08/24/2012 05:03 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Once Again, Harper Gives Northern Issues the Cold Shoulder


The Prime Minister's annual trip to Canada's North is always tough for me because it never deals with the real problems facing the North. Watching the television coverage, I find it difficult to understand why the Prime Minister has a chuckling smile on his face amid the serious challenges facing our Northern peoples.

Over the past many years, I have had the privilege of getting to know Canada's North. I first visited the North in 1998 as part of former Liberal MP for Nunavut Nancy Karetak-Lindell's Arctic Caucus with the late MP Shaughnessy Cohen. We were overcome by the majesty of the land and the dignity and pride of the people. I have been back virtually every year since, often two or three times annually, to listen and learn about the unique issues facing our northern communities, as well as the solutions necessary to address them.

I have been to Beechey Island and am supportive of the renewed commitment to seek answers about the deadly Franklin expedition, but the Prime Minister's various announcements ignore the fact that the one nurse in Grise Fiord spends 75 per cent of her budget on transporting patients out of her community.

It ignores the fact that these communities are experiencing climate change firsthand and have no way to deal with its serious and direct impact on their lives. Community food lockers are at-risk as the permafrost thaws; there is no infrastructure to deal with the opening of the North West Passage to shipping and tourism; and exorbitant food prices and overcrowding mean that children go to school hungry, and face a TB rate 137 times the Canadian rate. The Prime Minister must not continue to ignore these issues.

Northern Canadians need their federal government to listen to their concerns and be a true partner in addressing the challenges and opportunities they face. As I said earlier this week, Northerners deserve more than an annual photo op from their prime minister and hollow announcements that never seem to materialize. We will never tackle serious national issues like food insecurity, the crippling cost of living in the North, and education and training gaps for the Inuit, Inu, Dené and all Northerners until the government accepts there are problems in the first place.

As noted recently by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Canada has a serious food insecurity problem and in northern communities some estimates put it as high as 79 per cent, or eight out of 10 people, without sufficient food. Seventy per cent of Inuit preschoolers live in homes where there is not enough food and the government program, Nutrition North, which was supposed to deal with the situation, has failed. Despite this, the government refuses to even admit there is a problem.

The Arctic is preparing for significant large-scale resource development projects, but the federal government is failing to ensure that First Peoples and all Northerners can participate and benefit in a meaningful way. Just this year the Conservatives ended the successful Aboriginal Skills and Employment Partnership, a program in which Canada's resource sector companies were active partners. The government continues to say one thing and do the opposite.

There is confusion surrounding the Prime Minister's announcements of military and infrastructure projects, which never seem to materialize. From Arctic patrol ships to the construction of a deep water port, many of Harper's commitments to northerners have been defunded, delayed or never materialized in the first place. Even the high Arctic research station for which he announced funding on this trip is behind schedule.

While this Prime Minister may speak fervently about northern sovereignty, he fails to acknowledge that it includes more than military deployments. It must also deal with the social and economic welfare of the people who live there. Our northern sovereignty depends on northern peoples. It's time he listened to them and worked with them on their priorities.