IQALUIT, Nunavut (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched a tour to assert Canada’s Arctic sovereignty claims on Tuesday, saying the government was not ignoring the vast but sparsely populated region’s economic and social ills.
Harper pledged that a recently announced economic development agency for the Far North would be headquartered in Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory, not in the far away federal capital of Ottawa.
“Obviously, our sovereignty is far greatly enhanced if we have thriving indigenous communities, healthy communities, throughout the territory,” Harper told an audience in Iqaluit, an isolated community of about 7,250 on Baffin Island, which is also Canada’s northernmost capital.
It was the first in a series of announcement Harper is expected to make in a week-long cross-country tour to promote Canada’s claims in the Arctic, some of which have been challenged by other countries, included the United States.
His Tuesday visit also included a symbolic defense of the region’s seal-hunting industry, which has drawn the wrath of international animal rights groups, as he dined on seal meat as part of his lunch.
The prime minister’s visit, which also involved key cabinet ministers, coincides with a Canadian military training exercise off Baffin Island, near the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage, the sea route between the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canada’s Arctic archipelago.
Harper will visit the exercise on Wednesday.
Canada, Russia, he United States and Denmark are among the northern nations that in recent years have been exerting sometimes competing sovereignty claims at the top of the world with an eye on the Arctic’s rich natural resources.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated last year that the Arctic holds 90 billion barrels of oil, which would be enough to supply current global demand for three years.
Those resources have become even more valuable with the potential that global warming and disappearing sea ice will make them easier to access via the Northwest Passage.
The fabled waterway has become something of a diplomatic bone of contention in recent years, with Ottawa insisting the route is sovereign Canadian territory, while others, including Washington, saying it’s an international waterway.
Local officials said that while they appreciated the attention and funding that the prime minister was bringing to the region, they worried that not enough was being done to address other social woes in Nunavut, a sparsely populated region that is almost as big as Alaska and Texas combined.
Many isolated northern communities have higher rates of poverty and suicide than the rest of Canada, and Harper’s visit comes amid a local controversy over a news photo of children spending the night sleeping on Iqaluit’s streets.
“Drugs and alcohol. It’s at the root of all the problems,” said Glenn Williams, an Iqaluit town councilor, who lamented the lack of centers in Nunavut for treating substance abuse.
Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak called the federal government’s announcements “a good start”, but the territory also wants to talk with Ottawa about getting more control over, and benefits from, the region’s offshore energy resources.
Federal officials said those social programs were really the jurisdiction of territorial officials, and Harper defended the regional economic plan as giving local residents a greater say in where money was spent.
The “era of benevolent but ultimately ineffective” economic planning for the region was over, Harper said.
The location of the announcement, inside a local hockey arena, carried a bit of irony, as federal money was being used to repair problems with the building that local residents said were the result of their advice being ignored by Ottawa.