08/30/2012 12:07 EDT | Updated 10/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Harper's in Need of Some Real Northern Exposure


For Members of Parliament, the summer months are an important time. It is a chance for us to be in our ridings, attend community events and have more direct interactions with our constituents. And for those MPs like myself who represent large ridings, it is a chance to get to more remote regions of the riding, the parts that are harder to get to on a weekend when the House of Commons is in session.

This month I visited the northernmost region in my riding, Nunavik, and met with people from all walks of life there. It was a great chance to not only hear their concerns first hand, but to see them first hand with my own two eyes.

Trips like those give you a real reality check that some politicians go out of their way to avoid. I was reminded of that sad fact the week after I got back from Nunavik, when Prime Minister Harper made his annual pilgrimage to the North. Since he became Prime Minister, Harper has made a point of making this trip every year, complete with tightly controlled meetings, funding announcements where the actual funds never seem to flow and beautiful photo-ops on all kinds of military equipment.

There are many serious issues that are being faced in the North today, ones that require real vision that includes the residents of the region. In every community that I visited on my tour of Nunavik the week before, the same concerns were raised over and over again:

  • The high cost of living in Northern communities, including the lack of quality food at affordable prices and the sale of expired food

  • The need for investments in basic infrastructure and the lack of government investment in them

  • The lack of adequate housing for rapidly growing populations

  • The lack of consultation in the development of their region, including on the social impacts that these developments will bring to their communities

While I was there, these were all issues that you could see with the naked eye. I could see the condition of some of the homes and the need for more adequate housing. I could see the communities full of very young faces, and envision what will be needed to help them grow. I was able to go to the local Northern store and see how the price of basic food staples had risen since my last visit.

But when Harper made his trip North a week later, he did his best to avoid these concerns and conversations. He passed by members of the Carcross Tagish First Nation as they protested outside a partisan Conservative event in the Yukon regarding a lack of action on concerns they have raised with the Federal government. He did eventually meet with Carcross Cheif Danny Cresswell the next day, but during that meeting he only repeated old promises to act that have yet to be followed through on.

In Nunavut Cathy Towtongie, President of Nunavik Tunngavik Inc., declined to attend one of the Prime Minister's events in her community. According to APTN News, on her Facebook group she stated she "was not prepared for a greet and meet function without a substantive meeting to deal with the issues affecting all of Nunavut." True to form, Harper never did have that substantive meeting, opting for the simple photo-op instead.

Canada's future does pass through the North and there is amazing potential there to help us achieve the healthiest environment, the fairest society and the strongest economy in the world. The only way that we can achieve that goal is to work towards reaching our full potential. Since getting elected, this government has used Canada's North as a rhetorical prop, all without giving any second though to the day-to-day realities of the region. The federal government has a large role to play in the proper development of the North, and that development has to first and foremost yield positive outcomes for the people who live there and have called the region home since time immemorial.

This will require a comprehensive approach, one that takes into account not only the resource development potential and strategic geo-political importance of the region. It also must involve the social needs and true prosperity of Northern communities. It requires listening to the concerns of everyone in the North, not just card-carrying Conservative partisans. The typical hands-out approach the Conservatives have become known for will not do.

Last week the Prime Minister had a chance to begin listening to the people of the North, but instead he stayed inside his bubble and kept thinking of the beautiful tundra. For the seventh consecutive year, Harper went North and missed out on a chance to help Canada and the North reach its full potential by listening to those who call the region home. Doing this properly will involve a great deal of work, compromise and co-operation; it's work that is not for the faint of heart.

As Harper's approach and inaction has shown us, this is the work that the Conservatives cannot properly do.