Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

PM discusses resources, social ills in northern jaunt

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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 weeklong 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 boardrooms of Southern Canada.

Absent from the hopscotching 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 rates of suicide.

Sitting down with Inuit leaders from across the country, Harper attempted to reconcile the disconnect.

"We have, I think, all shared goals in seeing strong, healthy, prosperous Inuit families and communities," he said. "We see progress being made, but we also recognize there are big changes in terms of the rapidity in historic development, stresses on the environment, social challenges that we all have. But I think everybody here today is extremely positive about the potential opportunities for the next generation of young Inuit people."

Critics accuse the prime minister of single-mindedly championing the notion a rising tide of economic prosperity can lift a community while leaving some individuals to 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 in some cases triple the price as in the south.

The territory of Nunavut gets more than $1 billion annually in social transfers, and suicide prevention recently received a $30-million boost.

The itemizing of initiatives did little to impress Hannah Beniot, a counsellor who deals with a crushing load of mental-health cases, in this remote, hardscrabble community.

It seemed like every day last year someone was committing suicide in the region, she said.

"It hurts so much. It really hurts. It hurts the whole community," Beniot said. "It's not just here. It's all over Nunavut. You hear a person committed suicide, maybe you don't know them, we're all touched a lot."

Between 2000 and 2007, Nunavut recorded a suicide rate of 71 per 100,000 people, making it among highest in not just Canada, but the world.

Social issues were not on the formal agenda of Thursday's meeting of Arctic leaders, according to staff in the Prime Minister's Office. But that won't keep northern leaders from talking about them, said Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

"We'll be frank and we will be speaking to issues like that and how we're going to work together," he said prior to the meeting.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2013 A19

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