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Northerners hope Martin's tour offers more than just flattering words

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    ... From: Russell Diabo To: Undisclosed-Recipient:; Sent: Monday, August 16, 2004 6:36 AM Subject: Northerners hope Martin s tour offers more than just
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 16, 2004
      ----- Original Message -----
      From: Russell Diabo
      To: Undisclosed-Recipient:;
      Sent: Monday, August 16, 2004 6:36 AM
      Subject: Northerners hope Martin's tour offers more than just flattering words

      Northerners hope Martin's tour offers more than just flattering words

      Steve Mertl
      Canadian Press

      August 15, 2004


      Prime ministers who drop in on northern Canada invariably let residents know how important The North is to Canada's identity, its soul.

      Paul Martin was no different on his five-day tour of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon last week.

      "I wonder about how much Canadians really do know and understand about the North, that area of the country which gives us such an important part of our identity," Martin told Whitehorse residents at a reception for him.

      "We certainly would not be Canada without all of you."

      The question for northerners is whether the high-sounding words amount to more than lip service.

      "There's probably significant symbolism of his travelling to northern people, of course," says former Yukon premier Piers McDonald, who as head of the group organizing the 2007 Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse escorted Martin on a tour of facilities Ottawa is helping to build.

      "Expectations are raised almost immediately."

      Northern residents dream of the day when the territories are no longer federal dependencies.

      Territorial government has evolved, no longer with all-powerful commissioners who could override the legislature.

      But federal money still makes up the largest share of territorial budgets.

      Speaking in the Northwest Territories, Martin promised to speed talks towards a resource revenue-sharing agreement.

      He also sounded receptive to pleas to boost health-care funding, especially in the cost of transporting patients by air from far-flung communities.

      "I very much understand the differences of what it's like to be north of 60 and I understand the greater costs," Martin, who worked in the North as a young man, told reporters in Whitehorse.

      But McDonald, who led the Yukon from 1996 to 2000, says northerners will be watching for follow-through.

      "People are looking for more than broad generalizations," he said.

      Some prime ministers have always had a soft spot for the North, says Flo Whyard, who in half a century of journalism and politics has dealt with her share.

      Pierre Trudeau visited regularly, holding court with local leaders.

      "You could tell him anything," says Whyard, the 87-year-old former editor of the Whitehorse Star and former mayor of the Yukon capital.

      She says Jean Chretien, at least when he was minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, used to have an assistant call up the Star and inquire: "And how are the people in the North? Are they busy? Are they happy?"

      There's a higher level of political sophistication in the North today, says McDonald, or as Whyard puts it, "we're not all idiots up here."

      Cold political arithmetic somewhat limits the region's influence.

      The entire northern electorate wouldn't fill out a couple of mid-sized southern ridings, though McDonald adds "I believe the North still retains a certain cachet with mandarins in Ottawa."

      But it's the North's growing economic importance that may finally give it the clout it's looking for.

      Witness Martin's extensive tour, says Ed Schultz, president of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

      "Yes, there's the Games and there's opportunity to promote the North," he says. "There's unity issues and all that.

      "But we also have to recognize the North is coming into its own in terms of the value of its natural resources."

      In the NWT it's diamonds and energy. The Yukon is also banking on oil and gas development and perhaps a mining revival as world mineral prices improve.

      Schultz says a more attention is being paid.

      "One could surmise that maybe what parliamentarians are doing is saying you maybe need to pay a little more attention to people in the North," he says.

      Martin made a point of stressing his first major tour as prime minister was to the North.

      Flo Whyard didn't meet him, but she knew his father, Paul Martin Sr.

      "I met him during the war when I was in the office of naval information."

      Whyard remembers being stranded with Martin, a longtime Liberal minister whose own leadership dream was swept aside by Trudeaumania, on a snowbound train between Ottawa and Montreal, the cars rapidly chilling.

      "There was this little man, he was sort of wall-eyed, not an exciting looking little man, sitting among all of us in uniform."

      Whyard remembers Martin getting up and starting a singalong to get the soldiers' minds off the cold.

      "He had them all working with him," she says admiringly of his leadership qualities.

      "I don't know if his son's got what his dad had."

      But she hopes Martin Jr.'s passion for the North is genuine.

      "I hope he's really interested. Why wouldn't he be?"

      © The Canadian Press 2004

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