RANKIN INLET, Nunavut—Stephen Harper looked to strike a balance between the enormous social deficit of the Far North and the region’s overwhelming resource potential when he sat down with Inuit leaders from across the country on Thursday.
Much of his week-long tour of the Arctic and northern territories has been geared toward laying the foundation for an anticipated mining boom that’s partially the result of a warming climate.
There’s been cash for training in this impoverished labour market, specific programs for education in mining, and a $100-million renewal of a federal geo-mapping program meant to point resource companies toward potentially rich veins—measures that will play well in the board rooms of southern Canada.
Absent from the hop-scotching cavalcade of economic initiatives has been discussion of the crushing poverty of many northern communities, the lack of adequate housing and social ills, including sky-high suicide rates.
Critics accuse the prime minister of single-mindedly championing the notion that a rising tide of economic prosperity can lift a community while forgetting that some individuals can drown.
Not so, Harper said.
“Economic development really is critical to social development,” he said. “That said, we don’t rely on that entirely throughout this country, not just in the North. Governments support vital ranges of social services for people, health, education, you know, you go through the list. These remain critical things for governments to do.”
He insisted his government has been addressing social issues in the North with programs to blunt the high cost of food, which is double and some cases triple the price than in the south.
The territory of Nunavut gets over $1 billion annually in social transfers, and suicide prevention recently received a $30-million boost.
Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak took a patient approach, saying she has witnessed a evolution in Harper’s view of the Arctic, and it’s come a long way from the days of fighter jets and armed icebreakers.
Aariak said welcomed the news of the geo-mapping project, but used the opportunity to needle the federal government over the slow pace of realizing a devolution-of-power agreement.
The territory needs more control over its own resources, she said.
Harper says geo-mapping, which is done in close collaboration with the mining industry, provides critical knowledge for northerners who face decisions about how best to take advantage of the region’s potential mineral wealth.
The current five-year program, which is coming to an end, has produced 700 maps and led to some significant exploration for nickel and diamonds on Baffin Island, he said.
The federal investment is expected to generate $500 million worth of mineral exploration.