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PM in Churchill today to see military exercise

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OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper's annual Arctic tour swings into Churchill today to participate in northern military exercises.

Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay will join in on Operation Nanook 2012, the country's "premier" annual northern sovereignty operation.

Operation Nanook is in its sixth year but is in Churchill for the first time. The exercises will include preparing for "a vessel of interest" approaching the Port of Churchill.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said the town's streets have been crowded with military members this week and he believes the military is proving it is still interested in Churchill.

"I believe the military is sending a message that they realize Churchill can play a role," said Spence.

Churchill was once a military town but the military base was decommissioned in the 1960s. In 2007, Spence and then-premier Gary Doer were peeved when Churchill was overlooked as a possible location for a new deep seaport and a new cold-weather army training centre. The town is shrinking -- to 813 people in 2011 from 963 in 2001.

Its economy is dependent on its port and polar bear and beluga whale tourism.

Churchill residents would like to see the port enhanced to begin accepting shipments rather than than just shipping grain out. However, the port isn't established as a container port, which makes it difficult to attract foreign shipments.

The government has invested $25 million over five years to subsidize companies that use the port to ship grain. The port was almost wholly dependent on the Canadian Wheat Board for its shipments, and the fear was when the CWB became an optional, rather than mandatory, grain sales company, other grain handlers wouldn't use the port.

Harper was the first sitting prime minister to visit Churchill and this visit marks his third trip to the Manitoba town since 2007.

The first time Harper visited in October 2007 he announced a $40-million investment to help repair the Hudson Bay rail line and $8 million to invest in the Port of Churchill.

That was also the now-famous trip that launched Doer's career as ambassador to the United States. The two discussed the idea for the first time on the plane to Churchill.

Three years later, Churchill was the first stop on the annual summer tour of the North and was longer than anticipated after a major rain and windstorm grounded the prime minister's plane for two days. He used that visit to announce $13.4-million in upgrades for the Churchill airport.

But any further investments in the town or the port won't happen on this trip. Harper's office confirmed today's visit is 100 per cent related to the military exercises.

There will be a photo op with Harper and MacKay, a news conference from the HMCS St. John's and a second photo op at the Churchill airport before Harper departs.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2012 A8

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