A re-emphasis on existing federal funding for mine training in the North was the focus of Stephen Harper’s message during a visit to Hay River on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister cited his government’s $5.8-million investment in the Mine Training Society (MTS) in his public speech at the Don Stewart Recreation Centre Tuesday morning.
The money was originally set aside in the government’s 2013 budget, part of the Skills and Partnership Fund established to support skills and development training for Aboriginal people across Canada.
After quoting Lord Tweedsmuir, a former Governor General who described Canada’s North as “a great treasure house,” Harper said his government’s goal is to ensure Northerners share in profits earned from treasures buried in the rock under their feet.
“Our government’s commitment is to make sure we open the doors…to Northerners and that all Northerners benefit from this,” he said.
The $5.8-million specifically supports the MTS’ Mine the Future project, which aims to train 400 Aboriginal people from the NWT and Kitikmeot region of Nunavut with the goal of landing them jobs at Northern mines.
The program, delivered by Aurora College campuses across the territory, is 25-months long and began in February 2013. It has yet to be offered at the Aurora College Community Learning Centre in Hay River, but Harper announced that an “Introduction to Underground Mining” is set to begin there next month.
“In order to benefit from Northern opportunities, Aboriginal peoples must have greater access to education and skills training,” he said. “The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the Mine Training Society approach works and it works well.”
Stacie McSwain, a MTS graduate, was included in the photo opp with Harper at Aurora College prior to the event. She said the program was key to her finding employment at the De Beers Snap Lake diamond mine.
McSwain is a 2005 graduate of Diamond Jenness Secondary School in Hay River, and said if it weren’t for the MTS, she would likely have moved south to seek higher education and work after high school. She graduated in 2008 from the Mineral Processing Operator program based in Fort Smith. She now works as a control room operator at De Beers and is one of over 850 MTS graduates who have gone on to find work in the mines, according to the society.
Training Northern Aboriginals to fill an ever-expanding need for skilled workers at mines is crucial to mining success, said Bob Gannicott, chairman and CEO of Dominion Diamond Corp., who was at the event along with other mine representatives.
“It’s a much better proposition for the mining company to use local people, because they’re long-term employees. They’re not just coming to work for you for a couple of years, to put some money away, pay off a mortgage and then they disappear.”
Dominion Diamond Corp. owns 40 per cent of the Diavik diamond mine and purchased the Ekati diamond mine from BHP Billiton in late 2012. Gannicott said labour amounts to about 30 per cent of operating costs for mines in the NWT.
NWT Premier Bob McLeod, in a speech following Harper’s address, said the mining sector “continues to be the most important driver” of the territory’s current and future economy, noting its underground metals and minerals are in demand worldwide, including the largest rare earth deposits found outside of China.
PM’s visit triggers small Idle No More protest
While the Prime Minister’s message appeared to be well received by the crowd, some Hay Riverites took the opportunity to express disappointment with his policies on the environment and with respect to Aboriginal peoples.
Beatrice Lepine was one of about two dozen concerned residents who welcomed Harper’s cavalcade from the side of the highway as he and his entourage were transported to their hotel from the Hay River airport on Monday evening, after landing in a Canadian Forces Hercules plane.
Lepine said many locals are worried that provisions put forward in the C-45 omnibus bill, which are alleged to streamline the environmental review processes and have a negative effect on environmental protection.
She said Northerners are specifically worried about changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which reduce its ability to protect Canadian lakes and rivers from industrial encroachment. Documents obtained by the Canadian Press in February revealed those changes were made following lobbying by the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association in Ottawa.
“There’s an awful lot of…lakes and rivers that make up this watershed and we think it’s important that it have protection,” Lepine said.
She added she does not wish to stand in the way of new jobs in the North, but pointed out the need for a balance between economic gain and environmental stewardship.
“We understand that jobs are important, but our waters are more important than that,” she said.
When asked by local media what assurances he could give Northerners that their natural resources would not be exploited at the expense of traditional lifestyles, Harper said his government has protected more land and marine areas than any in Canadian history through the creation and expansion of national parks and national park reserves.
He also said ensuring proper environmental standards are followed at each step of the resource development process is important to “make sure we avoid the kind of thing we’re dealing with now with the Giant Mine.”
The Giant Mine site, once a large gold mine on the outskirts of Yellowknife, is now plagued by soil contamination due to arsenic used in the gold roasting process. The estimated cost to clean the site currently stands at $903 million – all of which will be paid for by taxpayers.
Harper also faced questions from the media about his recent announcement that he will again prorogue Parliament.
He called the move “completely normal” and insisted the break of Parliament business in Ottawa – expected to last between six to eight weeks – is necessary to “refresh legislation.”
Harper also briefly addressed the Senate spending scandal, saying it is the Senate’s duty to hold senators accountable for their spending of taxpayers’ money.
“There are rules and all senators are expected to follow those rules,” he said.
Harper holds private partisan luncheon
The Hay River visit was Harper’s second stop on his eighth annual Northern tour, after Whitehorse. It was his first trip to Hay River and he thanked Mayor Andrew Cassidy, Chief Roy Fabian and locals for a warm “Northern welcome.”
While in Hay River, Harper and his wife Laureen visited Alexandra Falls, and were joined by federal minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt and Nunavut MP and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq. Yukon Conservative MP Ryan Leef was also in attendance.
Harper’s public appearance was followed by a private Conservative party fundraising luncheon at the Hay River Golf Course hosted by the Western Arctic Conservative Association.
A source told the Northern Journal the Prime Minister gave an “entertaining speech” to the partisan crowd of about 250 people, taking some swipes at NDP Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington before leaving for the airport to fly to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut for an evening appearance.
Bevington took the opportunity to hit back in a following press release that criticized Harper’s tour of wasting millions of tax dollars to re-announce funding promises made last year.
“Photo-ops won’t solve the North’s problems,” Bevington said.