Harper wraps up election-style Arctic tour

WHITEHORSE, Yukon (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrapped up an Arctic tour on an environmental note on Friday, denying that his campaign-style journey across Canada was a tune-up for a possible election campaign later this year.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) meets with local Inuit along with the Premier of Nunavut Eva Aariak (C) after arriving in Pangnirtung, Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic August 20, 2009. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Harper, who promoted sovereignty as well as military and economic themes in the five-day trip across the Far North, was in the Yukon to sign a deal for the federal government to help fund expansion of a dam and transmission line that will reduce the western territory’s dependence on diesel generators.

But like all of the tour’s earlier funding announcements, the hydroelectric upgrade, worth up to C$71 million ($66 million), was already in this year’s federal budget, making the visit largely symbolic with a scenic background for photos.

Harper flew on a military transport plane to the tiny town of Mayo about 325 km (200 miles) north of Whitehorse where he toured the facility by air and pushed a button to briefly increase the flow of water through a dam spillway.

His northern journey has ostensibly been to emphasize Canada’s Arctic sovereignty claims -- notably over the fabled Northwest Passage sea route. But its staged events and daily messages aimed at a domestic audience seemed more like a tune-up for a fall election.

Harper has said he does not want to have an election any time soon, but opposition Liberals have threatened a motion of non-confidence when Parliament returns next month, aiming to bring down the minority Conservative government.

“I travel constantly, have always traveled constantly... our focus is on governing this country,” Harper said, denying

suggestions that this was a pre-election campaign tour.

“I have not met a single Canadian, a single real person out there, who is telling me that we should be fighting an election,” he said.

Harper took a similar trip to Canada’s Far North nearly a year ago shortly before he called an election that the Conservatives won with a second minority government.

An opinion poll released Thursday showed the Conservatives still slightly ahead of the Liberals, though neither of the two main parties would have a clear chance of victory if an election were held now.

The environment has been seen as a potential weakness for the Conservatives, whose power base is in the oil-rich western province of Alberta. Critics say the government has not done enough to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, an allegation Harper denies.

The expansion of the Mayo hydro facility’s generating capacity and a related electrical transmission system is forecast to reduce Yukon’s need for diesel-powered generators by more than 40 percent, according to the government.

Ottawa will pay for its share of the C$160 million project from its C$1 billion Green Infrastructure Fund, designed to help pay for large environmental projects.

The public utility in the eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut, where Harper began his trip, also wants help replacing its aging diesel generators. Ottawa has rejected that call, saying funding power projects was the territorial government’s responsibility.

($1=$1.08 Canadian)

Editing by Chris Wilson