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Western premiers, emissaries in Iqaluit to discuss development's impact on North

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IQALUIT, Nunavut - Officials from six western provinces and territories, including three premiers, arrived Wednesday in the Arctic boom town of Iqaluit, Nunavut, to talk about natural resources development and its impact on northern and remote communities.

Alberta Premier Dave Hancock, N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod and Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski are meeting in person with Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna. Flooding is expected to keep Manitoba's Greg Selinger and Saskatchewan's Brad Wall at home, while B.C. Premier Christy Clark has a scheduling conflict.

They couldn't have picked a more appropriate place than the Nunavut capital for a discussion about development in the North. The ramshackle Baffin Island town of almost 7,000 has a Wild West feel — bustling with new construction even as it grapples with an array of social ills and a dearth of infrastructure.

The indigenous, traditionally nomadic Inuit are struggling to cope with Arctic development, fearing a loss of their way of life. They're plagued by high levels of suicide, homelessness and substance abuse, in Iqaluit and elsewhere in the vast territory.

"When the mining gets going up here, it's going to make the tarsands look like 'The Flintstones,'" said Allan Mullin, a New Brunswick-born contractor who's built several houses in Iqaluit but decries the lack of social housing for the impoverished Inuit.

"The Inuit is going to suffer like crazy. They haven't had the chance to adapt."

Iqaluit is the gateway to Inuit homelands that are being increasingly exploited for natural resources.

Natural Resources Canada recently made public an exhaustive report on Canada's changing climate that makes clear the federal government is accepting that climate change is dramatically opening up the Arctic.

Climate scientists say the planet is warming at such an extent that the so-called Northwest Passage may be ice-free within the next 40 years, making vast oil reserves increasingly accessible.

Pasloski, the Yukon premier, said consultation with Canada's aboriginal communities is critical as the Arctic becomes a potential trade and energy powerhouse.

"It's important to engage First Nations, Inuit people, to be a part of what we do going forward," he said as he took part in Nunavut Day festivities in Iqaluit's town centre.

"If you can make it an inclusive process, you have a much better chance of success ... because we are talking about tremendous change in areas of the North that haven't seen it before."

There's already resistance from the Inuit on several fronts.

Late last month, the National Energy Board approved energy exploration in offshore Arctic waters, including seismic testing, despite howls of protest from Inuit communities, where there are grave concerns about about the risks posed to whales, walruses, seals and other wildlife.

"Our community is really concerned about the whales and the noise it's going to create," Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine told the Nunavut News.

"A few years ago, lots of narwhal got stranded in the ice, and it turns out they were doing seismic testing in Greenland at the time."

The Baffin Bay hamlet of Clyde River, a two-hour flight north of Iqaluit, also recently turned down cruise ships that had hoped to weigh anchor in the community. The hamlet council raised concerns that the presence of ocean liners would disrupt wildlife and pollute the environment.

Tourism is a burgeoning industry in the Arctic. But cruise ship operators have complained about the cost and red tape involved in operating in Canada's North.

"The Canadian Arctic is considered one of the most cumbersome, expensive and problematic regions in the world for expedition cruise operators," the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators recently warned in an open letter to federal and territorial officials.

By comparison, the association noted, neighbouring Greenland is much more welcoming.

Amid those tense relations between those who hope to capitalize on a newly accessible Arctic versus the indigenous people trying to protect it, Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna was slated to greet the officials from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

They're meeting at a hotel overlooking Iqaluit's historical Frobisher Bay — a cove that shipping companies have bitterly complained hasn't been updated since English explorer Martin Frobisher discovered it in 1576 in search of a Northwest Passage.

Shipping companies are forced to do sealifts on the beach. They're at the mercy of the 10-meter tide and inclement weather, a state of affairs that has occasionally made it impossible to drop off much-needed supplies to the town.

The Frobisher Inn also overlooks a garbage dump fire that's been smouldering since May, occasionally sending puffs of acrid smoke over a community alive with activity, including Inuit children playing on the town's icy beaches and alongside the craggy creeks that empty into the bay.

There have been 46 new cases of tuberculosis in Nunavut this year. The problem is compounded by the fact that families are often forced to share cramped accommodations due to the lack of social housing.

"When you have a lot of people in one house, then the risk of passing any communicable disease is increased, including TB," said Elaine Randell, a communicable disease consultant with Nunavut's Department of Health.

The western premiers' conference coincides with Nunavut Day, which marks the creation of the territory in 1993. Townsfolk were out in force celebrating the day, enjoying traditional foods that included seal meat, narwhal meat, bannock and Arctic char.

Saskatchewan's Wall, who's dialing into the Iqaluit event, said he expects the premiers will discuss flooding in western Canada, labour shortages and trade. In Regina on Wednesday, he said the amount of money the federal government has committed to disaster mitigation isn't enough.

"The western premiers will be encouraging the federal government to make sure the federal disaster mitigation program is properly funded," he said.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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