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Harper departs Yukon on mostly empty stomach

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived in Whitehorse around noon on Wednesday and left eight hours later, leaving behind a filet of Arctic char, about…

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived in Whitehorse around noon on Wednesday and left eight hours later, leaving behind a filet of Arctic char, about 350 guests and $9.5 million for the 2007 Canada Winter Games.

“Canada’s most promising athletes deserve the chance to come to Whitehorse and give it their all,” Harper said, addressing invited guests at the Yukon Convention Centre on Wednesday evening.

“To ensure the games are a phenomenal success, I’m happy to announce $9.5 million in additional funding for the Games.”

But though Premier Dennis Fentie is “very pleased” Harper has committed Ottawa to pay the travel costs for participants in the Games, the so-called new announcement follows a long-standing convention for the Games, said officials.

“The commitment was expected because the federal government routinely provides travel funding for all athletes to the Canada Games,” said Piers McDonald, president of the 2007 Canada Winter Games Host Society, on Thursday.

Harper’s quick stop in the Yukon was part of his first tour of the North — a six-day trip he’s using to sell his push for Canada’s defense of Canada’s Arctic.

“For far too long, Canadian governments have failed to rigorously assert our sovereignty over the Arctic,” Harper said.

“We’ve begun to take action: Some have dismissed this as expensive and unnecessary. To this I say a national government’s first priority is the defense of its borders.”

Canada will now “say what we mean and do what we say” on Arctic sovereignty issues, he said.

Pollution-monitoring flights have started over the Arctic, and more troops, money and military hardware are in the North’s future, he added.

As a backdrop to Harper’s tough talk, dozens of black-suited security guards descended on the convention centre.

Earlier in the day Fentie greeted Harper at the Canada Winter Games Centre to give him a tour of the facility, and show him the athletes’ village at Yukon College and the Yukon Legislature.

A handful of protesters opposed to Harper’s absence from this week’s World AIDS Conference in Toronto also showed up to greet Harper at the Games centre.

“It’s a question of priority for the prime minister,” said Reverend Dave Pritchard, an Anglican priest from Carcross who lived in Africa for 15 years.

“How can you possibly rank a visit to Whitehorse above representing this country at the World AIDS Conference?” he asked.

Health minister Tony Clement and International Co-operation minister Josee Verner both attended the meeting in Harper’s absence.

“The government is represented at the AIDS Conference by at least three cabinet ministers and the governor general,” Harper said, at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

“We will have announcements on further plans we have in the fight against AIDS in the weeks to come,” he said.

“But unfortunately the issue has been so politicized this week that this is not the time for us to make additional announcements.”

About 175 protesters stood outside the Yukon Convention Centre to greet Harper later that evening.

Harper held formal talks with Fentie during the afternoon, discussing the Yukon’s vision for the North, concerns about Arctic sovereignty, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, infrastructure such as the Alaska Highway pipeline and a proposed rail link, as well as climate change and governance issues, Fentie said.

Fentie described Harper as “very personable.”

In Iqaluit earlier this week, Harper announced that a deep-water port to be used by three armed icebreakers, as well as a new military training facility, would be built.

The icebreakers alone will cost Ottawa more than $2 billion.

While the Yukon’s total windfall of about $38 million for the Canada Winter Games comes up comparatively short, money and time spent by Harper in the Yukon aren’t a concern, said Fentie.

“This is not a competition between Yukon, NWT and Nunavut,” he said.

“There are needs in the NWT and Nunavut that are not needs of that degree here in the Yukon because we’ve already dealt with those issues.”

Almost as soon as he arrived, Harper and his men in black got in their GMC Yukon trucks and dashed off for the airport.

Though a dinner of Arctic char and Yukon-grown blue potatoes had been prepared in his honour, Harper left having only sampled the soup.