Stephen Harper has kicked off his annual tour of Northern Canada with a focus on resource development and the jobs it brings for locals. But the Prime Minister arrives in Yukon just as controversy erupts over efforts to recruit foreign workers to the territory.
Yukon's government recently launched a temporary foreign worker program to fill positions in tourism and mining, only weeks after 100 Yukon mine staff lost their jobs.
The territorial measure is billed as a response to chronic labour shortages but it contrasts starkly with Ottawa's efforts in recent months to discourage the use of overseas workers wherever possible after public anger over a B.C. mining company's plans to bring in up to 200 Chinese workers.
Mr. Harper didn't mention the Yukon program by name as he kicked off his northern tour with a brief speech in Whitehorse. However, the Prime Minister made a point of noting his government wants economic projects in northern regions to benefit locals.
"As Conservatives, we have pledged that northern development will mean northern prosperity," he said.
New federal measures to promote the hiring of Canadians over temporary foreign workers took effect July 31, including a $275 user fee for each application to recruit from overseas.
Reforms introduced by Ottawa also restrict the languages that can be listed as job requirements in hiring foreign workers to English and French.
In addition, the new rules oblige Canadian firms to more widely advertise jobs for Canadians first.
Mr. Harper began his eighth annual northern tour of Canada Sunday, embarking on the six-day trip in Yukon before crossing the Arctic Circle to promote mining and other resource extraction in this country's most sparsely populated region.
Like Progressive Conservative Chief John Diefenbaker, Mr. Harper has a use-it-or-lose-it attitude toward Northern Canada that in the early years of his government led to high-profile measures to promote Canadian sovereignty in the resource-rich Arctic.
Now in his eighth year in office, the Prime Minister is focusing more on the economic and social development of a region that struggles with unemployment and the challenge of creating durable jobs.
"Yukon's heroic story … is in itself an essentially heroic Canadian story," Mr. Harper told a crowd of Conservative supporters in Whitehorse. "It's about miners, pioneers, adventurers – hardy, industrious people from all over the world, who, digging for gold, ended up digging the foundations for an increasingly powerful northern economy."
Mr. Harper will make stops in Whitehorse, Yukon, Hay River, NWT, Gjoa Haven and Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, and Raglan Mine, the location of a massive nickel mining complex in northern Quebec.
He mixed business and politics Sunday evening, making his inaugural northern tour remarks – which sounded more like a stump speech – at a Conservative Party barbecue for supporters in Whitehorse.
Mr. Harper lauded local Conservatives for "paint[ing] this territory deep Conservative blue" in the 2011 election and slammed political rivals, suggesting opposition parties in Ottawa are making "constant … demands for tax hikes."
Mr. Harper also said Justin Trudeau's Liberals lack serious policy ideas.
"I guess I don't count legalizing the marijuana trade as a serious economic policy," the prime minister said in a swipe at Mr. Trudeau.
It's a reminder an expected 2015 election is never far from the Conservative government's mind.
"The North is Canada's call to greatness. As Conservatives, we believe this with a passion. We always have. From Sir John A. Macdonald, who brought the North into Canada, to John Diefenbaker, the first prime minister to come north himself," Mr. Harper said.
In earlier years, Mr. Harper devoted significant effort to high-visibility measures aimed at marking off Canadian territory in the Arctic. During his 2008 trip, Mr. Harper declared that all foreign ships entering Canada's Arctic waters must report their presence to Ottawa. That visit also saw Canadian jets scramble to intercept Russian planes approaching Canada's airspace, an event the Prime Minister's Office later celebrated with a photo-op.
This year, however, Mr. Harper is devoting less than one day to Canadian Armed Forces activities. He's visiting with Canadian Rangers, the part-time reservists armed with basic rifles who are tasked with reporting anything they see, such as a foreign submarine, to the military.