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Harper stresses social welfare, economy in northern spending Add to ...

From highways to harbours to housing, Stephen Harper insists his government's focus on the North goes far beyond the elaborate military operation now under way to assert Canada's Arctic sovereignty.

The Prime Minister made a series of announcements yesterday - first in the Nunavut fishing village of Pangnirtung, and later in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories - aimed at highlighting what he said is an unprecedented level of federal spending in northern communities.

The announcements followed a day of carefully staged photo ops of the Prime Minister at sea with the Canadian Forces' Operation Nanook. Mr. Harper flew a Sea King helicopter, dove with the Forces in a submarine and took the helm of the frigate HMCS Toronto.

The Prime Minister said he agrees with Inuit leaders who say Canada asserts its northern sovereignty not solely by military means, but through the people who inhabit the North.

"I know the opposition will sometimes criticize us for our reliance, or too much reliance, on the military side," he said yesterday in Pangnirtung.

"Let's be clear. On every trip I've been here, we've emphasized not just military, but also the actions we're taking on economic, social, environmental development and on governance."

Mr. Harper said Operation Nanook has value beyond the assertion of sovereignty because it is a good training opportunity for the Canadian Forces.

Although a lot of construction is under way in the North, those who live here have drawn the national media's attention this week to the serious hurdles that remain.

Diesel generators power the North, and many are outdated. Housing is in such short supply in Nunavut that Inuit fear the next round of H1N1 flu will spread like wildfire through overcrowded homes.

"We know the needs are acute," Mr. Harper said. "I can also tell you that the investments we're making here, while they may not satisfy all the demands, these on a per-capita basis, vastly exceed what we're doing in the southern part of the country."

The Prime Minister expressed concern that aboriginals and northerners aren't necessarily benefiting from the northern spike in construction, mining and government jobs.

To that end, he and the three territorial premiers announced a new $36.5-million labour agreement yesterday in Yellowknife. The deal will finance skills training for workers in the North, regardless of whether they qualify for employment insurance.

Mr. Harper said skills training will help in moving toward an environment in the North where aboriginals and northern residents are the first people hired when jobs become available.

"We do not want a transient economy here," he said in Yellowknife. "We do not want an economy primarily fuelled by people who come here, we take resources out of the ground, the people leave, the resources and the money scatters elsewhere."

Using housing and health care as examples, the Prime Minister said he wants federal investments to be delivered locally as much as possible.

"We want to, over time, train health practitioners in this area, who can be part of building their own health-care system, and create - among particularly our aboriginal peoples - a sense of opportunity and possibility in their own lives," he said. "So that's really central to our vision in the long term."

In addition to the labour agreement, Mr. Harper announced funding for five highway improvement projects in the NWT. He also confirmed construction of a $17-million small-craft harbour will begin this fall in Pangnirtung.

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