Harper pitches Arctic development

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is using the backdrop of peaking gold prices amid international economic turmoil to sell his vision of economic development in Canada's Far North.

Prime Minister continues 6th tour of North with visit to mining area

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to a young Canadian Ranger before departing Resolute, Nunavut, on his four-day tour of the North. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is using the backdrop of peaking gold prices amid international economic turmoil to sell his vision of economic development in Canada's Far North.

The prime minister Wednesday toured the roaring Meadowbank gold mine near Baker Lake — Nunavut's only operating mine and a symbol of his Conservative government's developmental ethic.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, is greeted by David Aksawnee, the mayor of Baker Lake, Nunavut, as he arrives at Meadowbank, where he toured a gold mine. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Critics have long complained the Harper Conservatives are ignoring climate change and instead rushing to capitalize on a thawing Arctic.

With gold prices hovering near a record $1,900 an ounce, Harper is making no apologies.

Harper,  on Day 2 of his annual week-long northern tour, says the region has a future that will bring long-term jobs and benefits to the North.

"Canada's North is full of economic potential and innovators continue to unlock development possibilities that bring with them real economic benefits and long-term jobs for local residents," Harper said.

310,000 ounces of gold this year

The Meadowbank operation, owned by Toronto's Agnico-Eagle Mines, sprang from the tundra in the last four years and now employs 760 permanent workers. About 450 people are on site 24 hours a day, and will produce about 310,000 ounces of gold this year.

The high Arctic appears on the cusp of a resource boom as countries including Russia, Denmark and Norway rush to exploit opportunities presented by melting sea ice and unprecedented accessibility.

Ian Church, a former federal scientist who served as senior scientific adviser to the Yukon government, is the vice-chair of the board of the Geological Survey of Canada, which received $150 million over five years in federal funding to do geological mapping for energy and minerals.

"I'm the only person that's on the board that comes from a broader perspective than the mining industry or an aboriginal community or some of the other client groups," Church said in an interview from Whitehorse, Yukon.

"I keep saying, in reality what you're doing here has other uses" than mineral and gas exploration.

Church used the example of seismic work in Hudson Bay, which met some local resistance. He said no one understands why the bay actually exists, what created it, or how it will develop in the future.

"So in other words, you're also doing baseline research, even though you might find a target that might be of interest to industry," he noted. "That's not where their mind set is."

"The government has got this economic agenda but often the acquisition of knowledge has many potential applications — and it's not all resource-based."

The Meadowbank mine is 110 kilometres north of the community of Baker Lake up a single-lane gravel road, built by the mine, that is the longest road in Nunavut.

Supplied by summer barge

The entire year's fuel supply and major infrastructure must be brought in by barge during a six- to eight-week window in the summer.

Agnico-Eagle is developing an even bigger gold mine near Rankin Inlet, 250 kilometres east of Baker Lake.

The rise of huge new mining operations will tax the infrastructure of a region desperately short on everything from roads to power.

David Hik, the president of the International Arctic Science Committee and a member of the Canadian Polar Commission, says the rush to develop needs the support of baseline scientific research.

Hik raises the issue of rising energy consumption in the Yukon. If new mines are created, the territory's already maxed-out electricity production must be expanded.

A proposal to create new hydroelectric reservoirs will require detailed, long-term knowledge of precipitation and stream flows, transportation corridors and human impact.

"You just can't say at a moment's notice 'we have to figure out how to measure snow.' Those are long-standing questions."

Whether it's economic development, sovereignty or human development, Hik says the big worry is that because we don't know where things are going in the rapidly changing Arctic, "we can't possibly be making very good decisions without knowing how those things are co-ordinated."

Harper was to fly to Yellowknife later today and will be in Whitehorse on Thursday.