Hay River got its 15 minutes of fame last week when the prime minister touched down at Merlyn Carter Airport on Aug. 19 – and, despite dissenting political views, the overall reaction to Stephen Harper’s visit was one of excitement.
“It was great to have the prime minister and some of the ministers in town,” said Hay River North MLA Robert Bouchard. “Now they know where we are and have a sense of what we do, it will make it easier to go to the table (with the federal government) in the future.”
Bouchard said matters that may be up for discussion include changes to the northern living allowance to make it more affordable to live in the territories, as well as negotiations with the Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation on behalf of the NWT Fishermen’s Federation.
“There are a bunch of issues that we need to take up with the federal government,” he said. “This just makes it a little bit easier to do so. It put us on the national stage and gave us some exposure.”
This week, energy ministers from all over the country are meeting in Yellowknife, an occasion Bouchard sees as yet another opportunity to raise the North’s profile.
“We’re going to use it jumping forward, that national play, and that’s pretty exciting,” he said.
But not everyone was as pleased with Harper’s visit as Bouchard. While K’atlodeeche First Nation (KFN) Chief Roy Fabian said it was a good thing for Hay River, he felt the Hay River Reserve was snubbed in favour of keeping all the events on one side of the river.
“I think the organizers overlooked us,” said Fabian in reference to the Western Arctic Conservative Association luncheon at the Hay River Golf Course on Aug. 20. “They crowded everyone into that golf course and didn’t even think about the (Chief Lamalice) Complex on the reserve.”
Fabian said that kind of decision is “typical” and that it was a shame KFN didn’t get the chance to welcome Harper in their own way.
“Everything on the reserve is government-supported. We have the school, the complex, the treatment centre,” Fabian said. “It would have been good for the prime minister to come and see it.”
Fabian also said he was disappointed in not having been told of the visit until the last minute. While he received an invitation to an event at the Don Stewart Recreation Centre the week before, he was not told what the nature of the event would be.
“Of course, I knew it was Harper,” he said. “But our treaty is with the Queen and the federal government, so there should have been some courtesies observed with the prime minister coming to our traditional territory.”
Fabian, however, did come out in support of the reaffirmed $5.8 million in funding for the Mine Training Society and its programs, saying that anything the federal government could send in support of Aboriginal communities and their capacity to find meaningful work was a good thing.
“I’m not (Harper’s) greatest fan, but I enjoyed listening to him. Overall, the Conservative Party hasn’t been good to Aboriginal people,” he said. “So whatever we can get out of them is good.”
The announcement of continued funding for programs like Mining the Future, part of which is delivered in Hay River, is expected to bring people to the community, as well as jobs and the workers to fill them.
“It’s a great thing for Hay River,” said Fabian. “It will bring a lot of opportunity to the North and to Aboriginal people. Any time you increase the capacity of the people to become employable, that’s a good thing.”
Brad Mapes, a Hay River business owner and proponent for sustainable industry, said he looks forward to learning more about the destination for the funding itself, as well as how best the program can be rolled out in Hay River.
“It’s great to hear it come to our town,” he told The Hub. “It would be great to see if they could use our (Diamond Jenness Secondary School) shop to get more use out of the building…. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the plans.”
Mayor Andrew Cassidy reiterated what he had said at the time of the announcement, that he was pleased to see an investment in training for Northerners in the North and that hopefully it will result in fewer workers being brought in from elsewhere.
Cassidy noted the excitement that took over town when Harper’s plane landed.
“It’s great to hear the reactions from all parts of the political spectrum,” he said. “Some people have really tried to see this visit as an exciting thing that’s good for Hay River, no matter what their personal politics are.”
— Sarah Ladik