08/21/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Harper's Arctic Trip: PM Spends Second Day At Gold Mine


MINTO, Yn - The prime minister says he wants to simplify rules around resource development in the North in the same way changes were made for projects in the rest of Canada.

Stephen Harper said that solving the enormous social challenges in the North will be simpler if economic development increases.

But he says changing the review processes for northern projects is more complex because of aboriginal land claims.

"There's been great benefit to this part of the country," Harper said during a visit Tuesday to this Yukon community, part of his annual summer tour of the North.

"Does that mean there aren't still enormous social challenges that need to be addressed? There are. But look, those things become so much simpler if we can get economic development driving some wealth accumulation here."

Changes to the environmental review process for natural resource projects was one of the most controversial elements of the Conservative government's recent federal budget.

Critics say it means projects will get the green light without adequate consideration of environmental and social implications.

But Harper says the seriousness with which Canada treats the environmental consequences of mining is what sets its developments apart from others around the world.

He says the fact Canada is attracting investment in its natural resources sector from around the world is a testament to its strength.

"We want economic development but we want in the end that development to leave us with lands and territories that will continue to support good, human activity and human habitation for many centuries to come," Harper said.

"So that is our objective. ... We're looking to try and accomplish a similar thing here. In some cases this is a more complex environment particularly because of the nature of the aboriginal land claims settlement, but those things will very much be taken into account in anything we do."

The prime minister's comments followed a tour with his wife Laureen of the Minto copper and gold mine, which has some 300 workers, of which about a quarter are First Nations peoples.

The Minto mine is on the traditional territory of the Selkirk First Nation. Their chief Kevin McGinty says they have a good relationship with Capstone, the mine's owners, who have helped build a new water plant for the community.

"If development happens in the North, it must be responsible, safe and include First Nation participation," McGinty said.

It was the prime minister's first full day in the North, which began in Whitehorse, about 240 kilometres south.

Miners have been active in the Yukon since the days of the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1800s. According to statistics from the mining industry, there are over 80 mineral resource deposits in the territory.

Last year, more than $300 million was spent on exploration, and mineral production soared above $400 million from just $46 million in 2006, according to the Yukon Chamber of Mines.

When the government of Yukon switches to a new resource agreement it has signed with Ottawa, it will see its share of the revenues grow to 50 per cent, up to a cap of five per cent of its expenditures.

When the deal was first announced last year, the government in Yukon estimated that with the territories' gross expenditures around $800 million annually, the new deal could see residents receive more than $41 million annually.

Harper's visit to the mine followed a speech to party faithful Monday night outside of Whitehorse where he extolled the development of the North's resources as the "great national dream."

"The North's time has come," Harper told a crowd of about 300 Conservative supporters.

"I tell people starting to see the activity here, you ain't seen nothing yet in terms of what's coming in the next decade."

Natural resources development has also become a renewed focus of the Harper government as countries the world express eagerness to receive a greater share.

The government says there are currently 24 projects in the North representing $38 billion in potential new investment.

"Northerners deserve more than an annual photo op from their prime minister and hollow announcements that never materialize," said Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett in a statement.

"It is time that the federal government listen to their concerns and serve as a true partner in addressing the serious challenges and opportunities in Canada's North."

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