Harper takes environment officials to task in North

Water-quality monitoring stations in the North should never have been ordered closed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says on the last day of his annual Arctic tour.

Decision to close water-monitoring stations wasn't authorized

Prime Minister Harper pauses to meet onlookers outside the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse. (David Croft/CBC)

Water-quality monitoring stations in the North should never have been ordered closed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday on the last day of his annual Arctic tour.

During a visit to Haines Junction, Yukon, Harper was asked about federal cuts in the water-monitoring program in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut that have angered aboriginal leaders and politicians.

Michael Miltenberger, the environment minister in the Northwest Territories, told the legislature this week that the federal Environment Department was closing 21 of 23 stations.

"That was not authorized," Harper told reporters, adding that Environment Minister Peter Kent was reversing the decision made by department officials. None of the stations had stopped operating.

The federal government has cut $100 million from the Environment Department budget.

Harper was speaking at the gateway to Kluane National Park, home of Mount Logan, Canada's highest mountain, and now the recipient of a federally funded visitor centre. Harper took a helicopter ride over a park glacier.

The Haines Junction visitor centre also houses a new cultural centre for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, whose members prepared a feast of moose meat for Harper's visit.

Prime Minister Harper tries on an old hockey helmet as he tours a Yukon hockey history exhibit at the MacBride Museum. Harper's annual tour of the North wraps up Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Chief James Allen said the community was eager to show off the cultural centre to Harper, although some First Nations critics have derided Harper's travels this week as his "political tourism" tour. 

Harper said the centre at the gateway to the national park will boost the local economy and teach visitors about the environment and native people in the region.

He has focused on resource development during the tour and also announced some health funding.

He flew to Whitehorse on Thursday after spending most of the day in Yellowknife, where  he announced $60 million  to extend a program to improve health-care services in Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

The money will keep the Territorial Health System Sustainability Initiative going until 2014, when it will have to be renegotiated.

Health-care a challenge

During a stop at Stanton Hospital in Yellowknife, Harper acknowledged northerners face special health-care challenges, partly because so much of the population is spread out and distant from medical services.

On Harper's arrival in Whitehorse, he visited the MacBride Museum to see an exhibit on Yukon's hockey history, at the suggestion of Dan Lang, the Yukon senator.

"Every time he comes to the Yukon we want him to go back to Ottawa with fond memories of his visits," Lang said.

Harper also spent time with families who lost love ones in the First Air crash last Saturday in Resolute, Nunavut. Twelve of the 15 people on board were killed.

His summer Arctic tour, the sixth since he became prime minister, began in Resolute, Nunavut, where he talked to community leaders and others about the First Air crash.

Harper planned to leave Yukon later Friday and will attend the funeral of NDP leader Jack Layton in Toronto on Saturday.

With files from The Canadian Press