The federal minister for Crown-Indigenous relations says the latest Liberal budget will help to place “northerners in charge of northerners and northern policy.”
But what’s the detail of some of the budget’s grander pledges, and when will northern residents actually see the promised benefits?
Minister Carolyn Bennett and NWT MP Michael McLeod spoke to Cabin Radio in depth on a range of issues this week.
One budget promise sure to catch the eye of any NWT resident is this one: high-speed internet access for every Canadian.
The budget declares a national target “in which 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses will have access to internet speeds of at least 50/10 Mbps by 2026, and 100 per cent by 2030, no matter where they are located in the country.”
As even Yellowknife residents will tell you, never mind those living in some of the territory’s more remote communities, that kind of reliable connectivity would be very welcome – but how will that be achieved, and will the cost be the same no matter where you live?
“I think we all know that we’re quite a ways from the CRTC targets. When we are announcing high-speed internet, it’s not really high-speed internet, per se,” acknowledged MP McLeod.
“So there is a real need for further investment.”
Bennett added: “Kids should be able to Google their homework. This is now holding people back. This is not optional any more, and I think that this is what the budget says: this is an essential service.”
Meanwhile, Indigenous northerners have seen the Liberal cabinet lose both a key Indigenous representative, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and former Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott to the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Bennett claimed “huge sadness” at the resignations of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, but insisted she and her fellow remaining ministers will continue “to push hard for what is needed by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in our country.”
McLeod, a member of the Liberal Party’s Indigenous caucus, said concerns had been expressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the loss of Indigenous representation at cabinet level.
But he also said many pieces of legislation, some affecting the North, needed to be swiftly dealt with to avoid delays. “Every day that we lose is making the challenge even more difficult,” he said.
Below, find a link to listen to the interview and a full transcript of the conversation.
This interview was first broadcast in the March 27, 2019 edition of Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News. Listen to the show live every weekday 12-1pm, or download the podcast.
This interview was recorded on March 26, 2019.
Ollie Williams: Minister, why have you come to Yellowknife?
Carolyn Bennett: This is an exciting week after a wonderful budget and it’s great to be up here with the MP, Mike McLeod, and be able to celebrate so many things that – really, from the self-governing nations up here in the Northwest Territories – all the things that people fought for that actually ended up in the budget.
And so it’s a pretty exciting week to celebrate with people and to thank them for the hard work that means the self-governing nations got their loan forgiveness, a collaborative approach to fiscal relationships, but even things like high-speed internet access – there’s actually a plan to get 100 percent of households in Canada [connected]. That is exciting, but also post-secondary: this is something that we’ve been looking towards for a long time. How do students in the North not have to go south to get their post-secondary education, in order to be the professionals and the executives – and be able to have the skills they need – to have northerners in charge of northerners and northern policy?
Minister, you’ve promised the earth there in the space of that opening paragraph. You promised that you’re going to repay or write off millions of dollars in loans to various First Nations and Indigenous groups in the North. You’ve promised high-speed internet access, which literally nobody listening will believe until they see it. And you’ve promised to revolutionize education in the North as well, or at least contribute to that significantly, which is a very, very tough subject and a topical subject up here as well.
But when we talk about land claim loan repayments, first of all, explain what exactly you mean by that? And how is that going to work, how are we going to know who’s getting what?
Carolyn Bennett: So for years, the way that self-government agreements were negotiated was on the basis of loans. So we would say that we wanted to eventually go government-to-government, nation-to-nation, but then we would ask nations to borrow the money to be able to negotiate with us. Since we’ve come into government that’s changed, so that those kind of conversations with over half of the Indian Act bands across this country are now based on a contribution agreement – we pay to make sure these conversations take place.
For places like here in the Northwest Territories, where those agreements have already been negotiated, and they were done based on loans, we now get to forgive the loans, but also put in place our repayment plan for the people – mainly in Yukon – who had already repaid their loans. That means that those dollars go into community, those dollars will go to their infrastructure, their education, it will change the quality of life, because we are still in the business of closing those gaps. It’s about fairness for the communities that are already the leaders in this country, leading that charge on self-determination.
And so as the budget is signed off, does the Liberal government click its fingers and all those loans are forgiven at that point? Is it as simple as that? Is it as fast as that?
Carolyn Bennett: On the loan forgiveness, we have booked those dollars in this budget. On the reimbursement part, it will be paid out over time.
OK. We’re going to talk about high-speed internet access. Michael McLeod, you’re the MP for the Northwest Territories. Welcome to the studio as well, it’s good to have you with us.
