Elizabeth May interview: Greens pledge $2BN for cheap NWT power

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The Green Party is prepared to pay $2 billion to connect the Northwest Territories to the southern grid if it wins the forthcoming federal election.

Party leader Elizabeth May told Cabin Radio she has "a viable proposal right now to electrify most of the NWT," calling it a "game-changer" for the territory.

"We've got it costed," said May during a trip to Yellowknife, declaring the price tag to be "affordable."

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"It'll be almost $2 billion to create an electricity grid expansion to the Northwest Territories. But it will mean you don't have to use diesel any more," she said.

The detail of how a grid expansion would be funded has not yet been made public. May said the parliamentary budget office is independently vetting the Greens' proposed budget, and the party will demonstrate the project is "fully costed."

Asked if the Green Party intended that grid expansion to stretch beyond Yellowknife into smaller NWT communities, May said: "Yes. Once you get an electricity grid to Yellowknife, from then on everything's easier. That's the big piece.

"Our grid expansion includes enough energy for expansion of mine development as well. That's a game-changer in terms of making things more profitable for other resource extractive industries in the NWT."

Connecting the Northwest Territories to the southern grid has been a primary objective of the territorial government for many years, but one considered out of reach as it requires hundreds of millions of dollars that the NWT does not possess.

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Overtures to the Liberal government have met with modest financial backing to date, totalling around $20 million to begin planning work on such a project.

The current preferred method would connect the South Slave's Taltson hydro dam to Yellowknife, then eventually hook that network up to the southern grid.

Estimates for that work have come in at around $1 billion, suggesting May's plan – believed to be the first time a federal leader has publicly committed to an NWT grid expansion – is, at roughly twice the projected cost, somewhat larger in scope.

Northern affairs minister Dominic LeBlanc said in January the Liberal government was committed to the Taltson expansion, calling it a "very big priority," but Ottawa has made no cast-iron public spending commitment.

We would not shut down fossil fuels to northern Canada until there were equivalent and more affordable options available.

ELIZABETH MAY

While a fully paid-for southern grid expansion would be remarkably helpful to the NWT government, its leaders – who are actively pushing renewed exploitation of the North's non-renewables – may have less taste for May's insistence that fossil fuel use be scrapped, though she acknowledged that would take longer in the NWT than elsewhere.

In an extensive interview with Cabin Radio, May also discussed the relationships a Green government would form with northern Indigenous leaders; her party's approach to mental health in remote communities; and how the Green plan to eliminate fossil fuel use would impact the North, where communities remain heavily reliant on diesel.

She later took questions at a town-hall event at Yellowknife's Northern United Place.


Listen to Elizabeth May's interview in full on the July 4, 2019, edition of Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News – or read a full transcript below.


This interview was recorded on July 3, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Pruys: What kind of relationship could northern Indigenous leaders expect with a Green federal government?

Elizabeth May: Green Party policies are the most progressive of any of the national parties in saying, look, we're fully committed to justice, reconciliation, and a nation-to-nation relationship, which means understanding through self-government of Indigenous peoples, whether First Nations or Metis or Inuit. What is your territory? What does your government structure look like?

You tell us, because the Indian Act, and the colonialism and the oppression that's inherent in the Indian Act, has been to the level of saying to an Indigenous person: "You're Indigenous, you have to carry this card with you." That kind of colonialism and oppression is something that personally I find really offensive. I worked as hard as I could with Romeo Saganash to get through his private members' bill for the full recognition of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples.

We're fully committed to UNDRIP. We're fully committed to the calls for action from the TRC and from the missing and murdered Indigenous women's inquiry – which I'm still reading. The first call from the inquiry commissioners was that every Canadian should read the report. It's 1,200 pages, and I'm still reading it, but I printed it out so I could carry it around with me and make my way through it. It's really critical when this much effort and this much grief, and pain, and emotion, and sharing goes into a national report. You can't get to reconciliation till you get through that first part, which is: this is what really happened in Canada.

We're not this perfect country that never did anything wrong. It's 150 years of wrong in terms of how Indigenous peoples have been treated. So our policies are very strong, I believe, in true respect, real recognition of nation-to-nation relationships. One of the indicators of that is that, without opening our constitution to change anything, we think we need to change the decision-making structure so that Canada actually thinks like a country and acts like a country and comes up with national goals that are shared. We call it the Council of Canadian Governments.

So there's federal government, provincial governments – and territorial governments – as well, of course, as the municipal order of government needs a seat at the table, and so too do Indigenous governments. It's almost like a medicine wheel, you've got four quadrants – in that context – meeting as equals to say, 'OK, what are our goals? What does it look like?' On every issue, not just the siloed idea of 'these are the indigenous issues,' but on everything. What's our vision for transportation policy? What's our vision for housing? What's our shared goal for ending poverty? What's our shared goal for health and wellness? So that's the approach we take as a party.

