North

Trudeau defends Arctic drilling ban, talks economic development at Yellowknife town hall

A packed gymnasium in Yellowknife lobbed questions at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday morning, who addressed Northern economic development and a controversial Arctic drilling ban during his first town hall event in the territories.

'We need to work together to ensure we are opening many more doors of economic opportunity' PM says of ban

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a town hall meeting in Yellowknife on Friday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A packed gymnasium in Yellowknife lobbed questions at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday morning, who addressed Northern economic development and a controversial Arctic drilling ban during his first town hall event in the territories.

Hundreds of people packed into the DND gym at the Yellowknife Multiplex to take part in the town hall. The event was opened by a prayer by Yellowknives Dene Chief Edward Sangris, who said prior to the event that he was hoping to get face time with Trudeau during his short visit to Yellowknife, rather than "sit up front and smile" at the town hall. 

Early on, Trudeau fielded a question from Tuktoyaktuk mayor Darrel Nasogaluak, who asked how the federal government would help create economic opportunities in the Beaufort Delta in the wake of a moratorium on licences to drill for oil and gas in Arctic waters.

The move has proved controversial, with premiers from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut decrying a lack of consultation with locals

Trudeau justified the ban by speaking about the risks of Arctic drilling, saying that "quite frankly, it has never been determined that it can be done safely.

"We make decisions based on science," he said. "And that's why we're working with the North, with communities, with the premier, with scientists, to establish the framework so that we can evaluate every five years... to make sure that moratorium is still relevant. But what we've done now is we're starting from a place where the ocean and the Arctic ecosystems will be protected by default.

"We've closed one door of potential economic opportunity. We need to work together to ensure that we are opening many more doors of economic opportunity."

Questions on elder care, electoral reform, anti-Islamophobia motion

During the town hall, Trudeau was asked about Motion M-103, a bill introduced by a Liberal MP designed to condemn Islamophobia and track incidents of hate crime against Muslims. 

Trudeau said fundamental rights and freedoms are enshrined in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but that individual rights must be balanced with others in our society. 

"You're not allowed to call 'Fire!' in a crowded movie theatre and call that free speech," he said.

Trudeau also gave his longest answer yet on his abandoned promise to implement electoral reform, saying that preserving national unity was more important than triggering a debate on the prospect.

Trudeau spoke during a town hall in Yellowknife today 1:12

"I know people will be disappointed," Trudeau said, over boos from the crowd. "This was my choice to make and I chose to make it with full consequence of the cost that is possibly going to come to it. But I will not compromise on what is in the best interest of Canada."

The prime minister also fielded a question from Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, who questioned him on a lack of funding for elder care in the health care deal recently signed with the territories.

"We have 258 people who will need long-term care beds at the high end of that continuum in the next 10 years," said Green, noting that the government had pledged just over $6 million for home care services. "So what you have given us is not adequate to our needs."

Trudeau responded by touting the government's investments in home care and mental health services, before acknowledging that " few places face more stresses than rural, remote and Northern communities, with health care impacts.

"It is unacceptable that young mothers in the North have to be flown south to deliver their babies. These are things that we need to address," he said.

"The solution isn't just to throw more money at the problem. We also have to look at how we're improving our systems. How we're supporting more nurse practitioners. How we're using telehealth. So that we can reduce costs overall for our systems, so that for the people who have the most needs, the money is there."

Trudeau was in Iqaluit Thursday, where he met with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami leaders and Premier Peter Taptuna before attending a community event at Inuksuk High School.

There are no plans for a visit to Yukon. Trudeau met with Premier Sandy Silver and MP Larry Bagnell in Ottawa on Wednesday.

CBC's Mitch WilesHilary Bird and Loren McGinnis tweeted live from Trudeau's town hall. Read our blog replay below

with files from Juanita Taylor, Hilary Bird, Loren McGinnis