Talk to me about high-speed internet access in the North because, as you will well know, we struggle. Rural communities here struggle – they pay through the nose for a service that is almost always not unlimited, so there’s a cap on it, they pay data overages through the teeth, they can’t watch Netflix without paying half their monthly rent. How is the Liberal government going to fix this?
Michael McLeod: I think we’ve moved quite a ways on the high-speed internet over the last while. We’ve put some significant investment in the North. But I think we all know that we’re quite a ways from the CRTC targets. When we are announcing high-speed internet, it’s not really high-speed internet, per se. So there is a real need for further investment. I think every community in the North now is expecting high-speed internet, they all want to watch Netflix. So this is where we’re heading.
You’ve got to remember that these investments that we’re making didn’t just fall out of the air. These were investments that people worked hard to get into the budget. There’s a number of things that I could point to – every investment has a story. Dechinta worked very hard, they chased and worked with the minister, they would follow the finance committee, they did presentations in the Yukon, they went to Ottawa.
Thaidene Nëné – the Chief of Łutselk’e, Steve Nitah, the Government of the Northwest Territories, the minister of environment, were all part of the discussions to get the the act changed so that we can move forward.
There’s lots of good stories but lots of hard work went behind it. And some of these investments took years. CanNor, for example. We tried to get it in the budget from the day we got elected – I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that but the submissions were made and they didn’t stick, they didn’t take hold. We got CanNor to take a program that was a year-to-year and make it long-term but the money wasn’t enough, so we had to convince the minister they needed to go back and get more because the program was oversubscribed. But it took several years. So there’s lots of good stories behind this and it’s a good budget for us.
OK, so a lot of this took a lot of time. In an election year it all seems to have come together, conveniently. High-speed internet – I just want to go back to this very quickly – people want to know when. I know it’s not as easy as that, but can either of you give us any indication of when people might expect a change in the level of service that they’re provided here?
Michael McLeod: That’s a tough one to nail down to what you’re asking, specifically. The money’s in this budget, there’s money in the previous budget, some initiatives are still in the works. And I expect we’re going to be moving forward fairly quick as now the money’s been announced. But it took a while to get the money into this.
Carolyn Bennett: And I think that it’s about a commitment to a plan. And so a real strategy has to be what, by when, and how. We’re saying that all Canadians should be hooked up by 2030, without exception. And I think that’s the way we did it on the water systems – you have to say we’re going to get to 100 percent and this is how we’re going to do it. That’s where you work with communities, you work with the providers, you work with everybody, but kids should be able to Google their homework. This is now holding people back. Young entrepreneurs get to be able to access markets. This is not optional any more, and I think that this is what the budget says: this is an essential service.
Michael McLeod: And there’s a number of different investments. It’s not all government money, there’s private industry involved in it. The whole plan was set up to work over a 10-year period.
Minister Bennett, as the Minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, you’ve already alluded to this in what you’ve been saying to me so far this morning – which is that really it’s not nation-to-nation, it’s nation to many nations.
There are many different Indigenous nations in this country. They have very different experiences. For example, many in the south are reserve-based and they’re very different in the way that they operate and in terms of the services they require than here in the North.
How differently do you work with the Indigenous peoples of the North? What kind of access do they enjoy to you? How often do you get a chance to sit face-to-face with the northern Indigenous leaders?
Carolyn Bennett: Because of the work that has already been taking place on land claims and on the kinds of leadership that’s here, we really enjoy learning from the North. Whether it’s the Gwich’in, the Tłı̨chǫ, or the people that have really been leading the land claims coalition, this is really important. How they are going to renegotiate their claim based on these new approaches, but also how do they move to full self-government? And I think the agreement that was signed with Norman Wells and the Sahtu, these are exciting opportunities. But as you’ve said, what was 634 Indian Act bands – that’s the reason we’ve had to put money in to help them reconstitute their nations back to the nation, as opposed to what the Government of Canada did by villagizing these into tiny villages that weren’t really sustainable.
We now know the hard work that it is taking – for nations to reconstitute a nation is really exciting, and moving forward, as they build their governments and write their laws and are able to develop their own programs. Mike McLeod has been an unbelievable ambassador for explaining to ministers, explaining to government, that there aren’t reserves up here – that the way, traditionally, Ottawa funded things just didn’t work here, and we needed to go at this in a completely different way, as well as with Inuit and recognizing their rights and their land claim in a completely different way. And even the Métis here in the Northwest Territories that have been collaborative on some of the claims.
