Yukon College now knows a little more clearly how much money it will be getting from the federal government to help run its Centre for Northern Innovation in Mining.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in Whitehorse on Monday that the feds will contribute $5.6 million over four years to the program. The press conference, held at Quantum Machine Works, kicked off the prime minister’s eighth annual northern tour.
“To realize the promise of the North we must act. Sustained prosperity in the mining industry requires the following things: Efficient and effective regulatory regimes, the best technology, the most innovative methods, and a highly skilled workforce,” Harper said.
The money itself isn’t new. Yukon College got the news in March, when the funding was included as a line in the 2013 federal budget. But the school didn’t know exactly how much it was getting, or when.
College president Karen Barnes said at the time that the college’s proposal had been for $30 million over a number of years. The $5.6 million will go towards training local students to work in the territory’s mines. The program has already graduated its first successful class. The centre has a new mine-training simulator to teach students how to pilot heavy machinery underground, and a new mobile trades trailer, which can deliver trades-specific training in Yukon communities.
In its first five years, the mining program is expected to produce 520 trades, mining and apprenticeship graduates, plus 710 students completing shorter non-credit courses, such as safety training.
When asked how these new grads could expect work with two of the three territory’s mines either shutting down or laying off workers, Harper said having local labour will help reduce operating costs and help keep the mines profitable, and open.
“Obviously there is fluctuation in metal prices, that is normal. But what has occurred in the layoffs of one in particular really has been because of the lack of available labour in the Yukon, and the extremely high costs that are imposed on mining companies by the necessity of flying people in from a distance,” Harper said.
Harper also said he plans to ask the Governor General to prorogue Parliament until after a new throne speech in October.
“There will be a new throne speech in the fall and obviously the House will be prorogued in anticipation of that. We’ll come back in October, that’s our tentative timing,” Harper said on Monday.
Prorogation is a common tool for prime ministers with a majority in the House of Commons, and it often occurs just over half-way through a majority term. It formally ends a parliamentary session and allows for a new speech from the throne to set or adjust the government’s planned direction for the next couple of years.
It has been used without rancour by majority prime ministers of all political stripes to help steer the priorities of Parliament. Harper, however, stirred heated controversy in the past when he used prorogation to shut down Parliament in 2008. Critics accused him of using the tool improperly to avoid a threatened vote of non-confidence by the opposition, which would have triggered an election.
He also used it in 2009, with the opposition accusing him of ducking difficult questions about the Afghan detainee scandal. This week, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said Harper is at it again, trying to avoid answering questions about the Senate spending scandal.
At a speech to about 150 party supporters at the Northfork farm off the North Klondike Highway on Sunday, Harper had touted what he said were 84 fulfilled election promises of the 100 his party made during the last election. The rest, he explained on Monday, can be tackled after a new throne speech sets up the priorities for the rest of this tenure.
“We will obviously have still some things, still some unfulfilled commitments to work on. The No. 1 priority for this government, I do not have to tell you, is on jobs and the economy,” Harper said.
He also took a moment to assure the crowd that he will lead the party in the next election.
“The answer to the last question is, of course, yes. I’m actually disappointed that you felt the need to ask that,” he said, raising a chuckle from the audience.
The party supporters weren’t the only ones at the farm on Sunday.
Outside the gates, and kept well away from the Tory barbecue, a dozen protestors waved signs, held banners and beat drums.
Some protesters, like Werner Rhein, opposed what he fears is a government plan to push for hydraulic fracturing and a cozy relationship between the Harper government and energy giant Halliburton.
“We don’t want him coming here with his dirty Halliburton jobs,” said Rhein.
Half of the protesters were from the Idle No More movement, who sang and drummed, calling attention to the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.
There have been a number of recent suspicious deaths of aboriginal women in Toronto. In response, Canadian premiers, including Yukon’s Darrell Pasloski, have agreed to push for an inquiry into these and similar deaths across the country. Harper has yet to make such a commitment.
“It would be nice to see this government announce this initiative and make a firm commitment towards our First Nations women,” said protest organizer and Liberal supporter Cherish Clarke.
But Clarke wasn’t hopeful that Harper would heed her group’s concerns, or that he would be willing to consider aboriginal Canadian issues more broadly.
“I’m feeling really disheartened by that. During the Assembly of First Nations annual general meeting, there was a noticeable absence. I know that (Aboriginal Affairs Minister) Bernard Valcourt is here today, and it’s too bad that the Conservatives didn’t come to the (annual assembly) to deal with the nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations people,” Clarke said.
“Just like when there was a protest last year in Carcross, Stephen Harper will blow by here and won’t even acknowledge that we’re here,” she said.
And Harper did just that, rolling past the protest without stopping, in a column of black SUVs with tinted windows, flanked by RCMP trucks with a police dog barking from a window.
Once inside the perimeter at the farm, Harper took the chance to blast the opposition parties, accusing them of “dangerous ideas” while promising that the Conservative government will continue to push for more resource and economic development in the North.
He also spoke about the Conservative bill to change the Not Criminally Responsible legislation.
“We all remember incidents, awful incidents, where people who have done terrible things but were not held to be criminally responsible through mental illness showed up in the very community where their victims lived. Nobody was warned. This is not acceptable and it is finally being fixed, just like we fixed the right to citizens arrest,” Harper said.
He did not take any questions from the press on Sunday, preferring to wait until the press conference on Monday.
Harper’s staff limited reporters’ questions to four, allowing only one from local media.
Radio reporter Tim Kucharuk from CKRW asked why Harper wouldn’t use the mining downtime to focus on social issues like the call for an inquiry into missing aboriginal women.
“It’s our strong belief that there has been a lot of study of this particular issue, and we have taken a number of steps to deal with this,” Harper said.
Though he did not address the question of an inquiry directly, Harper said the focus should be on protecting all Canadians.
“We think that what is important is that we look for ways of taking action, not just for missing and murdered aboriginal women but more broadly. It’s about securing safe streets and communities,” he said.
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