Michael Den Tandt: Days into Harper’s trip, the real problems of the North begin to emerge – by Michael Den Tandt (National Post – August 23, 2013)

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RANKIN INLET, Nunavut — After days of singing the praises of Arctic sovereignty, resource extraction and development, Prime Minister Stephen Harper came face to face here with the stark challenge of catalyzing a 21st Century gold rush in a society afflicted by grinding poverty and social dysfunction. It is a daunting task, with no assured outcomes. What is clear, now, is that the Conservatives intend to try.

Thursday morning the PM appeared before a small crowd to deliver the day’s pre-packaged news — a $100-milion investment in geo-mapping, intended to lay bare the underground riches of the North. The goal is to send geologists fanning out across the Arctic Archipelago, first by air and then on the ground, to create a map that will guide mining firms in their own future explorations.

While he spoke, children played outside on a dirt field, as beat-up pickup trucks and four-wheelers raced along gravel roads, among the modular buildings that make up this hamlet of 2,358. Rankin Inlet, high on the northwest shore of Hudson’s Bay, is one of three regional centres in Nunavut, alongside Cambridge Bay and the capital of Iqaluit.

Though clearly better off than communities further north, Rankin has a developing-world feel — right down to the choking dust and chaotic traffic. Respiratory ailments, one resident told me, are rife, particularly among the elderly.

The unemployment rate is 13.5% — twice the national average. In some communities it’s as high as 80%. The rate of reported violent crime against family members is eleven times the national average, and about 30 per cent higher than in the Northwest Territories, according to the Nuvanut Bureau of Statistics.

Between 1999 and 2011 the territorial homicide rate doubled, to more than twelve times the national average. Nearly 40 per cent of Nunavut’s population of 34,000 is receiving social assistance. The suicide rate is ten times the national average.

Despite this, Inuit and territorial leaders have adopted a cautious line about the prime minister’s visit, welcoming investment while quietly reminding visitors they are grappling with a social crisis right now. Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak told reporters Thursday she welcomed the geo-mapping initiative.

She also noted that Nunavut received a $100-million two-year infusion in the 2013 budget, to build 250 new homes. Aariak added, however, that the territory needs 3,000 new homes to redress its housing shortage, and 90 builds a year for a decade just to “close the gap.”

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