BAKER LAKE, Nunavut - Stephen Harper used the backdrop of peaking gold prices amid international economic turmoil Wednesday to sell his vision of economic development in Canada's Far North.
The prime minister made no apologies for his Conservative government's development-first strategy after touring the roaring Meadowbank gold mine near Baker Lake. It is Nunavut's only operating mine, but many more are promised.
Critics have long complained the Harper Conservatives are ignoring environmental damage and the impact of climate change as they rush to capitalize on a thawing Arctic.
With gold prices hovering near $1,800 an ounce, Harper was not prepared to concede an inch.
"Obviously when you dig holes here you create some environmental issues, and those have to be addressed," Harper told a crowd of employees in the mine's transport garage after being asked about damage to an adjacent lake.
"But that can't stop development any more than we would let that stop development in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver," Harper added to applause from the crowd.
Harper had just come from the pouring of three gold bricks, each worth about $1.8 million at current prices, where he stamped — after a half-dozen attempts — the company crest on the hot, loaf-sized ingot.
Jim Nasso, chairman of Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd., which has sunk $1.4 billion into developing the Meadowlake site, made a point of noting almost 40 per cent of the 760-member workforce are locals.
"Things aren't changing," said Nasso. "Things have changed."
The prime minister, on Day 2 of his annual week-long northern tour, says the region has a future that will bring long-term jobs and benefits to the North.
"As northerners know all too well, the history of national attention in this part of the country has been a series of fits and starts," Harper said in a speech.
He said his government is the first since John Diefenbaker's in the late 1950s to put the North "at the top of Canada's agenda. We put it there and we will keep it there."
The Meadowbank operation, owned by Toronto's Agnico-Eagle Mines, sprang from the tundra in the last four years and now employs 760 permanent workers. About 450 people are on site 24 hours a day, and will produce about 310,000 ounces of gold this year.
Steven Iyago of Baker Lake, a 110-kilometre drive due south from the mine, says he's now making a real living after struggling as a plumber before the mine opened. Iyago drives a 150-tonne ore truck.
"Oh yeah, it was (rough)," the burly Innu says of life in Baker Lake before the mine opened. "Everybody was on social welfare and now they can afford to buy food and snowmobiles and trucks and clothes and help out their families."
The high Arctic appears on the cusp of a resource boom as countries including Russia, Denmark and Norway rush to exploit opportunities presented by melting sea ice and unprecedented accessibility. As many as a dozen new mines are being "actively considered" in Nunavut, according to Senator Dennis Peterson, appointed by Harper to represent the region.
But the government's heavy development focus has its critics.
Ian Church is a scientist who represents the Yukon government on a board that advises the Geological Survey of Canada on a project that has received $100 million over five years in federal funding to do geological mapping for energy and minerals.
"I'm the only person that's on the board that comes from a broader perspective than the mining industry or an aboriginal community or some of the other client groups," Church said in an interview from Whitehorse, Yukon.
"I keep saying, in reality what you're doing here has other uses" than mineral and gas exploration.
Church cited the example of proposed seismic work in Hudson Bay, which has met some local resistance. He noted no one understands why the bay actually exists, what created it, or how it will develop in the future.
"So in other words, you're also doing baseline research, even though you might find a target that might be of interest to industry," he noted. "That's not where their mind set is."
"The government has got this economic agenda but often the acquisition of knowledge has many potential applications — and it's not all resource-based."
Harper said his government's approach may be led by economic development and sovereignty concerns, but it also pays heed to the environment and social issues in the North.
"We don't measure our results, we don't measure our progress, based on how many millions or billions we spend," Harper said when asked if his government has the correct balance in Northern funding priorities.
"We do spend a lot of money, but we measure it by results. I think you see over the past five years the tremendous expansion of activity in the North, and particularly in the mining sector."
Meadowbank mine is 110 kilometres north of the community of Baker Lake up a single-lane gravel road, built by the mine, that is the longest road in Nunavut.
The entire year's fuel supply and major infrastructure must be brought in by barge during a six- to eight-week window in the summer.
Agnico-Eagle is currently developing an even bigger gold mine near Rankin Inlet, 250 kilometres east of Baker Lake.
The rise of huge new mining operations will tax the infrastructure of a region desperately short on everything from roads to power.
David Hik, the president of the International Arctic Science Committee and a member of the Canadian Polar Commission, says the rush to develop needs the support of baseline scientific research.
Hik raises the issue of rising energy consumption in the Yukon. If new mines are created, the territory's already maxed-out electricity production must be expanded.
A proposal to create new hydroelectric reservoirs will require detailed, long-term knowledge of precipitation and stream flows, transportation corridors and human impact.
"You just can't say at a moment's notice 'we have to figure out how to measure snow.' Those are long-standing questions."
Whether it's economic development, sovereignty or human development, Hik says the big worry is that because we don't know where things are going in the rapidly changing Arctic, "we can't possibly be making very good decisions without knowing how those things are co-ordinated."