NORTH BAY, Ont. — Yan Roberts was among dozens of people who filed into a mining-products factory Wednesday to hear Conservative Leader Stephen Harper promise enhanced mineral-exploration tax credits.
Like the others, Roberts had signed up in advance, stood in line to get his name crossed off a list, received a yellow wrist band, and be ushered onto the factory floor, where the fans had been turned off so people could hear Harper's pitch to the voters of Nipissing-Timiskaming.
A re-elected Conservative government would extend the existing 15 per cent mineral-exploration tax credit, which was introduced in 2006, Harper said.
He also had something for remote projects, like Ontario's Ring of Fire or Plan Nord in Quebec: a 25 per cent mineral-exploration tax credit for projects in the territories or those more than 50 kilometres from an all-weather road or service centre.
Together, the two measures would cost $60 million annually, starting next year.
The announcement was one the Tories hope will resonate in a riding the Conservatives won in 2011 by only 18 votes, snatching it from the Liberals, who are running the same candidate in this campaign.
Economic growth in the mining and manufacturing industry is a major local issue; dozens of businesses support the mining sector and nearly 3,000 people in a town of about 64,000 make a living directly working for those companies.
But Statistics Canada reported this week that in the first six months of the year, the sector contracted. In June, support activities for mining and oil and gas extraction were down 2.7 per cent, after some increases earlier in the year.
Suppliers in North Bay don't just ship products to the oilpatch, they also provide parts and equipment for exploration in the surrounding more remote parts of the region.
"Having riches below the ground does not in and of itself guarantee prosperity above," Harper said.
Hence the exploration tax credits. But at what environmental cost?
That was Roberts' question. As the room grew warmer, he doffed his plaid shirt to expose another shirt that said: "Water Not Harper."
The Conservative leader's events are ringed by security that includes RCMP and a team hired by the campaign.
An RCMP officer escorted Roberts away and one of the campaign's media people guided him out the door.
Roberts said he was handled gently but the juxtaposition between security and policy was jarring.
"They are putting more security protection into themselves and their campaign stops than they are into the environment," Roberts said outside.
He had no intention of disrupting the event, or approaching Harper directly, he said.
"They may have read that as something more escalating than it was. It was more cautious and safe to just stand there and let the three words speak for themselves."
Roberts said his concerns involved the Energy East pipeline project, which would carry oil from Alberta through Ontario to the East Coast and would run just north of nearby Trout Lake, North Bay's water source. Critics have complained there are not enough environmental safeguards built into the plan.
A pair of northern Ontario NDP candidates scoffed at Harper's claim to support mining jobs.
"The Conservative failure to support infrastructure in our region has cost billions of dollars of investment and thousands of potential jobs for northern Ontarians," said Howard Hampton, who is running in Kenora.
Claude Gravelle, a candidate in Nickel Belt, said some of the remote areas Harper wants to help are only hard to reach because the government hasn't invested in roads.
Later Wednesday, Harper arrived in British Columbia for a rally in Abbotsford, a long time Conservative stronghold in the province's Lower Mainland, currently represented by International Trade Minister Ed Fast.
The Conservatives are fighting to hold several of their seats in the region, with surging NDP support in some areas and potential growth in Liberal numbers in others chomping away at their vote totals.
On Thursday, Harper heads into Surrey, B.C., a pivotal B.C. suburb with a diverse community.
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