The Yukon government is tying its push for infrastructure projects here to Ottawa’s growing interest in asserting sovereignty over the Arctic.
During his brief trip to Whitehorse on Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper continued his message about the need to defend Canada’s interests in the North.
“We are being absolutely clear: If you want to be taken seriously by other countries you have to say what you mean and mean what you say,” Harper said, at a dinner in his honour on Wednesday evening.
During a stop in Iqaluit earlier this week, Harper announced a deep-water port and military training facility and talked of supplying the area with three armed icebreakers, expected to cost more than $2 billion.
On Tuesday, he officially launched Operation Lancaster, the largest military exercise ever held in the North.
Ottawa’s heightened interest in Arctic sovereignty is a useful lobbying tool for the Yukon’s infrastructure dreams, Fentie told reporters in a wrap-up session on Thursday.
“We saw a tremendous opportunity to fold into that main theme issues that are relevant to that priority,” Fentie said.
The Yukon’s position is now that Arctic sovereignty is “much more than military presence,” he said.
“You need roads, you need infrastructure, you need the communities we have out there to be all part of strengthening our sovereignty and security in the North,” he said.
“Though we support a stronger military presence in the North, for us, Arctic sovereignty and security begins with a strong healthy community; it includes infrastructure, and we need to ensure important areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are protected.”
Fentie made the connection between sovereignty and projects like the Alaska Highway gas pipeline and the proposed Alaska-Yukon rail link during his opening speech at a dinner in Harper’s honour Wednesday evening.
He also raised it with Harper during their private discussions, he said.
But while Fentie’s efforts fit nicely within Harper’s worldview, benefits for the Yukon do not appear on the immediate horizon.
Following Harper’s visit, both the pipeline and rail link remain lower on Ottawa’s priority list than the Yukon’s.
“The government of Canada has a keen interest in seeing resource development in this part of the country,” Harper said, during a press conference Wednesday.
“We believe that northern resources are going to become ever more critical, not just to this region, but to the country’s strategic and economic development in years to come.”
But while Harper was interested in discussing the proposed pipeline with Fentie, he said, he balanced his comments with doses of reality.
Indian and Northern Affairs minister Jim Prentice is hoping to strike a deal on the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline in the Northwest Territories in “a couple of months,” Harper said.
“I think that’s the first step in moving natural gas south into the more populated markets of North America,” he said.
“And then, obviously, we’ll deal with the Alaska question.”
The Alaska Highway pipeline has been on the table since the late 1970s and is currently an election issue for Alaskan Governor Frank Murkowski.
But the project is “more complicated” than the Mackenzie project because of approval processes in Alaska, Harper said.
“At the moment, there really isn’t a feasible proposal on the table,” he added.
“That will be developed in the years to come.”
Asked if the Canadian government anticipated providing funding for the proposed Alaska-Yukon rail link any time soon, Harper avoided commitments.
“We’re first of all going to wait for the results of the study,” he said.
“It’s a feasibility study, and obviously we’ll be considerably guided by the recommendations in the study itself.”
More likely than more pipelines and railways arriving in the North is an increased military presence and more surveillance hardware.
The Yukon will receive a small portion of the proposed increases, Harper said.
“There has been some plan to ship some of Northern Command into this part of the North, although it will primarily be located elsewhere,” he said.
While he avoided specific commitments during a speech that advertised the Yukon’s travel destinations to a room full of Yukoners, Harper did commit to an interest in building infrastructure here.
“We want the world to know the amazing opportunities in the North, and our government wants to put in place the infrastructure necessary to take advantage of them,” he said, at the Convention Centre.
Fentie and Harper met for a “lengthy” talk on Yukon issues in the cabinet office, Fentie said.
“I felt very encouraged in my discussions with the prime minister,” he said.
As well as his push for infrastructure to help with Arctic sovereignty, Fentie raised the Yukon concerns about its fiscal relationship with Ottawa, closing the social gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal citizens, and the “golden opportunity” for increased scientific research into climate change in the territory.