Fourteen years and counting as mayor of Churchill have not dimmed Mike Spence's buoyant optimism over the prospects for Canada's North.
"The North is due," he declared Monday, in the wake of Stephen Harper's announcement of $13-million in upgrades for the local airport, as the Prime Minister embarked on the first leg of his annual northern tour.
"The South has been tapped out," Mr. Spence maintained. "The North has not been tapped out.... China is looking at what we have to offer."
The 100,000 or so people living in Canada's three northern territories are in the middle of an economic transformation. Emerging economies hungry for raw materials are helping drive growth in the mining sector. The communications revolution has brought the Arctic closer to the rest of the world. Native populations are taking advantage of land-claim settlements to stake their own economic claims.
Economically, the North is heating up.
Yukon led every province and territory last year, with growth of 1.4 per cent in the teeth of the recession, according to a recent report by the Conference Board of Canada. As elsewhere in the territories, new mining ventures are at the root of the growth, fuelling solid gains in housing construction and the service sector.
Diamonds are the Northwest Territories' best friends, accounting for a GDP per capita twice that of the national average. Diamonds being a luxury item, the sector slumped during the recession. But growth next year is projected to be 9 per cent.
And that's nothing, compared with Nunavut's roaring comeback. After a recessionary slump of 10 per cent last year, the territory's economy is forecast to grow by 13 per cent this year. A Statistics Canada survey reports that investment intentions for Nunavut are up by 28 per cent this year, compared with a national average of 5 per cent.
Traditionally, the territories imported workers in boom times, who migrated south when things went bust. But a raft of land-claim settlements across the North have given aboriginal populations increasing clout and a greater stake when mining companies come calling.
"There is a much stronger desire across the board to encourage economic development," believes Rodney Snow, a lawyer in Whitehorse who has just been elected the first president of the Canadian Bar Association from north of 60.
"But hand in hand with that is a desire of northerners to create their own northern private sector. And the settlement of land claims has been instrumental in that. Aboriginal people who were outside the economic tent are now participants."
The availability of high-speed Internet in parts of the North means that, for Mr. Snow, "I can get my product to anywhere in the world as quickly as if I were practising in Vancouver."
Untinted glasses are required here. Many jobs are still imported, because the local population lacks the necessary skills. The new gold mine at Meadowbank in Nunavut is providing 475 well-paying new jobs, but only 35 per cent of those jobs are held by Nunavummiut. Sixty-two per cent of the aboriginal populations in that territory lack basic literacy. And there is a severe housing shortage.
But there are also encouraging signs. In the 2006 census, high-school graduation rates among the aboriginal population in Nunavut were at 31 per cent - abysmally low, but a 70-per-cent improvement from five years before. In Yukon, aboriginal high-school completion rates are at a healthier 59 per cent.
Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut have been nicknamed "All of it, Some of it, and None of it." But the Conference Board rates Nunavut's prospects as "bright."
"The territory's largely untapped mineral resources provide much opportunity for the economy to expand," the report concluded.
Mr. Harper has made the Far North a touchstone of this government's agenda - although many of the largest investments, such as a polar icebreaker, still exist only on paper. But when asked about the North's future, he sounded cautious.
"We are seeing the slow development of our northern economy," he said Monday. "You see some of these changes on the ground. They are small and they are incremental, but I do think the region is gradually gaining strength."
For all of its potential, the North is afflicted by "cold, darkness and isolation," as Mr. Harper observed. And, he might have added, it is still poor.
But not so poor as before. And so long as China, Brazil and the rest of the emerging powerhouses are in need of minerals that the North possesses in abundance, the Arctic's wide-open skies may be the limit.