How do you see that 'seat at the table' actually working?

We create the table, first of all. There'd be a national table at the leadership level for large-scale questions. As a country that operates largely ad-hoc, and without policy, we need to create subsets with the same mix around the table – federal, provincial, territorial, municipal, and local governments and Indigenous governments – to look at everything. That model of a round table in a council of Canadian governments would be created and mandated by legislation.

We have a model for it. Australia gives a seat at the table to their municipal order of government. The reality is that for Canadian municipal governments, out of every dollar collected in taxes, the municipal order of government gets eight cents. But the services that Canadians want and need on a day-to-day basis are mostly provided by the municipal order of government. So by creating this table in Australia, it gave municipal leadership a chance to input on every policy.

When we looked at it for Canada, we realized the big missing piece is the missing piece in Australia. In Canada, a council of Canadian governments with seats at the table for Indigenous leadership is pretty important. It will evolve as we work to opt out of the Indian Act and ultimately repeal the Indian Act.

You've talked about putting a stop to the extractive industries in Canada–

Not all the extractive industries. Fossil fuels.

Our communities are powered by oil and diesel. We rely on mining to sustain the economy. How do you see the economy moving forward in the Northwest Territories?

Clearly, we're not against mining. I've worked really collaboratively and I think the Mining Association of Canada would speak well of our policies and our approach. I was one of the only advocates for the mining sector when, under Harper, the environmental assessment laws were changed in such a way that mining had more regulation and had a worse time.

Obviously mining, to be sustainable, has to operate with an awareness of the importance of the biodiversity in the territories and, of course, fully consultative with Indigenous leadership and Indigenous peoples and ownership when they're dealing on territory. But the fossil fuel issue is one where the North is in a particularly vulnerable situation. We would not shut down fossil fuels to northern Canada until there were equivalent and more affordable options available for things like space heating, for transport. And that's doable, but it would basically be the last part of Canada to lose access to fossil fuels.

We've got a viable proposal right now to electrify most of the NWT with a grid expansion from southern Canada to deliver renewable electricity. That would be a big game-changer for some of the challenges here. I mean, I'm really impressed with how much energy planning Yellowknife's doing, how much effort has been put into biogas boilers, how much effort has been put into district energy, and even limited use of solar. It is a critical goal to eliminate the costly… I mean, cost of living-wise in the territories, having to import diesel to burn for heat and electricity and so on is critically not helpful for greenhouse gases, but the cost of living is outrageous. Replacing that with renewable energy is something we're committed to doing.

It seems like reducing the cost of living would be a little tricky if you're ending fossil fuel subsidies, because then that would increase the cost for those communities.

Actually, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies doesn't result in– right now, we're giving some of the most wealthy transnational corporations on Earth money to do what they do to make money. Subsidies to fossil fuels aren't of real benefit to the consumers, they're of benefit to the wealthiest corporations on the planet, who are committed to continuing to operate in ways that put our future in very serious risk.

But if you're ending those subsidies, doesn't that mean that they will look at that and say, well, now we can increase this cost to the consumer, which will in turn affect the communities and increase the cost of living here?

Not likely. But, in any case, our commitment is to get the territories off diesel by providing cheaper alternatives in renewable energy by expanding the grid. In terms of fossil fuel subsidies, we've already reduced substantially some of the subsidies to the oil sands. And the reason I say it doesn't increase the price? It didn't have any consequential difference to remove. And it's been sliding downward ever since, actually, under Stephen Harper: they started reducing what Jean Chretien put in place, which was an accelerated capital cost allowance for companies in the oil sands. It didn't have an impact on driving up the price of a barrel of oil, because the price of a barrel of oil is driven by other factors, mostly global.

What we saw with the plummeting price of a barrel of oil… we were removing subsidies at the same time the price of oil plummeted, and that was because Saudi Arabia decided to open the taps and put lots more oil on the market to drive down the price of a barrel of oil. So there's no real connection between the subsidies for oil and gas in Canada.

Elizabeth May speaks at Yellowknife's Northern United Place in July 2019

Elizabeth May speaks at Yellowknife's Northern United Place in July 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Right now, the big increase in subsidies – other than spending $4.5 billion on buying the Trans Mountain Pipeline and committing another $10 billion to $13 billion on building an expansion, which will have no impact whatsoever on cost of living in the territories… it's an export-only pipeline that makes no sense… but the big increase in subsidies in fossil fuels is for fracking for natural gas – again, for LNG, primarily for export.

