Fight between economic and social development takes centre stage in Harper tour

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 week-long 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 board rooms of southern Canada.

Absent from the hop-scotching 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 that a rising tide of economic prosperity can lift a community while forgetting that some individuals can 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 some cases triple the price than in the south.

The territory of Nunavut gets over $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 Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said they were discussed, and he believes the prime minister came away with a better appreciation of what life is like in the region.

The Inuit people are sprinkled across several provinces and territories.

Audla, whose group's representation crosses those jurisdictions, says there was recognition that his people fall through the cracks because they are so spread out.

The notion of an Inuit "homeland" seemed tacitly accepted, he said.

"It's not about redrawing the map of Canada," said Audla.

He said the idea is to get provinces and territories to respect agreements and the Inuit right to control what happened on their land.

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak also took a patient approach, saying she has witnessed a evolution in Harper's view of the Arctic, and it's come a long way from the days of fighter jets and armed icebreakers.

Aariak said welcomed the news of the geo-mapping project, but used the opportunity to needle the federal government over the slow pace of realizing a devolution-of-power agreement.

The territory needs more control over its own resources, she said.

Harper says geo-mapping, which is done in close collaboration with the mining industry, provides critical knowledge for northerners who face decisions about how best to take advantage of the region's potential mineral wealth.

The current five-year program, which is coming to an end, has produced 700 maps and led to some significant exploration for nickel and diamonds on Baffin Island, he said.

The federal investment is expected to generate $500 million worth of mineral exploration.