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NDP Leader Jack Layton, flanked by Western Artic MP Dennis Bevington, left, and Edmonton-Strathcona candidate Linda Duncan, expresses concerns about oilsands development as he campaigns in Fort Smith, N.W.T., on Monday. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

NDP Leader Jack Layton says he wants to stop any further expansion of oilsands development in Alberta, at least until a plan is in place for oil companies to restore the surrounding land and water.

Layton made his announcement Monday morning in Fort Smith, N.W.T., on the banks of the Slave River, after flying over the oilsands upstream in northern Alberta.

Speaking to about 100 people standing in the rain, Layton accused the oil companies of polluting waterways and putting human health at risk — and said Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives let the oil companies do it.

"The federal government has responsibilities that it is refusing to follow through. We've got fisheries, we've got transboundary air issues, we've got aboriginal health issues. The list is quite long of federal responsibilities, and Mr. Harper's walking away from it," Layton said.

"We understand that he doesn't believe in government being involved — just let the big companies do whatever they like and somehow everything will work out fine," he added.

"But I think most Canadians know that the big oil and gas companies can't be trusted."

Layton's remarks were received enthusiastically by some residents in Fort Smith, a town of 2,400 on the Alberta-N.W.T. border.

Many in the community say they wonder whether their water is safe to drink, given the petroleum development happening upstream.

Economic impact would be 'devastating': Prentice

Tory Industry Minister Jim Prentice, the MP for Calgary North, dismissed Layton's proposed moratorium as "unrealistic and irresponsible in terms of the overall health of the country's economy."

Noting that the oilsands are expected to generate $100 billion in economic investment by 2020, Prentice said oilsands projects will generate employment both inside and outside Alberta through spinoff benefits in capital market investments and the creation of jobs in other provinces.

"To suggest a moratorium … it would have a devastating effect on economic development," said Prentice.

Layton's arguments may not play well among voters in Alberta, where much of the wealth and economy are built on the oilsands.

Layton singled out Imperial Oil's $8-billion Kearl oilsands proposal, which he said received "fast-tracked" approval from the federal government earlier in 2008.

Imperial Oil has since decided to delay the project near Fort McMurray, Alta., citing design revisions and a successful challenge by environmentalists. It is now aiming to decide by the first quarter of 2009 on whether to go ahead with the project.

On the way to the Northwest Territories, the NDP campaign plane swooped low over the tarsands for a bird's-eye view of the approximately 47,832 hectares of land stripped by development.

Layton said further projects should be suspended until carbon emissions are capped and there are significant plans to deal with the environmental and health impacts of the strip-mining.

Layton's first campaign stop was a rally in Calgary on Sunday, only a few blocks from Harper's constituency office. NDP strategists know they aren't expected to make gains there, but they maintain the symbolism is important.

In an interview with a local television station, Layton criticized subsidies to the oil industry but praised the city's record on alternative energy sources, including wind power.

The NDP leader also bluntly told supporters that Harper "does not deserve to be re-elected, not in Canada and not here in Calgary."

Former chief urges citizens to speak out on water

Layton's trip north Monday came on the heels of two recent conferences on northern water quality. The most recent conference wrapped up Thursday in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., while another conference took place in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., in August.

Former Dehcho First Nations grand chief Herb Norwegian, who attended the conference in Fort Good Hope, said now is the best time to speak up on northern water issues.

"If you have candidates from the federal parties coming to your door, you need to be putting the water issue right up front  and telling them exactly how you want water dealt with," he said.

"This is probably the only opportunity that you have."

With files from the Canadian Press