That notion, as you've put it to me, Sarah, sounds really plausible. But when you look at how the market responded to shutting down some of the fossil fuel subsidies we've already shut down, it had no impact on consumer pricing at all.

A few months ago, Environment and Climate Change, Canada came out with a report stating Canada is warming at a rate two times faster than the rest of the world, and the North is warming at three times that global average. What are you doing to address the North's unique challenges there? It's already affecting our tourism and our infrastructure.

A lot of people look at the climate science as it exists right now, which is telling us not only that we're going to see what you've already mentioned: we are already experiencing impacts that affect tourism, economic impacts across Canada that are devastating, and threats to life and limb, whether forest fires, or flooding, or sea level rise, or extreme weather events of all kinds. That's what we're experiencing now, at a global average temperature increase of one degree Celsius above what it was before the Industrial Revolution.

If we continue as we're going, as a collection of nations, we shoot past two degrees, past three degrees, past four degrees, into a spiral where – and this is hard stuff to talk about – before two degrees, we are playing Russian roulette with whether our kids have a future. We are literally looking at the collapse of human civilization if we continue on the path we're on. So we can't continue on that path. And responsible governments need to know that.

So what do we do to ensure that Canada pulls our fair share of the weight to hold to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius global average temperature increase above what we were before the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can see all the damage right now. We see the impacts at one degree warming. Another half-degree warming is worse, because you're warming at three times the rate. Human civilization depends on the North staying cold enough to keep the permafrost from all melting.

The permafrost of the circumpolar North holds four times more greenhouse gases in methane – that's right now locked in permafrost – than everything that we've burned from the Industrial Revolution to now in terms of fossil fuels. If we want to hang on to survival as a species on this planet –which I think, put it to anyone, they'll want to hold on to survival on this planet – we have to keep the North cold enough that the permafrost doesn't melt. So that becomes a driver for every policy decision from northern Canada, but primarily where the trouble lies, which isn't how people live here. It's how people live in southern Canada, and in the United States, and in Europe, and in China, and in India.

We face a global problem with specific local impacts. The local impact that we must avoid is losing our permafrost. The circumpolar North holds the future of human civilization in what's frozen and locked into permafrost. We know we're seeing permafrost melt already. We're seeing subsidence, we're seeing collapse of soils. But we have to hold on to most of the permafrost or we're kind-of hooped.

That means we have to go off fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. As I said, the North may be the last place to still get fossil fuels as we come up with replacements at a reasonable cost – less than what you're paying now – to make life in the North affordable and sustainable.

You mentioned connecting the North to southern electricity. How, exactly, will that work?

You actually build an electricity grid spur from southern Canada right up to Yellowknife. We've got it costed, it's part of our national grid strategy. All of our platform and budget is now being analyzed by the parliamentary budget office so, when we come forward in an election campaign, we will be able to present to northerners a budget and a platform that's fully costed – where the parliamentary budget office will be able to say, not just me telling you, how we're going to pay for the things we're talking about.

We know we have to do them, because the survival of all of us depends on doing them. But they're affordable. And I'm really thrilled that I was able to access some experts in the field of electricity grid expansion. So I have a good cost for what it will be. It'll be almost $2 billion to create an electricity grid expansion to the Northwest Territories. But it will mean you don't have to use diesel any more.

Will the plan also include connecting with smaller NWT communities?

Yes. Once you get an electricity grid to Yellowknife, from then on everything's easier. That's the big piece. Our grid expansion includes enough energy for expansion of mine development as well. That's a game-changer in terms of making things more profitable for other resource extractive industries in the NWT, to include that factor of why we need enough capacity for not just the 20,000 people who live in Yellowknife, but for industrial expansion as well.

Talking about how policies might be adapted for northerners, you've talked about establishing a basic income. We know the cost of living up here is a lot higher, so will that be adjusted?

There are very large differences in the cost of living across Canada. I'm from Cape Breton Island and you can live quite well on almost nothing if you own your own home and things are cheaper, right? Whereas if you live in downtown Vancouver, or you live in Yellowknife, your costs are very different. So in creating a guaranteed livable income… this is not needs-tested, this isn't 'you're poor, so therefore you get this.' This is for everyone.

We'll negotiate through the Council of Canadian Governments with each province and territory to establish what the right income is for that part of Canada, and adjust it so that it's livable. It won't be living well. It's subsistence, it ends poverty. What it does is say, 'OK, now you've got a roof over your head, now you have enough money to live, you make more money. Nothing's clawed back, we want you to have more income.' So for someone who already has an income, you get your guaranteed livable income in and you pay it back in taxes, it's a wash. But if you're a student, or if you're a single mom on welfare, it's a game-changer because you have enough money to live and earn more on top of that, to start really pulling yourself out of a poverty cycle.

