IQALUIT, Nunavut – Stephen Harper talked economic growth and the merits of seal meat during his Arctic tour Tuesday, but his message was blunted by a communication bumble and a heart-breaking photo.
The prime minister kicked off the second day of his five-day trip by officially rolling out a long-promised northern development agency to funnel business support and infrastructure cash.
Harper said the agency, known as CanNor, will put an end to economic decision-making in southern office towers on northern development.
It will have a budget of $50 million over five years and will be headquartered in Iqaluit, with regional offices in Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
In an apparent bid to avoid detracting from their economic message, Harper and his cabinet ate a lunch of raw and boiled seal meat behind closed doors, away from the cameras.
Images of the prime minister chewing on such traditional northern fare risked setting off another bruising international debate among animal rights activists.
Images of Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean eating a raw slice of seal heart during her recent northern tour caused a blistering reaction, particularly in Europe, which recently imposed a ban on Canadian seal products.
Still, Harper seemed happy to defend the hunt as an important northern way of life in public – even if he wanted to keep the lunch private.
“The government support for the sealing industry is well known,” he said.
“The standards in this industry are better quite frankly than the standards of other industries that deal with animal products. There is no reason the seal industry should be singled out for discriminatory treatment by Europeans or any other nation.”
Staff said it was the first time Harper tried seal meat and he enjoyed it.
The premier of Nunavut called the meal an important political statement.
Harper said locating CanNor in a place where the economic challenges – including homelessness and youth unemployment – are greatest only makes sense.
As if to highlight the problems plaguing the North, a photograph of two young boys sleeping outside a grocery store in Iqaluit on the eve of Harper’s visit received national media attention.
It was described as an “embarrassment” by one of the community’s councillors. Glenn Williams said it’s indicative of the social challenges the area faces, particularly drug and alcohol addiction.
He said the business development is welcomed because it means the North is finally getting what the south has long taken for granted, but the community also has an urgent need for addiction treatment centre.
Harper said the photo depicts a “terrible, tragic story.”
“I think … it pains all our hearts when you see that kind of story. I think it would be naive for us to believe … that this is an isolated story, either here in Iqaluit, in Nunavut, or frankly anywhere else in the country.
“We believe obviously the first and most important aspect of addressing these problems is economic opportunity.”
The sad photo wasn’t the only political football of the day.
An unfortunate spelling error in a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office had residents of Nunavut alternately chuckling and cringing.
The release repeatedly spelled the capital of Nunavut as Iqualuit – rather than Iqaluit, which means “many fish” in the Inuktitut language.
The extra “u” makes a big difference.
“It means people with unwiped bums,” said Sandra Inutiq of the office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut.
“It’s not exactly a nice term.”
The Prime Minister’s Office was apologetic, calling the gaffe a human error that might teach Canadians an important lesson about spelling mistakes.
“Hopefully this unfortunate typo, which we have corrected, will inform the greater public that there is no (extra) ‘u’ in Iqaluit,” said Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas.
He pointed out that many media outlets have misspelled Iqaluit with an extra “u.” At least three, including The Canadian Press, carried stories or photos Tuesday with incorrect spellings.
Critics have dismissed Harper’s five-day tour as a repackaging of old announcements – something the prime minister dismissed.
“Our government has implemented the most ambitious northern agenda in Canadian history,” he told a crowd assembled at a hockey rink that’s being repaired with federal dollars.
“Through our northern strategy we are forcefully asserting and defending Canada’s sovereignty and security in this region. We are protecting the unique and fragile Arctic environment for generations to come.”
The military enforcement of Ottawa’s claim to the north was on display south of Iqaluit as a mixed force of Canadian rangers and regular force soldiers stormed a beach in a practice amphibious assault.
The landing force embarked from the frigate HMCS Toronto and came ashore in zodiacs with a Sea King helicopter hovering protectively overhead.
Harper is to board the Toronto on Wednesday to observe the ongoing military exercise.