The future of Canada’s north was on the agenda last week as federal Conservative Party members from across the country gathered in Ottawa for the party’s National Convention.
The mood was celebratory as party members relished their new majority status in Parliament.
The actions of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government will be guided – at least in part – by the policy decisions of Tory delegates who attended the three-day event. Delegates at the convention debated and voted on policy changes in closed-to-the-media workshops. Hundreds then voted on whether to accept the final cut of amendments on the last day of the convention.
Policy reforms included a resolution developed by the Yukon riding association, calling on the government to work with the territories to assert Canadian sovereignty in the north.
Bigger Military Pressence
Don Cox, a Yukon delegate, said that Canada should establish a bigger military presence in the Arctic to keep countries like Norway from staking a claim.
“We have some presence in terms of the military having small bases in the north – not in the high Arctic, but the north,” said Cox, a Whitehorse-based businessman.
“But [the military bases] are very sparsely manned, and nobody takes them really seriously, because they know that they’re there as just a small gesture or posture. But we need to really get serious about it,” Cox said.
Canada should establish a larger presence in the north by encouraging mining operations, Cox said.
Mining operations are “stymied” by First Nations groups and environmentalists, according to Cox.
“We have a problem with First Nations people who use any avenue that’s possible to … shall we say, fit themselves into the scene in a more meaningful way,” said Cox, who owns a chain of mining supply stores.
“They join with the environmental lobbyists or whoever they are to stymie things again.”
Doug Witty, president of the Tory riding association of the Western Arctic, said the Conservative Party is committed to balancing environmental concerns with job creation.
“In order to have development, there has to be some impact,” said Witty, a Yellowknife-based business owner. “And in order for us to have some jobs in the territories, and for the people in the Northwest Territories to prosper, we have to have some development. So it’s a matter of finding that balanced approach.”
Knocking down inter-provincial barriers
Tory delegates also voted for a resolution calling on the government to work with provinces and territories to remove “artificial barriers to interprovincial and international energy trade.”
“Energy is the largest sector of our economy, and barriers to trade are largely provincial,” said Torrey Swan, a delegate from the Calgary Centre riding.
“Now is the time for our government to facilitate a discussion to solve these problems. This amendment advances our Prime Minister’s worthy objective of building Canada into an energy super-power,” Vitor Marciano, a delegate from Edmonton Centre, said the new policy would help boost the wealth of Canadians.
“This policy resolution makes it clear that we want to work with the provinces to get rid of barriers that are going to stand in the way of marketing our energy resources,” Marciano told delegates.
“Think pipeline, and you should vote for this,” Marciano added, in a reference to the Enbridge pipeline that First Nations groups blocked in BC.
Protestors denounce First Nation policies
Outside the convention centre, protesters denounced the Conservative government, saying the Tories have ignored environmental concerns of Aboriginal people impacted by resource development.
“The Harper government has been one of the worst governments for our peoples,” said Benjamin Powless, a Mohawk activist who spoke at the rally. “The real story is that these mining operations, these tars sands activities are getting in the way of First Nations living out their constitutionally protected treaty and aboriginal rights.”
“Travelling from Fort McKay to Fort Chip, all around Edmonton, and talking with a number of First Nations communities, there’s an extreme amount of concern and frustration and anger with the pace of those activities, and the sense that First Nations are not being listened to,” Powless said.
The government is allowing corporations to pollute Aboriginal territories, causing high rates of cancer in the Fort Chipewyan area, Powless said.
“I know people as young as in their twenties that have gotten cancer. Some have survived. Others unfortunately passed away.”
A handful of the Conservative Party delegates watched the protest unfold from the fourth floor of the convention centre, while more than two thousand people gathered inside the main hall for Harper’s keynote speech.
“Let’s put it this way, the better show’s going to be inside this building than outside,” said Philip Patrick, a delegate from Alberta’s Yellowhead riding.
Harper’s speech – timed to end before a playoff game between the Bruins and the Canucks – lauded the party faithful for helping the Tories win a majority government.
Delegates waved signs bearing the party logo and cheered wildly as Harper told the crowd that Canada is becoming increasingly conservative.
“Conservative values are Canadian values, and the Conservative Party is Canada’s party,” he said.
“Under a strong, stable, national, majority Conservative government, Canada is the best country in the world.”
Riding change resolution divides delegates
The mood of party unity seemed to prevail among delegates throughout the convention.
But division emerged between two factions of the party, led by veteran MPs Scott Reid and Peter MacKay.
The fight was over Reid’s so-called “balanced leadership” proposition, which would have altered the party’s constitution, giving more voting power in leadership races to larger ridings based on their membership numbers.
MacKay told delegates that Reid’s amendment would violate the “equality of ridings” principle, which he said had benefited the party by producing a majority government under Harper.
“It elected our leader,” MacKay said. “Let’s win more majority governments with a system proven to succeed.”
The proposed reform – which was ultimately defeated by delegates in a vote – met opposition from northern riding associations, which stood to lose clout in leadership races.
“It would really create inequity across the country,” said Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq, newly re-appointed as Health Minister – and now Minister responsible for the North.
“I was very pleased to see the resolution was defeated today,” Aglukkaq said.