Okalik presses Harper on devolution, infrastructure

No decision yet on port, training centre


Paul Okalik says the four congenial hours he spent with Stephen Harper this past weekend gave him plenty of time to press the prime minister on what Nunavut now wants from Ottawa: devolution talks, a new financing deal, and more infrastructure.

“We need infrastructure. I told the prime minister, look, we have 70 per cent of the coastline of the country and we don’t have a port to service the waters,” Okalik said.

Harper, who said he’s never before set foot in the northern territories, began a pan-northern tour this past Saturday in Iqaluit, where he launched a major military exercise in North Baffin called Operation Lancaster and gave a speech committing his government to a stout defence of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

Speaking just before Harper, Okalik began with a short history lesson, pointing out that Iqaluit owes its very existence to infrastructure first built for military purposes.

“Iqaluit has a very rich military history,” Okalik said, as Cadet, Ranger, Navy, Air Force and Army members, including a platoon from the celebrated Royal 22nd Regiment, stood in long rows within the back parking lot of the legislative assembly, along with elders, about 150 spectators, and various local and regional worthies.

Okalik described how the famous hunter Nakasuk helped the U.S. government pick a site for their Crystal II air force base, near the current Iqaluit airport. He said the Americans returned in 1955 to use Frobisher Bay as a centre for construction of the DEW line system, and when they departed in 1963, left more infrastructure behind.

“I look forward to similar long-term investments from the federal government,” Okalik said, an obvious dig at Ottawa’s perceived neglect of Nunavut’s infrastructure needs, and at the same time, a reference to the current government’s promise to build a civil-military seaport in the Arctic.

Harper told reporters later that his government isn’t ready to decide where to put such a port, a valuable piece of infrastructure for which Iqaluit City Council has lobbied for more than a year and a half.

Harper said officials within Gordon O’Connor’s are still looking at options for a deep-sea port, but that there are “a lot of considerations as to tides.”

Right now, Canadian navy vessels operating in the Arctic must carefully conserve fuel, and must head to southern Greenland when they do refuel.

Okalik said he also pressed Harper on when negotiations will begin on an agreement to devolve responsibility for resource management on public lands and on non-renewable resource revenue sharing.

In 2004, Okalik vowed that Nunavut would get a devolution deal before the next territorial election, in 2008 or 2009, but talks have yet to start — because the federal government has yet to appoint a negotiator, and the federal cabinet has yet to authorize a negotiating mandate.

Nunavut, on the other hand, has already appointed its negotiator, the former NDP premier of the Yukon, Tony Penniket, and set up a small devolution office within the Department of the Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs.

But Harper said he’s still waiting for Jim Prentice, the Indian and Northern Affairs minister, to bring a proposal to the federal cabinet for a devolution mandate, and he did not say when that would happen.

For his part, Okalik said he’s not frustrated — yet.

“It all depends on the mandate. I told Mr. Prentice last spring, as long as you have a good mandate, I can wait a little longer. If the mandate comes short of our expectations, I think I’ll be quite frustrated,” he said.

He also said Nunavut is ready to take on the big new responsibilities that would come with devolution, and control over its resources.

“I think we’ve shown that when we have control we can make some progress,” Okalik said.

He said he strongly supports Harper’s efforts to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, because it helps protect northern waters against polluters, and complements

“I’m very supportive of our northern sovereignty, because it could have a major impact on our territory if we were to have unregulated shipping activity happening in the Northwest Passage. We would have no way of controlling it,” Okalik said.

As for climate change, Okalik said the GN is “for reducing emissions everywhere,” while Harper promised more environmental initiatives in connection with his government’s “made-in-Canada” approach to climate change, which will be worked out in co-operation with territorial and provincial governments.

Harper flew to the Canadian forces listening station at Alert on Ellesmere Island the next day, and after that flew to Yellowknife, Whitehorse and the Tahera Diamond Corp.’s Jericho Mine.

“This is the only the beginning. I’ll be back in the future. Our government will have a sustained northern strategy in the years to come,” Harper said.

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