The first Canadian federal minister assigned solely to northern affairs says the days of Ottawa dictating which projects are most important to the North are gone.
Minister Dan Vandal told Cabin Radio "the era of Ottawa-knows-best is over" as he declined to outline priorities of his own for northern development under a Liberal minority government.
Vandal is making his first tour of the three territories since his appointment as Justin Trudeau's northern affairs minister following October's federal election. He's the first person to be given responsibility for northern affairs without shouldering another portfolio.
"It's not my role to come into NWT and tell the premier, and tell the mayor, and tell the First Nations and community groups that this is Ottawa's priority, or that is Ottawa's priority," said Vandal, MP for the urban Winnipeg riding of St Boniface–St Vital.
"I need to talk to those governments and those leaders, and those community groups."
Critics have suggested, with a full term complete, the Liberal government should already understand the priorities of northern governments, communities, and leaders. Many of those priorities are enshrined in a federal document known as the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework, published just before the election after a significant delay.
The framework, which brought together in one document a range of well-established Liberal principles for northern development, was criticized in some quarters for lacking firm timelines and detailed costings.
Vandal told Cabin Radio a firmer plan for the North should be finished in the next couple of months.
While hesitant to discuss major issues facing the territory until he had met northern leaders, Vandal identified climate change as an area of focus.
"We know that climate change is the context that underpins much of what's going on in the North, whether it's infrastructure – permafrost is melting – whether it's trying to get communities off diesel, whether it's moving forward on housing," he said.
On housing, Vandal said he would visit Behchokǫ̀ on NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane's recommendation to get a sense of the territory's housing needs and issues.
The Dene Nation is currently working to secure direct federal funding for the improvement of Dene housing, an initiative the NWT Housing Corporation said it supports.
"If we talk about developing quality, affordable housing, we need to have everyone at the table," said Vandal, "including the territories, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the provinces.
"I look at this as being about partnerships, about leveraging all sorts of financial resources and investments as well as expertise, and there's a huge role for the private sector as well."
Regarding education, prominent in the mandate letter issued by Trudeau to Vandal, the minister said a task force would be created for the North "take a good scan of what's already available in the North and in the Arctic, and then add on to it."
He said: "I think we need to mandate that task force, find membership for the task force, make sure there's some Northwest Territories representation on that task force. Let them do their work."
Another area of importance is reconciliation, Vandal said, without entering into detail.
"It's just a matter of doing the groundwork before I can say that this is priority one, priority two," he stressed.
Below, find a full transcript of Vandal's interview with Cabin Radio reporter Emelie Peacock.
This interview was recorded on January 14, 2020. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Emelie Peacock: Who have you met so far and who do you plan to meet while you're here?
Dan Vandal: Well, I've met the Grand Chief of the Dene Nation this morning, or this afternoon, along with a couple of other chiefs from the Dene territory. And after this, I am meeting the Association of Municipalities for the Northwest Territories, or this part of the territories anyway. Tomorrow I'm meeting another First Nation group. Oh, and I'm also having supper with the premier tonight. Of course, how could I forget that? Supper with the premier and I'm meeting another First Nations group first thing in the morning.
And you're heading to Behchokǫ̀, I understand.
I am, with the premier. I understand that there's some housing issues. Housing is very important in this part of Canada, as it is in many parts of Canada, and I want to get a first-hand look at the issues at the premier's suggestion. So looking forward to it.
Could you tell us what some of your qualifications are for representing the North and the NWT?
This is my second term as an MP. I represent St Boniface–St Vital, which is in the city of Winnipeg, and I've been an MP for about five years. Prior to that, I was a city councillor for about 17 years representing St Boniface. So I've been in politics for, geez, a long time now. I was first elected in '95. My qualifications are that I'm a very conscientious MP. I work hard for my citizens. I work well with the administration. And I made it very clear to Prime Minister Trudeau when he appointed me that I was from the city. And he explained to me that these are issues that are important to Canada. And I'm a quick read. I've got great people working with me and I look forward to discussing the issues.
During the federal election campaign, we didn't really hear much about the North and the NWT. With your minority government, it's unlikely to look for support from the North. So I'm wondering what kind of leverage you have with the Prime Minister, and with the cabinet, to really get things done for our territory and for the North?
Well, it's a priority for us. This has been something that was suggested for over 20 years – to have a minister of northern affairs – and, for the first time, we're moving on it. All of the important issues affect a ministry or two or three, whether it's natural resources, whether it's the environment, transportation, so I intend to work hard as a team player.
If you could choose one project above all others to take hold of and getting it done for the NWT over these next four years, with your help, what would that project be?
That's a common question. My priority right now is to meet people that live here – meet people that have been working in the cities, in the territory for many years – and find out what their priorities are. So before I can tell you what it is I want to do as priority one, I need to meet people. I need to listen to them. I need to talk to them. And I need to really reflect on what their priorities are. So before I can tell you A, B, C, or D, I need to meet people and listen to them. And that's exactly why I'm here at this point.
I mean, there's not a lack of issues. We know that climate change is the context that underpins much of what's going on in the North, whether it's infrastructure – permafrost melting – whether it's trying to get communities off diesel, whether it's moving forward on housing. So all of those issues are so very important.
I need to meet the people that have been here for years that have been working on initiatives, that have their own priorities. And I need to listen to them. I need to meet with the premier to see what the premier has been working on, and then try to identify the issues that the territory is working on, the First Nations are working on or other community groups, the mining industry, to see what is it that the federal government can partner with the province – with the territory – and with the other groups to actually implement.
