Q&A: Northern affairs minister on budget, carbon tax, doctrine

Last modified: March 30, 2023 at 12:55pm

Federal northern affairs minister Dan Vandal says the time has “absolutely” come for the Doctrine of Discovery to form no part of Canadian law.

Speaking hours after the Vatican formally repudiated the doctrine, as Indigenous leaders had requested for years, Vandal said he commended the Catholic Church for the step.

Asked whether the Canadian government intended to take action that would strip the doctrine from the country’s legal framework – such as deleting Crown title’s precedence over Indigenous title – the minister stopped short of directly endorsing such a move.


“We are fighting over a century of racism and systemic discrimination. The gaps are so large,” he said.

“We’ve made a small dent in it, but those investments and that partnership have to continue for many years to come.”

Meanwhile, the minister defended this week’s federal budget against suggestions that the North would see little direct benefit from its proposed investments.

Pointing to a grocery rebate of up to $467, a housing credit and billions of dollars being invested into dental care for low-income families, Vandal said his government was pursuing a “whole suite of affordability measures.”

He also insisted that federal changes to the carbon tax – the subject of extraordinary division in the NWT legislature this week – are “not going to cost any families, anywhere in Canada, any more.”


Pressed on northerners’ inability to make the move away from fossil fuels that is the tax’s reason for existence, Vandal said the proposed budget contains “literally billions of dollars of incentives for clean energy” that would include support for the NWT’s Taltson hydro expansion.

“We realize that’s in the North’s future,” he said of an expanded electricity grid.

You can listen to the full interview using the audio player above or read a transcript below.

This interview was recorded on March 30, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Ollie Williams: Here’s a headline from this week: “Federal budget makes little specific mention of the North.” Yukon’s Liberal MP has called this a budget of restraint without many regional wins. How do you respond to that?

Dan Vandal: That’s funny, because there’s many issues that benefit all Canadians. And Yellowknife, of course, Northwest Territories is a part of Canada.

We’ve been talking about affordability measures for a long time with the $10-a-day childcare, the new dental care program we’ve brought out, the Canada Child Benefit that’s lifted 400,000 children out of poverty. We’re continuing with the grocery rebate. We’re going to address a whole series of junk fees, from excess concert fees to other junk fees. We’re making it more affordable for small businesses that use Visa and Mastercard as a way to sell their products – we’ve reached a deal with Visa and Mastercard that is going to save small businesses upwards of 27 percent of the amount they sell on that. So all in all, that benefits all Canadians, including northerners.

Footnotes: Here’s the CBC article mentioned in the question, which includes quotes from Yukon Liberal MP Brendan Hanley.

You mention the grocery rebate – there’s a few hundred bucks in the form of that one-off rebate. There are northerners who might say, “Look, that’s half of one grocery trip up here.” What else are you doing to help people really make ends meet, because that alone, up here? It’s a drop in a bucket.

It’s $467 for a family, which is… it’s something that is noticeable, it’s going to help. The problem is when you’re designing policy for 25 million Canadians, you have to account for that.

I’ve talked about the rebates that we’ve introduced beforehand. $10-a-day childcare, affordable daycare, is going to save Northwest Territories families literally thousands. The dental care program is going to save low-income families hundreds and hundreds of dollars to fix their children’s teeth. We don’t think there should be Canadians who have to choose between fixing their children’s teeth and paying the bills at the end of the day.

The grocery rebate is something that’s a part of our affordability initiative, including of course a very targeted Canada Child Benefit that’s going to go to those that make less, and that’s lifted 450,000 children out of poverty across Canada.

Footnotes: The minister’s figures for the number of children lifted out of poverty by the Canada Child Benefit – 400,000 in the first answer, then 450,000 – appear to derive from a federal measurement suggesting 450,000 children were lifted out of poverty between 2015 and 2020.

As we talk about the cost of living and some of these measures, your government is imposing a carbon tax that literally every territorial MLA says makes no sense given the inability of anyone in this territory to move off carbon-based fuels. Last night, we had the nearest thing in the NWT to a constitutional crisis over a government bill regarding the carbon tax, which nearly became the first government bill to be voted down in goodness knows how long. Why is the federal government not listening to the NWT on this? Why does Ottawa know best?

