As Canada's first standalone Minister of Northern Affairs prepares to touch down in Yellowknife, NWT leaders say housing tops the list of issues they hope to raise.
Dan Vandal, the MP for Saint Boniface–Saint Vital and a Métis member of cabinet, is the first minister to hold responsibility for northern issues without any other portfolio. His first trip to the NWT since October's election will see him visit Yellowknife on January 14 and 15, following a two-day stop in Whitehorse.
Stephanie Speroni, a representative of Vandal's office, told Cabin Radio the list of local leaders Vandal will meet has yet to be finalized. News of his trip to the NWT was first reported by NNSL.
"The minister is looking forward to meeting with a variety of different organizations and governments, including Indigenous leaders," said Speroni by email. "The minister is keen to hear from northerners directly on the issues that they face and to hear their priorities."
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said he is waiting to have time with Vandal confirmed. For Yakeleya, the overarching priority in any meeting is the state of housing in Indigenous communities. He plans to ask how the federal government will respond to what he calls "scathing" reports on housing in the NWT, and he wants to raise the Dene Nation's plan to take control of housing in Dene communities.
Getting Ottawa to commit more funding to the Mackenzie Valley Highway's construction is another priority for Yakeleya, who believes that will address the "insurmountable" cost of living in small communities.
"There is very little economic stimulation going on and we are draining the public funds of the territorial government because their needs are so high," he said. Construction is also seen by the Dene Nation as a way to move young people off what Yakeleya termed "the welfare wagon" and build skills.
More broadly, Yakeleya wants to advance the belief – central to his campaign for election as chief – that much funding currently received by the territorial government for things like health, housing, and economic development should be issued directly to Dene communities.
"We have gone way past that era now where we, as Dene people, want to do things for ourselves that meet our specific needs on our communities," he said. "We want a carve-out of that funding so that we can do it ourselves and not have the territorial government assume that responsibility."
Hydro and healing
The territorial government said an agenda is being developed for the territory's representatives to meet Vandal.
The two governments are expected to discuss implementation of Ottawa's recently published Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, a document which lays out a broad vision for the North and begins to define how northern challenges will be tackled. The framework was criticized, on its publication, for a lack of specific actions and timelines.
In an interview with the Canadian Press, Vandal said the framework is a priority for him and more details are coming.
Premier Caroline Cochrane is also expected to raise federal housing, health, education, and infrastructure investment with Vandal, alongside the issue of climate change.
"With continued international interest in the Arctic, we are also interested in discussing how Canada and the three territorial governments can work together to set a longer-term vision for the Arctic and its place in the world," a territorial government statement read.
NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane, left, met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on December 5. Federal cabinet members Chrystia Freeland, in red, and Dan Vandal, right, were present. Photo: Justin Trudeau/Twitter
Vandal's mandate letter – the document in which the prime minister sets out each minister's priorities – tasks him with working on the framework, finalizing plans to clean up high-risk mine sites, and pushing forward northern hydro projects.
As the NWT develops its own polytechnic university, Vandal's mandate also outlines steps he should take to establish a "robust system of post-secondary education in the North."
Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty told Cabin Radio she has requested a meeting with the minister and is waiting to hear back. If a meeting goes ahead, Alty stated via email she would like to see action on economic infrastructure – roads and visitor centres, hydro projects, and the university.
Alty also wants the federal government to follow through on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendation that Ottawa provide "sustainable funding for existing and new Aboriginal healing centres" to address harms caused by residential schools.
In his mandate letter, Vandal was tasked by Trudeau to follow through on the Liberals' commitment to support creation of a treatment facility in Nunavut. No such pledge was made for the NWT, though the commission's call to action says Canada should "ensure that the funding of healing centres in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories is a priority."
Federal funding has been committed to support the "construction of a new healthcare and wellness facility" in Yellowknife. Exactly what the $5.2 million, announced early September, will go toward is unclear – it is assumed the money will help to fund a permanent home for the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation's Yellowknife operations.
Alty hopes Vandal will work with Ahmed Hussen, whose ministry is responsible for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), to speed up the corporation's funding for housing plans. Alty highlighted the Yellowknife Women's Society's application to turn the city's Arnica Inn into a 42-unit transitional housing complex. Yellowknife's city council has supported the plans, and Alty said society's application is currently before the CMHC.
The territory's MP, Michael McLeod, will participate in Vandal's visit to the territorial capital, his office said. No further details could be provided as the itinerary is being finalized, McLeod staffer Hayden Moher said by email.
Reached by phone on Monday, Yellowknives Dene First Nation's Ndilo chief, Ernest Betsina, could not confirm whether First Nation representatives would meet the minister.