This is about unravelling years of government policies that were picking and choosing and now we want to go forward in a nation-to-nation or, as you say, nation-to-nations approach that actually is exciting for their people.
So let’s take a look at one example of legislation that’s coming up, which is Indigenous child welfare legislation, which essentially – and you can correct me if I’m wrong – seeks to hand control over much child welfare in Indigenous communities to Indigenous governments appointed to represent those communities. Is that a fair assessment of that?
Carolyn Bennett: Absolutely. And I think that when you think of the first five calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when you think of some of the articles in the UN Declaration on not forcibly removing children from their culture, that this is just time. For way too many years, this complete child welfare industry has been ripping children out of their families and giving money to lawyers to apprehend children to agencies and to non-Indigenous foster families.
What we are saying with this legislation is that has to stop, and that nations have the responsibility to be able to look after their own children. And it has been ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – there are so many communities where the children stay in the house, mom and dad get some help, and then only the community knows who’s the healthy auntie, who are the healthy grandparents that could move in to actually look after those children and keep them with that secure personal, cultural identity that allows them to be proud of who they are as Indigenous people.
Now, what you’re describing is a system that essentially we already have in parts of the Northwest Territories. And this is where I come back to my earlier point about how ‘Indigenous’ is not just one group of people, of course, and that what happens in the south is not necessarily replicated in the North.
Child welfare in the North has been analyzed very critically recently by the Office of the Auditor General, which found many failings with it – but among them was not the kind of lawyer-based, white intervention that you just described, it was more that there were failings in oversight, and that there were issues with ensuring the basic welfare of children. But often they were still in the communities that they had grown up in. And we have, for example, the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, which is run by an indigenous government, with assistance from the territorial government to help child welfare.
When this legislation comes into force, what will it do, say, for the Northwest Territories that it might not do in the south, and vice versa? Will this legislation adapt to the environment and to the Indigenous groups that need to implement it?
Carolyn Bennett: Absolutely. And I think that the point of the legislation is it’s not one-size-fits-all, it’s just a reiteration of Section 35 rights. This is just saying that this has to be the choice of communities as to how they want to organize themselves in order to look after their children. Frankly, in some of the provinces and territories, this has not been working in the best interests of the children. Particularly, if you end up looking at the numbers of kids in care, there’s parts of Canada where it sort of ec-dev for a town to foster children when their cod fishery died… you hear these stories, and you just want to cry.
And so when things are working well – and I think that’s the way we feel about all legislation – nothing we are doing should hamper the good progress or good initiatives that are taking place, but it can help shine a light on what’s working up here in the Northwest Territories that others might want to try to be able to get that sort of system that will work for them. As you know, in the Indian act, in Section 88, if it wasn’t articulated, then it was laws of general application from the province or the territory. We’re saying no, this is very clear now. This is the right of a nation to look after their children.
Minister, it’s rare that we get the opportunity to talk directly to a cabinet member up here in Yellowknife. So I want to ask you about SNC Lavalin.
It won’t be lost on Indigenous northerners that through all of that affair – and I’m not going to get into the detail of it because there are many, many avenues for people to go and do that if they wish – the Liberal government has lost an indigenous cabinet member when it doesn’t have all that many to spare, and has lost a former Indigenous services minister who was very well respected.
What should Indigenous people think when they see that happening to their government?
Carolyn Bennett: Firstly, I think that we know that there has been a difference of opinion of two legal avenues to deal with a company that has behaved badly and needs to be punished. And there have to be outcomes, that actually mean that other companies don’t want to do this before. And that’s how–
So they should be prosecuted?
Carolyn Bennett: They– Well, they… the people who did wrong should be prosecuted. But there are other avenues in terms of what other countries have done, where you allow the wrongdoers to be prosecuted but the company to reorganize itself, pay a big fine, and make sure that it never happens again. And so there are differences of opinion on what actually is the best way forward. The OECD report this week explains why so many companies have done this, such that white collar crime goes down, because prosecuting these companies has quite often not ended up in the way that people would want in terms of actually convictions.
I think we both felt huge sadness, all felt sadness at the resignation of these two ministers. But I think we know that reconciliation and the way forward is about all of us. I think Mike McLeod would say that the role that Indigenous caucus plays in holding our government to account and being able to push hard for what is needed by First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in our country… that is also part of the mandate of every minister. It says the relationship has to be based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership. And it means that we all take this very seriously.
