'There is today a new 'imagination; for our true north'

Harper woos Iqaluit with 'rhapsody; in Tory blue


With Leona Aglukkaq, his star candidate for Nunavut, standing dutifully by his side last weekend, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ridiculed the Liberal party's Green Shift tax plan while promising that a re-elected Conservative government would unleash the economic potential of the North.

"There is today a new imagination for our true north strong and free and our government will work to ensure that the people of this place will realize all that this imagination holds," Harper said at a Conservative rally held Sept. 20 at the Iqaluit cadet hall.

Provoking frequent bursts of applause from an audience of mostly local Conservative supporters, Harper portrayed his government's dedication to the Arctic as part of a long nation-building tradition represented by true-blue Tory prime ministers such as John A. Macdonald and John Diefenbaker.

"In that tradition, this Conservative government has made the North one of its main priorities, not only in the broader interests of our nation but in the interests of those who live, work and support their families here," Harper said.

Aglukkaq, who also gave a short speech, clearly relished the chance to be seen with the prime minister.

"To me it just goes to confirm once again, that he's serious about working with northerners and in the North by coming here," she said in an interview.

National opinion polls suggest that Harper's Conservative party is headed towards another minority government, with an outside chance of winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Aglukkaq said that it's therefore "essential" for Nunavut to be represented on the government benches to speed up a devolution deal between Nunavut and Ottawa and to secure more money for health care.

"You need to be involved in the discussions where you have influence in moving files forward," she said.

Meanwhile, Harper said the Conservatives would take all existing northern development activities and wrap them into a single, stand-alone regional development agency for northern Canada.

But it's not clear where that agency would be located, who would manage it, and who would guide its decisions.

In another announcement, Harper said his government would carry out recommendations made by Neil McCrank, a consultant who issued a report last year on northern Canada's convoluted regulatory system.

And he said his government would set up a "satellite office" in the North to oversee big, complicated development projects.

In response to a reporter's question, Harper said federal government agencies in Nunavut cannot be bound by the Inuit Language Protection Act, but he did suggest that some federal agencies might comply voluntarily, following negotiations.

In Quebec, that province's Charter of the French Language does not apply to federal government offices or federally regulated companies.

Harper also took direct aim at the Liberal party and the three Liberal candidates running in the northern territories, whose carbon tax plan the Tories have parodied as the "Green Shaft."

When CTV reporter Roger Smith suggested that by not acknowledging the benefits that a tax shift might produce, Harper might be "giving the Green Shift the shaft" himself, the prime minister lashed out at the Liberal climate change plan.

"There is not a resident in these entire three territories, other than the three Liberal candidates, who wants to pay a carbon tax. Nobody wants that," Harper said.

Nunavut's Liberal candidate, Kirt Ejesiak, organized a counter-rally across the street from the cadet hall, at which he and about 10 supporters waved signs displaying messages such as "Harper doesn't care about Inuit families," and "Education equals sovereignty."

"I think the prime minister has no vision for the North," Ejesiak said.

He also scoffed at the notion that Saturday's announcements will improve Nunavut's social conditions.

"People are basically freezing on the streets with no housing, when people have no jobs, when 60 per cent of our 16-year-olds are dropping out of high school," he said.

If the prime minister had ventured out and talked to Iqalummiut, he'd hear people want housing and jobs, not an economic development agency, Ejesiak said.

Paul Irngaut, the New Democratic Party candidate in Nunavut, is not impressed by Harper's plan to create a northern economic development agency.

He said Inuit don't need more federal bureaucracy to create jobs. Instead, they need a government willing to implement Article 23 of the Nunavut land claims agreement.

But he conceded that Aglukkaq might gain some votes as a result of Harper's visit.

"It's a photo op but there's no substance to it," Irngaut said.

Irngaut also criticized the idea of cutting red tape for the mining industry.

"If it means relaxing environmental laws, it's not good for Inuit," he said.

Peter Ittinuar, Nunavut's Green Party candidate, said he doubts that Aglukkaq, if elected, would have any real influence within a Conservative government.

"I'm a little afraid. We had a very nice lady [ex-MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell], who represented us for quite a few years. She did a reasonable job, but she didn't bring a lot of attention to Nunavut," Ittinuar said.

Ittinuar said all three major political parties in English Canada instruct their MPs to put the interests of their party first, no matter what their constituents want.

"You don't really know if you would have influence if you were a Conservative member, or a Liberal member or an NDP member," Ittinuar said.

With files from Chris Windeyer

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