VANCOUVER — Stephen Harper shifted tone recently on his seventh annual foray to the Far North, talking less about national sovereignty and more about job creation.
With most Canadians aware that the north is not under any great foreign threat, the PM used the trip to focus more on northerners, promoting his ubiquitous jobs and growth strategy.
The region, which accounts for 40 per cent of Canada’s land mass, is becoming ever more high profile, with gradual melting opening up more economic opportunities.
Resource exploitation, tourism and shipping are set to expand and are bound to shine a bigger spotlight on those living in the region.
Northern residents are spread out across a vast terrain, with a population no bigger than that of Kelowna, at 117,000. More than half are aboriginal.
In a recent news release, Liberals attacked Harper’s annual northern visits: "Year after year this prime minister uses the north as a backdrop for Arctic sovereignty and military procurement," said Liberal Northern Development critic Carolyn Bennett.
"Yet he continually fails to make any headway on the real issues facing Canada’s northern communities."
It only makes political sense for the Conservative government to start addressing the northern needs.
In past years, Harper’s chest-thumping announcements have related more to macro than micro projects — a deep-water port for Nanisivik, polar icebreakers, an expanded contingent of Armed Forces Rangers. That sort of thing.
And several of these sovereignty-related projects have been delayed by budget restrictions and other complications, over time hurting the government’s credibility and diminishing the political value to be derived from such big-ticket ventures.
Last week, Harper focused more on the nitty-gritty of creating jobs for northerners.
Visiting a copper-gold mine in Yukon, Harper brought his jobs-and-growth mantra north, saying Conservatives are "committed to promoting social and economic development" in the region.
Conservatives want to ensure "that northerners benefit from the tremendous natural resource reserves that are found in the region."
The mining and energy sectors account for 25 per cent of territorial GDP, employing 5,000 northerners.
At present, some 38 resource development projects are awaiting regulatory approval with the promise of an additional 8,000 jobs.
Harper also announced between 35 and 50 new jobs by 2017 at a proposed research station in Cambridge Bay.
And boundaries of a new national park announced by the PM, were drawn to enable adjacent resource development to occur.
Conservatives clearly prefer to deploy job creation as a means of helping northerners rather than pouring funds into the region in a Kelowna Accord-type of approach.
That northerners need assistance is not in dispute. A 2008 Library of Parliament report by Tonina Simeone provides insight into the harshness of life north of 60.
Northerners have higher mortality and suicide rates, and lower education and income levels.
The Simeone report says the suicide rate among Inuit people is 11 times the national average; life expectancy is 15 years lower than for other Canadians; 68 per cent of aboriginals in the north don’t finish high school.
Living costs in the north are onerous. A jar of Cheez Whiz or a four-litre container of milk can cost $20.
And, worryingly, climate change is starting to complicate life for many northerners, particularly those reliant on hunting.
In 2011, the Harper government introduced Nutrition North Canada to subsidize healthy eating while earlier this year it unveiled a Northern Adult Basic Education program.
And as part of its Northern Strategy announced in 2009, Conservatives created a new northern regional development agency.
Such initiatives reflect smart politics, a recognition that sovereignty is about more than just policing the Northwest Passage.
» Barbara Yaffe is a national affairs columnist for the Vancouver Sun.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 4, 2012