GNWT rejects call for plan to grow population by 25%


The NWT government has formally rejected a call from regular MLAs for a plan to grow the territory’s population by 25 percent in the next 20 years.

Caitlin Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, put forward a motion in June urging the adoption of a strategy that would grow the NWT’s population by a quarter by 2043. The motion was backed by 10 MLAs and opposed by none as cabinet abstained.

The government is given 120 days to respond when such motions are passed.

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In an unsigned, 16-page written response tabled in the legislature last week, the territorial government said, in essence, what regular MLAs usually tell the territorial government: we don’t need another plan.

“The exercise of developing another strategy to encourage population growth will not necessarily provide new answers to the issue of sustainable economic development,” the GNWT wrote.

“Population growth is critical in the North and departments are undertaking a number of projects and programs to support the goal.

“To refocus resources on developing a new strategy would take away from the work currently being done in departments to advance the overarching goal of population growth and economic sustainability.”

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Increasing the NWT’s population is considered desirable for various reasons. Immigration is a key solution to the shortage of workers affecting the territory, but an influx of people also generates a larger federal transfer payment – each year, Ottawa hands the territory cash for each resident it has.

2015 plan didn’t work

If Cleveland’s goal came to pass, the NWT’s population would grow from around 45,000 now to 57,000 by 2043.

In June, Cleveland quoted NWT Bureau of Statistics figures that show 17 of the territory’s 33 communities lost residents in the past year.

Inuvik, she said, had shrunk from 3,600 to 3,300 residents in recent years, while Fort Smith’s population had diminished every year since 2016 and Fort Providence had lost more than 60 people since 2001.

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“Depopulation in our small communities undermines the capacity for local decision-making. It takes away the residents who might staff the local health centre, manage the local waste facility, spearhead grassroots community wellness initiatives, care for ageing Elders, or run for elected office,” she said at the time.

Cleveland said initiatives like student financial assistance, which incentivizes young residents to return to the North after graduating by covering the costs of their tuition, proved the territory could get it right.

“But we need so much more,” she said, outlining a strategy that would aim to build 3,700 new homes in the next two decades, to match the expected influx of more than 10,000 new residents.

In its October response, though, the territorial government said this kind of strategy has been tried before and failed, even with a more modest short-term target.

In 2015, Bob McLeod’s government put in place a plan titled Growing the NWT that sought to add 2,000 people to the territory’s population by 2019.

The plan was quietly dropped some time after the 2015 territorial election. The territory did not come close to achieving that goal, instead growing by around 1,000 people over the same period.

“A new strategy is also unlikely to yield different answers than those provided in Growing the NWT,” the territorial government wrote in last week’s response to Cleveland.

“A strategy to match Canada’s population growth at this time would divert resources from the programs and policies the GNWT is already implementing to make the NWT an attractive place to work, live and invest in.

“It is by focusing on these existing efforts that the NWT can encourage population growth.”