Territories, provinces, and municipalities would be able to save money by withdrawing all the programs they have to spend money on for essentially Band-Aid treatments of poverty. Eliminating poverty will be amazingly healthy for our Canadian economy overall. The single biggest social determinant of health is poverty, so our healthcare system benefits. Every part of Canadian society benefits when we eliminate poverty.

You've talked about guaranteeing drinking water for all Canadians. Food security is a big issue here. Do you have a plan for guaranteeing northerners access to affordable and nutritious food?

In our local food and food security policy, there is that commitment to a policy that puts the health of Canadians first. Our current food policy out of the federal government is strangely committed more – although they don't quite say it this way – but it's all about food exports and agribusiness. We want to make sure that farmers can make money [but] we want to do more in the North with greenhouses, where district energy again is a great way of preheating, so a greenhouse doesn't have to be relying on fossil fuels.

I was seeing how Yellowknife's swimming pool is connected to the curling rink, so you've got the biogas there and you're able to actually benefit from district energy for preheating. More district energy makes it more possible to have more greenhouses, grow more local and healthy food that people can afford.

For a lot of Indigenous peoples living on the land, country food is essential for diet – so making sure that the supports are there for the right to live on and to access healthy foods from hunting, and fishing, and traditional country foods, as well as augmenting with greenhouses.

You can find yourself in a food desert even in a downtown area. If you're in a poor area of a major urban area in Canada, you can find it hard to get to a grocery store with affordable food prices. Obviously, the situation is more extreme in the North. So we take that into account.

Moving to substance abuse prevention and rehabilitation, you've said you support non-institutionalized and community-based supports. What will this look like in communities with just a few hundred people? How will it be sustainable?

I just was touring the Indigenous healing lodge here in Yellowknife, which is brilliant. It depends on what kind of communities you're talking about. In much of Canada, a nurse practitioner can make a big difference, knowing that somebody is having problems and having the mental health support to be able to reach out to them and help them.

Maybe it's not in every community that you have the supports for every kind of substance abuse, but you need to have the healing hands and outreach to say, 'You're not alone, we can get you some help.' It may mean that in remoter parts of Canada, you have to be able to move to a place that has a healing centre. But the supports need to be there, including the emotional supports from the people you're closest to, so that you're not left feeling that you're alone.

It's used in a lot of sayings, and I keep trying to find out who was the first person who said it: 'The opposite of addiction is connection.' Being connected to community and knowing that you have supports all around you, regardless of culture, is a key aspect of fighting addiction. I was really relieved to hear that fentanyl hasn't made its way into the territories yet. It's a devastating thing that we have to stop. But it's important that we recognize that in dealing with addiction issues, we're not dealing with criminal justice issues. We're dealing with health issues, and the focus has to stay on health.

It is a responsibility of the federal government to fully enforce the Canada Health Act, to make sure that everybody has access to the supports they need when they need them, which is no different for a mental health crisis than it is for a broken leg. We have to find other ways to cut costs in the healthcare system, which is why the Green Party has been pushing for so many years for universal pharmacare.

Right now we're paying exorbitant amounts for drug prices compared to other countries that have universal healthcare. Every other country with universal healthcare has pharmacare. They pay much less for drugs in New Zealand, for example, than we do here. Everywhere we can reduce costs in our healthcare system, we must, to make sure the system is financially sustainable and provides equivalent quality care across the country, whether for chronic disease, acute disease, mental health, or trauma.

The problem we often face here is finding people to staff positions. People have a hard time building those connections and finding those supports.

One of my friends, who's a doctor, has found that having lived in some of the Indigenous communities outside of Fort McMurray, that long-distance… once you create a personal relationship, you can do quite a lot with video conferencing to maintain that connection. So we have to look at the range of things that are possible.

Ideally, especially if you've gone through a mental health crisis or addiction counselling, they're in your same community. But maybe they're not. And maybe the connection and the way you stay in touch is through Skype visits, or FaceTime, or something that allows you to connect with the person who got you through the trauma you're in. We need to be creative.

We need to make sure that we're delivering healthcare to everyone in a way that makes sense for them. And that's not going to be a cookie-cutter solution. Every community and, in some ways, every person is going to be different. But a healing centre and Indigenous healing methods will also be very helpful for settler-culture Canadians, if they open themselves up to them, because they work.

We need to think it through and make sure that we're cost-effective. Not everybody needs an MRI, but everybody needs someone to talk to.

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