The NWT's mining industry body on Tuesday told newly elected MLAs the territory's strategy to encourage mining and exploration is "not working" and needs to be urgently revisited.
The NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, with the NWT Chamber of Commerce, delivered the warning as the groups lobbied MLAs during a dinner at Yellowknife's Explorer Hotel.
The territorial government released its mineral development strategy in 2014, designed to "ensure lasting prosperity for NWT residents and communities" through the mining industry. However, no new major projects – comparable to the Ekati or Diavik diamond mines – are on the horizon.
Chamber bosses added the territory's mining industry had "fallen off the radar" for federal funding, describing small sums for studies as "a cheap way to buy you off."
MLAs were told there would not be another Ekati or Diavik, "ever," unless the territory put in greener power sources – like the proposed Taltson hydro expansion – to assuage concerns expressed by the carbon-conscious boards of mining giants.
"Sunrise or sunset the NWT's minerals industry? That's the choice," said Gary Vivian, president of the chamber of mines.
The pitch to MLAs comes as they prepare to set the NWT's priorities for the next four years. Other industries, like tourism, are competing for the government's focus, and there are calls in some quarters – including from a number of those recently elected, during their campaigns – to diversify the way the territory promotes and manages its economy.
A presentation by Vivian about the NWT's economic prospects contained nothing new to anyone following the territory's mining industry. Instead, the evening served as the two chambers' bid to educate, as they saw it, a relatively inexperienced group of incoming territorial politicians.
Just two returning MLAs have cabinet experience – Caroline Cochrane and Jackson Lafferty, both hoping to be named the NWT's next premier on Thursday. Other contenders for that role are RJ Simpson, who was a regular MLA for the past four years, and Frieda Martselos, former chief of the Salt River First Nation, who is a newcomer.
MLAs were seated alongside chamber board members at tables adorned with signs bearing the names of industries: diamonds, cobalt and lithium, rare-earth elements, and so on.
Asked if these were designed to spark conversation between MLAs and industry leaders regarding the futures of those industries, a chamber member replied it was simpler than that: the signs were intended to ensure MLAs knew all of the industries existed.
Julie Green and Kevin O'Reilly, the MLAs for Yellowknife Centre and Frame Lake respectively, did not attend. Both held a shared constituency meeting the same night.
Those who did were told by Paul Gruner, chief executive of the Det'on Cho Corporation, that his company – the economic development arm of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation – employed hundreds of people, contributing $54 million to the NWT economy in wages and a further $18 million in federal transfer payments. MLAs were later told those jobs would all be lost if mining isn't given urgent attention, and those workers "can't just transfer to tourism."
Vivian, citing the Conference Board of Canada's "grim outlook" for the NWT's economy and other glum assessments of the territory's future, urged MLAs: "The mineral industry cycle includes exploration, and we aren't doing any of that.
"We should still have new opportunities in the hopper, and we don't."
He said "nothing has been done" since a territorial government-led economic symposium in Inuvik, a year ago, forecast a $1.1-billion shrinkage of the NWT economy, placing 3,000 jobs and 10 percent of the NWT government's budget at risk if current mines close with no replacements.
Vivian, touching on themes the chamber has adopted for years, said too much of the territory was protected from development and the NWT was not doing enough to encourage investment – meaning money is instead being spent in Yukon or Nunavut.
'Something new to wrap my head around'
"This is the first time ordinary MLAs have had the opportunity to hear this, from the industry side," Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson, re-elected to a second term told Cabin Radio. "I don't think this information has been well-communicated – or it has been, and people haven't really seen it.
"For me, it's about working with Indigenous people to get this industry up and running. That gives us more certainty and more jobs, which brings our GDP up."
MLAs are still neck-deep in an orientation process following their election at the start of the month. A premier, cabinet, and speaker are all to be decided on Thursday, with portfolios subsequently assigned by the premier. Who will inherit responsibility for mining, as the industry minister, is currently anyone's guess.
Tuesday's event followed a day-long meeting between MLAs and more than a dozen Indigenous governments and groups, alongside representatives of NWT municipal governments, last week.
"It's been a lot. I've never had so many people care what I thought about something, so that's been something new to wrap my head around," said Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby, an engineer by trade, describing lobbying efforts by both individuals and groups as the politicians bed in.
Nokleby said she would prioritize by considering: "Where am I hearing the most consistency from different groups? What do the most people in the territory want, that will have the maximum benefit to the most people?
"And trying to stay away from being very constituency-based," she said. "We are only as strong as our weakest community."