And I think, last week, even during the voting marathon, caucus felt very together behind the Prime Minister, and strong, and we are going to go forward. This is about the future of the country and, for those of us that the memory of Stephen Harper is not that very far behind us, we have to keep going on the momentum of all these good things we’ve done.
OK. Now, Michael McLeod, you are a member of the Indigenous caucus. The government loses credibility, doesn’t it, when there is an affair like this over a Quebec-based company and, almost exclusively, the victims of it at government level seem to be the ones closest to the Indigenous community?
Michael McLeod: Well, we’ve had a number of discussions over this with some of my colleagues and most of us are not part of any of the committees that are reviewing the situation. We don’t sit on the justice committee and I don’t think we have any members on the ethics committee, and we’re certainly not speaking directly to the next ethics commissioner. But we did have a message for the Prime Minister’s office that we were concerned that we no longer had an Indigenous person on cabinet. We had a very strong, effective voice there with Jody Wilson-Raybould, and she’s no longer there.
But the second message was that we’re concerned that there’s legislation on the table that is likely to fall off. The Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act is there, it’s important we get that done. Thaidene Nëné is there, it’s important we get that done. There are so many things that have to be done. We’ve got nine weeks left. End of June and the doors close for any new legislation, and that falls off the table. It could be hard to pick it up and move forward again. That is something we’re watching very closely and every day that we lose is making the challenge even more difficult.
So you’re concerned, you’ve made that clear. Do you expect your constituency to be concerned heading into a federal election and to look very closely at how your government now acts?
Michael McLeod: My constituents are telling me we have many things that have to be done. And they expect me to shepherd them through the process. There’s been a lot of hard work over the last few years to get a number of things on the table. They’re finally there. We have big projects, big-ticket items, we have the Mackenzie Valley Highway finally moving forward – that’s going through environmental assessment – the Tłı̨chǫ road is ready to go, the Slave Geological Province is looking for more money, the Taltson hydro, all these things.
We’ve got to keep moving, you can’t just let it slide. I mean, the budget’s provided for more money for big infrastructure projects, but we’ve got to keep the discussions going, keep the subject hot, and we can’t let it go to the side.
And so just lastly, and this is a question to both of you – if there were a Conservative critic in the room, I imagine they would have just said, ‘Yes, there is some money now for those big projects, but it’s not a lot of money, and it took till an election year to come.’ So instead of looking at things that will happen, what would each of you pick out and say: this is the one thing, above all things, that the Liberal government since it came to power has done for the Indigenous people of the North?
Michael McLeod: Well, for me, it’s easy. There’s a number of things that have to happen for our economy to flourish. We have to have the Indigenous governments standing side-by-side with other governments as strong, well-resourced governments. And we have 14 sets of negotiations going on right now. We had none going with the Conservatives. We also need to lower the cost of doing business in the North. That means we need more infrastructure. If we’re going to get companies to come to the North, we need to lower the cost.
We have big projects on the drawing board that we didn’t have before: Mackenzie Valley was nowhere on the radar. So we have to do the environmental assessment, for the entire road, and that’s got to be done within a year. The Whatì road will start construction this fall, that was not on the radar either. You know? And the Slave Geological Province could open up an area, if it connects to Nunavut to Grays Bay, that could be one of the biggest economic projects in Canada. The Taltson hydro, you know, if it picks up a bunch of the mining companies’ projects along the way as it comes to Yellowknife, certainly could lower the cost of living in terms of power costs and make projects on both sides of the lake feasible. So there’s so many things I could point to…
Oh, I know you could keep going. I’m just going to quickly to the minister, before we let you go. I want to ask you the same question: what is the signature piece of work, legislation or whatever it may be, that you are going to point to come the campaign trail this fall, and say. ‘As Minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, we got this done’?
Carolyn Bennett: One of the things would be the meeting with the Prime Minister with the self-governing nations. To actually have the Prime Minister meeting with the heads of those governments is an example for the future of the country. So it’s not only for the people of the North here in the Northwest Territories. It’s an example for how the whole country should look, and I think we’re just here to say thank-you for their leadership, but also how do we make sure that they’re happy? And so that means the work we did on the collaborative fiscal arrangements such that they can actually run their governments, that includes language and culture, that includes the things going forward.
But I think in terms of my time, I would say that the opening of that highway to Tuk is something I’ll never forget – and what it meant in terms of opening up the North, tourism, and allowing more Canadians to actually come and find out how beautiful it is up here.