CARCROSS, Yukon — For the first official stop of his summer Northern tour, the prime minister paid a visit to a tourist operation about 45 minutes outside Whitehorse.
In a replica of an old mining town, visitors to the North can play with sled dog puppies and pan for gold.
And while the prime minister did take a few minutes to meet the pups, it’s the gold he’s really after.
“The North’s time has come,” Stephen Harper told a crowd of about 300 Conservative supporters at a rally Monday night.
“I tell people starting to see the activity here, you ain’t seen nothing yet in terms of what’s coming in the next decade.”
Plumping up the Canadian mining and oil and gas sectors to feed resource-hungry countries the world over has become a singular focus of the Harper government. The prime minister refashioned that priority Monday as one belonging to all Canadians.
The North’s untapped wealth is “that great national dream,” Harper said — but Canadians need not sleep any longer.
“It is not down the road. It is happening now,” he said.
The prime minister’s office said there are currently eleven resource projects under environmental assessment, representing $8 billion in investment and 3,000 jobs.
Changing the environmental assessment process to require fewer reviews and limiting their scope was one of the more contentious elements of the Conservatives’ recently-passed budget. Others included changes being made to old age security and transfer payments for health care.
“Not every one of these measures is easy or is popular with everybody,” Harper said in a stump-style speech in a riding captured by the Tories in the 2011 federal election.
“But the reason we do them is they are all in the long-term best interests of this country.”
Of the many places in Canada Harper goes each year, the North is among those where he clearly feels the most comfortable.
That warmth was on display early in the day when he and his wife visited with a group of sled dogs in training. The puppies frolicked about the Harpers as they petted them and quizzed the trainer about their upbringing.
As a Golden Retriever ambled by, Harper joked that it didn’t look much like a sled dog.
It isn’t, the handler admitted, but it does like the attention.
Northerners say they too want more attention from the prime minister.
As Harper addressed the rally, the steady thump of First Nations drums rolled underneath as about 40 protesters gathered outside the venue.
Members of the Carcross Tagish First Nation say they’ve not been treated fairly when it comes to how much federal funding they receive since they became self-governed.
Meanwhile, a group called Yukoners for Democracy were to hold what was billed as a “people’s potluck,” following up on a lunch earlier Monday that organizers had hoped Harper or the area’s Tory MP Ryan Leef would attend.
Yukon resident Tory Russell said she was disappointed she wasn’t able to meet the prime minister face to face.
“I would have asked him why communication with the government is such a one-way process,” she said.
“How come we’re not in a two way dialogue? It doesn’t feel like representative government.”
What Canada’s government is is the envy of the world, Harper said in his speech.
“To succeed, what the world must become in the future is what Canada is today,” he said.
, after taking a swipe at G8 partners in the United States, Japan and Europe and their teetering economies in the face of Canada’s continued success.
Those countries are among many interested in the resources that lie in the North.
Next year, Canada takes over leadership of the Arctic Council and key among the issues it’s facing is whether to allow more countries — including China — to have a seat at the table.
A Chinese icebreaker arrived in Iceland this week after becoming the first Chinese ship to cross the Arctic ocean.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird didn’t appear concerned by the trip.
“The Chinese have an interest in the Arctic. So does Singapore for shipping, so does the European Union,” he told reporters in Ottawa.
“We will engage with others leading up to the Arctic Council meeting in Sweden.”
Harper’s Northern tour this summer will focus mostly on economic and social development.
Monday’s stop in Whitehorse is to be followed by a visit Tuesday to the Minto gold and copper mine and Wednesday, he’ll go to Norman Wells, N.W.T., an oil and gas exploration hub.
He’ll end the tour with a visit with troops taking part in Operation Nanook, the military’s annual summer exercise in the North.
The Conservatives count asserting Canada’s military sovereignty over the Arctic as one of their signature achievements.
But reports suggest the Defence Department doesn’t feel there’s a real military threat in the Arctic and meanwhile, a number of key projects in the region are behind schedule.
A series of new offshore patrol ships aren’t expected to be operational until at least 2018, if not later.
A deepwater sea port announced in 2007 won’t be under construction until at least next year.
Meanwhile, the future of an Arctic satellite project is up in the air.
Outside military commitments, the Conservatives say they’ve invested almost $113 million in economic and social development projects in the North.
They’ve also expanded national park areas in the Arctic, though critics charge those expansions don’t make sense in light of the cuts being made to Parks Canada in the recent budget.
Northerners are also increasingly concerned about the high cost of living in the Arctic and there have been rolling protests in recent months following the introduction of a new federal food subsidy program.