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Flaherty's G7 gamble in the land of the seal

A dog team treads the snow-swept landscape in Iqaluit on Thursday.

Rob Gillies

When the G7 finance ministers get off their planes Friday on the subarctic tarmac, they will be greeted by two seal-clad local politicians - Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak and Iqaluit Mayor Elisapee Sheutiapik.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will then invite his colleagues to go dogsledding, though it's not clear yet how many will take up the offer.

Then, before a catered dinner of Arctic char and roast caribou medallions, the ministers will hear a private performance from Iqaluit's hometown rock star about domestic violence.

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Nothing about this G7 finance ministers' meeting is typical.

With the very future and relevance of the organization in doubt, Mr. Flaherty is gambling that bringing his colleagues to this remote locale - coupled with genuine local experiences - will breathe new life into the powerful club of wealthy nations.

He has abandoned the idea of releasing a written communiqué. Instead of arguing over words, Mr. Flaherty wants a freewheeling chat about the many complicated challenges that continue to dog the global financial system.

But before those discussions, the dogsledding and music is meant to break the ice.

Lucie Idlout - who opened for the White Stripes when the duo made a surprise 2007 stop in Iqaluit - previewed the song Lovely Irene last night for the news media. With an acoustic guitar and a youth choir singing backup, Ms. Idlout will sing the song again Friday to the ministers about her friend Irene, who was affected by domestic violence. She's selling the track on iTunes and is donating the revenue to Iqaluit's women's shelter.

"It's a heavy topic, but it's not one that is unique to Iqaluit," said Ms. Idlout. "Spousal abuse and violence in families is an issue that exists, period."

The performance captures the two sides of Nunavut. Ms. Idlout's award-winning career shows off the success and potential of the territory's youth, yet the topic of her songs show serious social issues remain.

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Bringing the G7 north also brings immediate attention to the territory's technological challenges.

Internet service and long-distance calls are all satellite-based. As a result, Internet speeds are slower than in the south and cellphone connections are fragile. Depending on their cell provider, they may also have to make due without their BlackBerrys.

The added demands of the visiting ministers and their staff will only slow the system further.

Add to that close to 100 registered journalists with equally high expectations when it comes to cellphones and Internet access. Some who arrived yesterday had puzzled looks on their faces as they attempted to fire up their electronic devices the moment they walked into Iqaluit's bright yellow airport.

"We're looking at a 10-per-cent increase in the population overnight," said Anne Kennedy, spokesperson for Northwestel, who adds that all the new visitors are heavy users of technology. "It's going to be quite an impact."

Mr. Flaherty's decision to bring his G7 colleagues to such a remote location has raised eyebrows abroad and will certainly test the town's capacity.

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The weather is also a major wild card. Winter storms here regularly lead to cancelled flights. But so far the sun is shining and the forecast looks manageable.

The Nunavut government takes the visit as a point of pride, organizing special events and presentations for the visiting international media. They are also putting on a "country" dinner tomorrow featuring local foods - including seal - but at least some of the ministers are expected to leave beforehand. Beyond dealing with slower Internet, some residents are greeting the event with a shrug. The hotels are filling up and the taxis are busier, but beyond that, the visit will have little impact on most residents.

"There's a buzz all over the place," said Iqaluit resident Dave Seamone at the Grind and Brew coffee shop. "But it's been so hush, hush, nobody knows what's going on."

Iqaluit airport manager John Graham knows the details of when the ministers will be coming and going but isn't allowed to discuss them. He did say there will be plenty of room on the tarmac for the extra visitors. The only potential problem is the weather.

"As long as it stays like this, cold and stable, then we're laughing," he said.



Staying connected here on the rocky, subarctic terrain of Baffin Island is not a simple thing.

The backbone of the Internet in most of the developed world is a vast network of cables and fibre-optic lines. That isn't the case here in Iqaluit, which is playing host to a two-day summit of G7 finance ministers.

Firing up a Web browser or making a long-distance call in Nunavut involves sending a signal to Telesat Canada's Anik F2 satellite - named after the Inuit term for "little brother" - which then bounces to Montreal and then on to the person or server at the other end of the connection.

The satellite Internet technology is available equally to all residents of Nunavut, no matter where they live. It has allowed remote communities to access online banking and educational lesson plans while enhancing connections to the South.

However, there is concern this relatively new access to the rest of the world could soon come to an end. Federal grant money used to purchase the bandwidth is scheduled to expire in 2012. While Iqaluit is likely a big enough market to maintain Internet access without a subsidy, the fear is that other communities would be cut off.

This presents a looming decision for Ottawa on whether to continue the program.

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