Final NWT budget adds cash for homelessness, suicide prevention

Caroline Wawzonek addresses reporters ahead of publishing the territory's 2023-24 operating budget
Caroline Wawzonek addresses reporters ahead of publishing the territory's 2023-24 operating budget. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

The final version of the Northwest Territories’ 2023-24 budget includes an extra $4.8 million to address homelessness, suicide and other issues.

The additional cash follows weeks of deliberation during which regular MLAs scrutinized the budget originally proposed by finance minister Caroline Wawzonek in February.

In a vote on Wednesday, MLAs passed the amended budget by 16 votes to one. Richard Edjericon, the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA, was the budget’s sole opponent. (Kevin O’Reilly, the Frame Lake MLA, was away acting as a medical travel escort at the time of the vote.)

$4.8 million is a tiny fraction of a budget worth more than $2 billion. Most of that spending is status-quo, with some increases on specific projects but no major cuts to programs and services. There is more money for childcare thanks to federal funding and an increase in money for healthcare recruitment.



But MLAs did convince the finance minister to make some amendments over the past two months.

The finalized budget includes $2 million to help the territory’s new homelessness strategy – a draft was released on Thursday – by offering more “application-based grants with special priority given to shelter service initiatives.”

There’s an extra $1 million for what the GNWT calls “sustainable living” programs, ranging from Take a Kid Trapping and various other forms of on-the-land funding to support for country foods and fur harvesters.

The amended budget includes an extra $500,000 for “ongoing funding to support youth involvement in sport, recreation and youth development initiatives” and a further $500,000 for a suicide prevention fund to be used by Indigenous governments.



“I note in particular the recent publication of the Moving Forward, Healing Together suicide prevention strategy by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation,” said Wawzonek on Tuesday, “and I expect funding to support the implementation of this strategy will be available through this enhanced funding.”

Wawzonek also agreed to $400,000 for communities to provide extra training and equipment related to ground ambulances, and $375,000 in more arts funding through the territory’s Seed program.

‘Tough decisions’ after election

O’Reilly, speaking earlier in the week, praised regular MLAs’ “good working relationship” with ministers and said the budget alterations formed an example of that.

“These are important improvements to the budget,” said O’Reilly. “It’s not a huge amount, and it’s incremental, but these are significant changes that have been made.”

Katrina Nokleby, the Great Slave MLA, said: “There is a perception that this has been a very contentious assembly – and, I mean, it has been – but I think if anybody wants to look around at the last year or two, there have been huge improvements.”

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, speaking just ahead of the vote, said he was “very happy” with the $2-million commitment toward the homelessness strategy but sounded a broader note of alarm over the budgeting process.

Johnson said he was “a little disappointed in the pace” of government renewal, the name for a years-long re-examination of every department’s budgeting process that Wawzonek launched in 2020.

“There is a way to do government budgets differently. They really have to take a look at this way we do these incremental budgets, year over year,” Johnson said.



He said the next government after the fall’s election would face “tough decisions about what they’re going to cut, and where, so that they have money to fund their own priorities.”

Edjericon did not speak ahead of opposing the bill but has, in recent weeks, consistently complained that his priorities for the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh district are being ignored.

Speaking in the context of another, smaller spending bill on Tuesday, Edjericon told colleagues: “Every time these guys want money in all these other departments, they come back to us and ask us for more money. And it’s just back and forth, you know, not a problem.

“But when I have stuff? I ask for stuff for my riding – and I’ve been asking – and the train left the station. I even told the premier, ‘Throw some luggage on there.’ You know, a couple million dollars for a winter road for my riding? Nothing. Housing infrastructure in terms of inspecting all the homes in my riding? Nothing. So here we are again, nothing.”

This is the second straight year in which Edjericon has voted against the budget, though Wawzonek otherwise enjoyed a significantly easier time of things in this year’s vote. Last year, six MLAs opposed her budget over concerns that it did not do enough for small communities.