More than a hundred people packed the Katimivik Room in the Explorer Hotel Sunday afternoon for a chance to meet Justin Trudeau and snap a selfie with the charismatic politician. More than a political rally, the gathering had the air of a celebrity meet-and-greet.
Liberal buttons were handed out and Yellowknife’s two would-be Liberal candidates, Kieron Testart and Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins, were there to shake hands. But for the most part, Trudeau simply mingled with the buzzing crowd. There were no security guards in sight and his handlers were two young men in their 20s or early 30s.
Trudeau’s Northern tour – with stops in Inuvik, Yellowknife and Iqaluit – is being touted as an opportunity for the Liberal leader to meet Northerners and hear their concerns.
“I know we have a prime minister who does a lot of talking about the North and a regular visit every year, but I tend to disagree with him a small quibble,” Trudeau said during a ten-minute speech. “I don’t think you can come and understand the North unless you come and listen to and meet with and hear from the people who choose to live here.”
In many ways, the event seemed like an exercise in branding, setting Trudeau’s accessibility, to the public and the media, in contrast with Stephen Harper’s isolation. As such, it was big on charm, though fairly short on Northern policy particulars.
The following is a combination of questions asked during the public session, the media scrum and a brief one-on-one interview EDGEYK.com did with Trudeau.
What would a Liberal government do to address the cost of living in the North?
One of the things we’ve been very clear about is the need for the federal government to become a much more active partner with municipalities and provincial and territorial governments on infrastructure. There’s a massive infrastructure deficit right across the country and the federal government is, quite frankly, the only level of government with room to invest. With interest rates as low as they are, we should be building capacity right now that will allow for growth in the future. That’s particularly housing, but also transportation and social infrastructure, whether it’s schools or hospitals.
On energy prices, that’s certainly something to monitor. There’s got to be better solutions than flying diesel in by helicopters. We need to look at micro generation and renewables in places where that makes sense. But we also have to understand that there are some places that are going to be paying an awful lot for energy and should get some support.
Would a Liberal government raise the Northern Living Allowance?
I have heard a number of people talk about this. Obviously we’re facing an election in which we don’t have the $13-billion surplus that the Liberal Party last had in power. We need to make smart decisions about what we can do to encourage people to succeed right now, but also build long-term growth that’s going to allow for the kind of programs Canadians need. That’s a very careful tight rope we’re going to walk because the Liberal Party is committed to fiscal discipline but also to giving people the support they need.
Would you overhaul the Nutrition North program if the Liberals get into power?
The best way to do that will be informed by both successes and mistakes of the past. I’m not going to short circuit a process that has been triggered by the Auditor General’s report, because, quite frankly, the Conservative government wouldn’t share the successes or lack thereof of Nutrition North. Now we’re just reacting to what we heard anecdotally for a long while, but what we’ve now seen as being an abject failure by this Conservative government to actually deliver the right policy for Canadians in the North.
You spoke about opportunities that you believe are coming to the North. What are those opportunities?
There’s a need for continued mining and fossil fuel exploration. I was talking with [former NWT premier] Nellie Cournoyea, they’re looking towards offshore rights … As climate change becomes a reality, more resources are going to become available, the Northwest Passage will be a reality, these are things we have to get ahead of with a strong vision and a real presence, and right now we’re simply not there.
And for me, even though [natural resources] will always be an element of a strong Northern economy, there needs to be a lot more than that. The world-class research institutes we’re establishing – I visited the Aurora Institute in Inuvik and talked about some of the great polar and northern sky exploration they’re doing – there are a lot of initiatives I am really interested in which involve drawing high quality people up here and building great lives for them.
You spoke about taking a different approach to resource development. Would the Liberals reverse the Conservative changes to the Fisheries Act and other laws and policies intended to provide environmental oversight?
One of the reasons we’re having so much trouble on the world stage, getting our resources to markets and having markets like the United States refuse to approve projects like the Keystone XL is because they’ve seen we’ve shaved away at our environmental protection and that’s not what people want to see. Whether you’re going to the store and choosing to buy organic or local, consumers are much more discerning about the providence of anything they buy. Why should countries be any different in terms of the energy resources they’re getting?
There were arguments made by the Conservatives that don’t hold a tremendous amount of water with me, in terms of streamlining and efficiency. I won’t commit to reversing everything … [But] integrating a strong economy and an environment that’s protected and sustained is at the centre of what we need to do.
Under the Conservatives, a considerable amount of power has been devolved to the territory. What’s the Liberal take on devolution?
Devolution is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean hand off and walk away. The federal government will always have a role to play. What we see, unfortunately, whether it’s with provincial premiers or territorial leaders, is this government doesn’t play nice, it doesn’t engage, doesn’t consult. It basically hands things off and says don’t talk to me, I’ll write you a cheque. That’s not the approach that makes Canada a strong confederation, that’s not what we need. We need leaders that actually do meet and engage with all orders of government and understand that different orders of government serve the same citizens.
A lot of Aboriginal groups felt disenfranchised by the devolution process. Do you think devolution could have been done differently?
We’re in a climate right now where Aboriginal Canadians are feeling disenfranchised in general in their relationship with a federal government that hasn’t demonstrated a willingness to even respect or partner or consult adequately on big decisions. If we were to do it again, I’d certainly hope for a lot more partnership … [that] Aboriginal voices are folded into an issue that concerns them so intimately.
What is the Liberal Party’s stance on a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women?
The Liberal Party has been unequivocal, we need a national public inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women. You’ll hear push back from people who say we already know what the problem is, we don’t need an inquiry. First of all, we don’t know what the solutions are, or else they’d already be in. And if we do know what the solutions are and haven’t brought them in, then shame on all of us and we need an inquiry to spur us into action … [It’s] something Canada needs to do if it’s going to be the country we know it to be in our hearts.
The Conservatives have been trying to promote sovereignty through increased military and coast guard presence in the North. Does the Liberal party support this kind of approach?
Those are important elements of it, but ultimately sovereignty happens through strong vibrant communities of people who live here and have lived here for generations. That kind of support, whether it’s programs like Nutrition North, proper healthcare and healthcare practitioners, a mental health strategy, and kinds of supports for education … is the best way of guaranteeing that we’re going to actually have continued sovereignty in the North.
Questions and responses have been edited for readability.