Well, first of all, I understand yesterday the NWT government voted for a refund, a fee that’s going to be rebated to all families that pay the carbon tax, which is the equivalent of the amount they are paying. So it’s not going to cost any families, anywhere in Canada, any more for the price on pollution.

Footnotes: Here’s our reporting on the carbon tax bill’s passage through the NWT legislature in a 9-8 vote.

It’s not quite as simple as that, minister. What the NWT has voted for is a three-tiered cost-of-living offset system, which depends on where you live in the Northwest Territories, and it replaces a system of 100-percent heating fuel tax rebates that Ottawa has said we can’t have any more. Why not?

Well, I will say this. I’m not going to get too much into what the NWT government voted for, because I’m meeting with the premier – after this, actually – so I want to make sure I fully understand what they voted for. But across Canada, we’ve offered a rebate on the price on pollution, which is the equivalent of what Canadian families pay into. NWT is not going to be any different than that. And I understand there’s an affordability issue here. I understand that. The inflation issue is a very real issue. It’s a real issue for all Canadians.

Footnotes: It’s not yet clear what, exactly, the three-tiered cost-of-living offset system will look like in terms of dollar values. The NWT’s finance minister this week said “the average resident in every community, including the high-cost communities, will not be seeing an increased cost as a result of carbon taxes,” but it’s currently impossible to independently work that out – or calculate the impact on residents who don’t fit the “average resident” model.

But there’s nothing else. We can’t move to hydro in diesel communities. There isn’t any. We can’t move to renewables because no one has the money to do it. So people are being penalized for a system they can’t get off.

As part of the budget, we have literally billions of dollars of incentives for clean energy, including an expanded electricity grid, which will include Taltson. We are working very closely with the NWT government and Indigenous governments on moving forward on Taltson hydro electricity, as we are with Atlin in Yukon, and Kivalliq, and other projects in the North. We realize that’s in the North’s future.

We are working very hard on a whole suite of affordability measures: the housing credit that people living in the North, including NWT, are eligible for. So we are running across a whole suite of affordability initiatives that we think will help the residents of NWT.

Footnotes: Here’s our reporting on what the budget has to say about the Taltson hydro expansion, a proposal NWT governments have chased for decades. The project will need a billion dollars, at least – funding the federal government has strongly suggested it will help the territory to find. But critics have reservations about how useful Taltson will actually be – see, for example, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson’s statement to the House on Wednesday. The other northern energy projects referred to are a hydro expansion in Atlin and a bid to build a transmission line between Manitoba and Nunavut’s Kivalliq region.

We only have you for a couple more minutes. On a separate note, the Vatican this morning repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, which is, of course, huge news for our audience. It’s time now, isn’t it, that the doctrine formed no part of Canadian law?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I commend the Vatican for that move. I think Canadians are starting to realize that our history is one of colonization, is one of racism and discrimination against all Indigenous peoples. Our first actual federal government policy, when Canada was created, was to assimilate Indigenous people and Christianize them. That’s caused much of, all of the hardship that we’re seeing now on the streets with families that need support.

I had the privilege of meeting the Pope in Iqaluit back in August of last year. My message to the Pope was that we needed the Catholic Church to continue to move forward on reconciliation initiatives. I’m very happy this happened this morning, or yesterday, and our government will continue to work with survivors to the end.

Footnotes: Here’s our reporting on the Vatican’s announcement.

There are lots of symbolic things that come from this. But in terms of practicalities, the logical conclusion is that if we really repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, then Crown title stops taking precedence over Indigenous title. What do you think about that? What does the Canadian government intend to do about that?

We are actively engaged in land claims and resolving treaties across Canada. I think it’s clear that Indigenous nations, Indigenous governments have rights to the land. And one of the reasons I’m here, one of the reasons I ran in 2015, was that our government was going to treat reconciliation very seriously. I think we are doing exactly that on a whole range of issues: housing, infrastructure, education.

The problem is the gaps are so large. We are fighting over a century of racism and systemic discrimination. The gaps are so large. We’ve made a small dent in it, but those investments and that partnership have to continue for many years to come.