Vancouver's streets with their owners, and emerging as one the prize photo subjects of the games.

Stuffed muskox and wolf
At Northern House, the attractions include a lifelike stuffed muskox and wolf, a kayak hanging from the ceiling, and an array of aboriginal arts and crafts.

Roland has been eager to tout the economic potential of his territory, which in just the past 20 years has become one of the world's major diamond producers. He said exploration is under way for other rare minerals that could play key roles in solar panels and other evolving energy technology.

One long-term challenge for the far north is global warming.

"We're resilient, we always continue to adapt, but climate change does pose a very serious threat to the way we live, to the animals, to the infrastructure," Roland said.

He noted that much of the region's infrastructure is built on permafrost, and could be damaged or destabilized if shorter winters and warmer temperatures cause major thaws.

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