So before I can get very descriptive to you on 'we're going to do this or this,' I think I've got some base work to do.
But clearly, climate change is what's underpinning much of what's happening in the North, whether it's housing, whether it's economic development. That's going to be important. It's important to our government. Reconciliation is important. So it's just a matter of doing the groundwork before I can say that this is priority one, priority two.
In terms of priorities and action items, I imagine the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework will definitely guide you. When can we expect to see more specific action items, price tags associated with those, and timelines?
Good question. The Arctic and Northern Policy Framework... there's been a tremendous amount of work that's gone into that. It's been co-developed between all the territories, the federal government, provinces, Indigenous nations, other groups. So I want to go from co-development to co-implementation, again, in partnership with all of those groups I've just mentioned.
It is budget time. And once again, before I can get very descriptive and precise about the projects that we're going to move on, it's so very important for myself and our administration to meet with the people that are on the ground. This is an introductory tour. I was in Churchill on Friday, I was in Whitehorse yesterday, I'm in Yellowknife today, I'm going to be in Ottawa by Thursday. So it's an introductory tour, and we're going to keep the conversations going. We're going to keep the communications going. We're going to keep the partnerships going.
When the time is right we're going to come out with some specific details, with some specific numbers attached to the projects that are coming forward. But we know what the big issues are, I think, in the North already.
Any idea on the timing of such a report, or more detail?
Well, we're in budget season now for 2020 and I'm working closely with our administration. I've been following these files for the last few years. And I would say give us a couple of months, and there should be something rounding out with some detail and some numbers attached, I hope. That's what the plan is.
You've mentioned climate change, you've mentioned housing. Are other big issues starting to circulate in your mind?
Education is important, absolutely. I certainly heard that in Whitehorse, where I was yesterday. Education was very important. It was brought up today as well.
So again, it's part of my exercise for being here. I haven't met with the premier yet. I want to sit down with the premier and find out what the priorities are from a territorial perspective. What funding is potentially there that we can work together on. And, again, before I get descriptive, I need to meet with people. And that's the whole purpose of this trip is to sit down with the First Nations, with other governments. I'm meeting municipalities after our meeting here, and we're going to talk about what's important to municipalities. Before I can get very, very detailed as to this is my priority, priority one, priority two, I need to meet with these groups and that's why I'm here.
The NWT is working on a polytechnic university. What kind of levers would you have in your role to help move that project along?
One of my mandate letters is to look at post-secondary education in the North. And the first thing we need to do is put a task force together to look at post-secondary education in the North and in the Arctic.
I did visit Yukon College, soon-to-be Yukon University yesterday. I think we need to mandate that task force, find membership for the task force, make sure that there's some Northwest Territories representation on that task force. Let them do their work. And then my mandate letter clearly states to consider the implementation of the recommendations – depending, of course, we don't know what those recommendations are. But I think we need to take a good scan of what's already available in the North and in the Arctic, and then add on to it.
I mean, there's a reason why the prime minister developed the first standalone minister for northern affairs and that's to get stuff done. And I'm going to work in collaboration with other ministers in the cabinet, such as transportation, such as environment, such as infrastructure. And we're going to work very hard to get positive initiatives developed in the North.
Forty-two percent of our housing is either overcrowded, has major repairs to be done, or is really unaffordable. The Dene Nation wants a direct relationship with the feds, to funnel money to housing projects without the territorial government involved. How possible is that?
Well, it's important to note, first of all, that under our government – which was elected in 2015 – we are the first government to actually fund directly the Inuit Nations, Métis Nations, and First Nations over extended periods of time. We know that's extremely important. But we also know that's not enough.
If we talk about developing quality, affordable housing, we need to have everyone at the table including the territories, including the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), including the provinces. So I look at this as being about partnerships, about leveraging all sorts of financial resources and investments as well as expertise, and there's a huge role for the private sector as well.
So we need to get everyone at the table. We need to bring everyone's expertise and money at the table and invest it in as smart a way as possible to deliver the housing that's so very necessary. Not only here in NWT but all over the North.
So there's a precedent to be able to directly fund Indigenous governments in housing.
Yes, it's been occurring for the last three years. I believe it's $400 million for the Inuit Nation over five years, $600 million for First Nations over the same amount of time and $500 million for the Métis Nation. So we've invested. We have Canada's first distinctions-based housing policy, that's been in place for a while. It's very important, but it's not enough. We need to work directly with the provinces as well and with CMHC and with the private sector, and we're doing that. We're going to do that.
Your mandate letter talks about hydro projects. Could you tell me which projects in the NWT you see as being critical?
Again, I'm gonna tell you that the era of Ottawa-knows-best is over. It's not my role to come into the NWT and tell the premier, and tell the mayor, and tell the First Nations and the community groups that this is Ottawa's priority, or that is Ottawa's priority. I need to talk to those governments, those leaders, those community groups. And in the last four years we've relied heavily on municipal priorities. we've relied heavily on provincial priorities. And we funded those successfully. I know in my province we have, and actually across Canada we have.
So we're going to continue to take the same approach in the North, and I know we've taken that approach already. I'm going to continue to take that same approach and work in partnership with municipalities, Indigenous nations, and territories. I think projects are more sustainable and are better appreciated if they come from the ground floor. The people who live in the area should determine their priorities rather than have Ottawa tell them what the priorities are.