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Martin promises search and rescue planes for the North

Paul Martin and Jack Layton finally wrote back.Late last week, the leaders of the federal Liberal and New Democratic parties replied to a December…

Paul Martin and Jack Layton finally wrote back.

Late last week, the leaders of the federal Liberal and New Democratic parties replied to a December letter from Canada’s three northern premiers.

The premiers outlined federal funding for the North, a strategy for northern development, devolution and land claims and aboriginal issues as areas that “will have significant implications as we work towards building a stronger Canadian federation.”

These days, Martin and Layton even lag behind Conservative leader Stephen Harper in their response to the North — the letters arrived in Whitehorse a week after Harper’s letter of January 6.

But, overall, the letters offer few differences in federalist approach to the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Not surprisingly, the three parties agree: the territories face unique challenges and require special funding arrangements to meet them.

“There is no denying that the federal government’s relationship with the people of the North is distinct and dealing with the very important issues that face our northern communities is crucial to the future success of our country as a whole,” said the letter from Martin, dated January 13.

“Your letter notes that there are now clear precedents for recognizing the unique circumstances of the three northern territories in federal-provincial-territorial agreements,” said the letter from Layton, dated January 14.

“New Democrats acknowledge the success of the territorial premiers in convincing your provincial colleagues that territorial financing agreements must incorporate a base amount along with per-capita allocations.”

The federal leaders agree, in principle, that base-plus-per-capita funding arrangements with Ottawa are needed in order to keep the economies of the three territories afloat.

A similar arrangement is needed to bring a national child-care plan to the territories, said Layton.

“We understand that Canada has been slow to offer anything more than per capita allocations when it comes to financing child care,” said Layton.

“It seems evident to us that the federal government must change its approach if there is to be meaningful financial assistance for child care in the North.”

Harper acknowledged the “development needs” of northern youth, but made no other promises beyond his party’s pledge of $1,200 per child under age six, to be given to parents as taxable income.

Although Martin didn’t mention child care, he had the advantage of listing multi-million dollar investments the government has made for its “northern strategy.”

Martin mentioned $90 million over five years for “northern economic development in the three territories,” and $4 billion to clean up “contaminated sites” in the North.

And Martin was the only leader to list climate change as a pressing matter for Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

“The impact of climate change is already far more pronounced in polar regions than elsewhere,” he said.

“As shrinking ice cover leads gradually to a commercially viable Northwest passage, our government is committed to establishing a stronger presence in the North through means of increased economic development, an enhanced defence presence and increased surveillance of our northern frontier.

“To this end, a Liberal government will base four of our soon-to-be-acquired new search-and-rescue aircraft directly in the North — two in Yellowknife and two in Iqaluit.

“We will also create Arctic search-and-rescue patrols made up of specially trained Canadian Rangers.”

Harper’s Arctic sovereignty plan, briefly mentioned in his response to the northern premiers, includes search-and-rescue aircraft in Yellowknife as well as three armed icebreakers near Iqaluit, a deep-water dock, an army training facility, more personnel and an underwater surveillance system.

The three leaders agreed to support the devolution process that has begun in the Yukon but has yet to begin in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

“Our public support for land claims and devolution in the territories has been consistent and unwavering, in this election campaign and for the past three decades inside and outside of Parliament,” said Layton.

None of the federal leaders plan to visit Yukon before election day on January 23, although Layton visited Yellowknife in December.

Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie has not endorsed any party.

“We would hold any federal government, regardless of party, to account for commitments made,” said Fentie.

“These commitments have no political boundaries in them whatsoever. They are a fact of life in the country, ensuring that the North and the Yukon specifically is taking its rightful place in this federation.”