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Too early to tell

Northerners waiting to see what cabinet shuffle will mean

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 09/02) - Another cabinet shuffle in Ottawa has some Northerners annoyed, frustrated and wondering when - or if - they will ever see any money for infrastructure.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced this week that he was shifting the portfolio for the $2 billion federal infrastructure program from Deputy Prime Minister John Manley to Industry Minister Allan Rock.

It's the second time the program's portfolio has been swapped among federal cabinet ministers since this March.

"They keep switching responsibilities here. Are we ever going to get down to doing something?" asked Bill Aho, co-chair of the NWT Business Coalition, a group of citizens and politicians who have already travelled twice to Ottawa this year lobbying for the cash.

The NWT is asking for $133 million of the pot, money which would be used to build bridges and upgrade roads in the territory.

Finance Minister Joe Handley had already met with Manley to discuss the fund. However, he also met once with Rock, and said the minister "listened very attentively to the explanation we had and was certainly interested. But at the time it wasn't his responsibility, so he was taking it more for information."

Handley said it's too early to tell whether the shuffle will benefit the North.

"Right now, does it help us, hinder us, anything? I don't know, it's sort of impossible to read that," he said.

And there is no indication when a funding decision might be rendered.

"Some people are speculating the prime minister may make some announcements this summer or early this fall - I just don't know," said Handley. "If I had my druthers, I'd like to hear before we get a long ways into our business planning for the next fiscal year."

Chretien has already expressed his support for the NWT petition, in a letter he wrote this June. In the politics of Ottawa, support from high places is invaluable, said Aho.

"The prime minister has a love for the North and the Northwest Territories. ... We know Mr. Rock is a strong supporter of the prime minister, so it may translate into a benefit for us," he said.

In the meantime, the NWT Coalition intends to keep pressing the feds for the cash. Another lobbying trip has already been planned for sometime around the end of October or the beginning of November.

Yellowknife Mayor Gord Van Tighem said the most important thing is simply to maintain steady pressure on the federal government.

"The key thing with dealing with Ottawa is that at the point in time there's a decision, you have to be one of the more recent people that was talking to them," he said. "So you maintain the contact and maintain the priority of your program."