Harper’s focus for North shifts from sovereignty to development

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he leaves the swearing in of the federal cabinet at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on July 15, 2013. (Patrick Doyle/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

At first, it was all about sovereignty, but Ottawa’s focus for the North has changed.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to make another trip north this summer as the government’s military rhetoric has been replaced with talk of development. And the northern premiers have a wish-list for him: Yukon is pushing for an investment in power generation, the Northwest Territories wants housing transfer cuts reversed and Nunavut is pushing for devolution, or province-like power.

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The trio all applaud Mr. Harper’s northern focus. And Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak, for one, welcomes the change in rhetoric.

“Lately, we have seen a message shift to issues that have a much bigger impact on the lives of Canadians who live in the Arctic, issues like economic development, housing and the state of our infrastructure,” Ms. Aariak said in an interview Friday from the Council of the Federation. “When we see situations with our own eyes, we are in a better position to understand. And I hope that the shift is because of the fact he’s actually been there and spoken with the people.”

Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod said Mr. Harper’s regular trips have shown him the needs facing the region. “I think he’s recognizing the North is an expensive place to live, a difficult place to live. We need investment,” he said. Mr. McLeod expects the Prime Minister to come in August but the trip is unconfirmed.

The Prime Minister began touting his northern strategy soon after being elected. At first, it largely revolved around the Canadian Forces, with talk of off-shore patrol ships, ice breakers, a new port and defending Canadian skies. In 2007, Ottawa launched its northern development strategy. And, in 2009, the government created the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor). The push was coming from the top.

“The Prime Minister was always front and centre,” said Chuck Strahl, CanNor’s founding cabinet minister who has since left politics. Leona Aglukkaq, the Nunavut MP, Environment Minister and Minister for the Arctic Council, now leads the agency.

Mr. Harper believed that northern issues should be tackled by northerners, Mr. Strahl said. That meant, for instance, putting CanNor’s headquarters in Nunavut, despite it costing more. “On straight logic, you can say it’s too expensive to set up an agency up north. … The reply you got back from the Prime Minister and cabinet was, ‘yes, it’s expensive. It’s expensive for northerners too,’ ” Mr. Strahl recalled.

Programs, though, have met delays. For starters, the ships are not due until at least 2018. Progress on the Nanisivik port in Nunavut has been slow, and construction is due to start in 2014. Mr. Harper did expand the operations of the Canadian Rangers, Canada’s Arctic reserve force, and a new training centre is set to open in Nunavut this year.

Amid all this, the rhetoric has died down.

“When’s the last time you hear anyone use the ‘use it or lose it’ analogy?” asks Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary who studies defence and the North. “It’s very much focused on improving the North for northerners now, rather than building up the security side.”

Northern improvement is no easy feat. Mr. Strahl concedes there are delays. The federal government struck a deal with the NWT on devolution of power over resources, and overhauled the decades-old food mail program to mixed reviews – healthy food is still prohibitively expensive in the North.

The NWT Premier cited declining Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation housing transfers as “a big concern for us.”

Nunavut continues its call to start talks on its own devolution deal. And a letter by Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski this week called on Canada to help expand the power sector. Without more electricity at an affordable rate, northern development will stall, he warned. “The dream of uniting the North is still one I believe has not been fully realized,” he said.

The Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for the North, meanwhile, is completing a report on the North’s communications challenges – ensuring reliable phone and Internet coverage. Developing the North socially and economically, alongside territorial and aboriginal leaders, will help unlock an economic powerhouse, said Anja Jeffrey, the centre’s director.

In a statement, Ms. Aglukkaq signalled there’s work yet to be done. The government has “made progress on the devolution of governance, and we continue to invest in housing and infrastructure projects,” she said.

Mr. Harper’s critics say he’s ignored another topic in his northern push: The environment.

“In all his trips up there, we haven’t heard him talk about environmental impacts, impacts on communities of all these changes,” NWT MP Dennis Bevington, a New Democrat, said this week.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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