A file photo of Kevin O'Reilly in October 2019. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Territorial politicians on Friday voted to go ahead with limited spending on a planned road to Nunavut in what one MLA called “the most important debate that we’ve had since we’ve been elected.”
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly was trying to delete $10 million earmarked for planning the Slave Geological Province corridor, a proposed highway leading from the Ingraham Trail to the Nunavut border.
Those in favour of the road say it’ll eventually open that part of the NWT to more and cheaper mining, providing a much-needed boost to the economy.
The total cost of building the road is put at $1.1 billion, most of which would have to be federally funded. An economic assessment published last year suggested the NWT government would get back a direct return of between $1.2 billion and $2.6 billion, with other associated economic benefits.
“This is a very important debate that we are about to have. It’s a debate about the future of the Northwest Territories,” said O’Reilly in the legislature on Friday.
“It’s a debate about infrastructure projects and people.”
After the debate, MLAs voted 12 to three against O’Reilly’s motion – allowing the $10-million investment to go ahead.
The NWT will ultimately pay only $2.5 million this year with $7.5 million funded by the federal government. The territory is then set to make similar contributions in the next three years, totalling $10 million from the territory and $30 million from Ottawa.
All six cabinet members present voted against O’Reilly’s motion. The Frame Lake MLA was joined in backing his motion by Yellowknife Centre’s Julie Green and Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh’s Steve Norn.
“I am looking at a map of my riding, and this [proposed highway] goes right through the heart of it,” Norn told colleagues.
“I am tired of a lot of resources being extracted and seeing my constituents still go without. I am sick and tired of it, and so are the chiefs. Yes, we need an economy, but there is still not enough consultation.”
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation, submitting a statement to Cabin Radio after this article had been first published, said it fully supported both the proposed highway and the spending package in question.
‘We cannot afford this’
The money will pay for an environmental assessment of the road’s impact on the eastern NWT, as well as a range of other planning studies on topics like local employment.
O’Reilly considered his motion momentous as, he said, the NWT’s politicians had yet to publicly debate a range of proposed, big-ticket infrastructure projects in this way.
The Slave Geological Province corridor is one of three big territorial infrastructure priorities. The others are the Mackenzie Valley Highway and expansion of the South Slave’s Taltson hydro system to provide cheaper power to the North Slave.
Had O’Reilly’s motion succeeded, the NWT government would have been forced to turn down a significant sum in federal funding and delay any work on the Slave Geological Province highway.
Deleting the funding could have ended any prospect of the road going ahead for a generation.
“I simply believe that we cannot afford to build this project, even if it was the right thing to do,” said O’Reilly. “We cannot afford it as a government. We’re very close to the debt wall. This would require extraordinary borrowing or increasing our borrowing limit.
“The more time and effort that we continue to spend on this particular project, it takes away from work we can and should be doing on other projects, namely housing.”
O’Reilly also expressed concern about the road’s impact on caribou, should it be built.
“Quite frankly, I would take the $2.5 million [NWT share of the $10 million] from this and spend it on other things, including habitat protection,” he said.
O’Reilly advocated for money to improve Behchokǫ̀’s Frank Channel Bridge, instead, or invest in health and education. He also questioned whether construction of the road to Nunavut would benefit the NWT’s economy to the extent billed by proponents.
Quoting from earlier studies, O’Reilly said two-thirds of the labour to build the road would need to be imported from the south.
“At no stage in the Slave Geological Province road – from design, construction, right to actual mining – will any more than 50 percent of those jobs actually stay in the Northwest Territories,” he said. “If we spend a billion dollars on housing, a lot more of those jobs would stay in the Northwest Territories.”
‘Turning our backs on $30M’
Responding to O’Reilly, finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said projects like the road to Nunavut were in the set of priorities collectively produced by all 19 MLAs.
She told O’Reilly the money for planning the road would provide an opportunity to “showcase the fact that the Northwest Territories can do resource development differently and better.”
Wawzonek continued: “We can be leaders in resource development. We can be leaders in Indigenous relationships. We can be leaders in ways that show the rest of Canada how modern resource development can work. This is just the opening stages: the environmental assessment and the planning stage.
“If we don’t have an economy in the North, we aren’t going to have people. We need all of these things together.
“We have to advance this project and advance housing. We can advance this project with this vote and still vote on all the other things that we have in our priorities – by being careful, by being balanced, by looking at that total picture.”
In particular, Wawzonek stressed that going back to the federal government and turning down its 75-percent share of the money could be incredibly damaging to the territory’s hopes of securing future funding from Ottawa.
“We’d be turning our backs on a project that’s been approved to the tune of $30 million from the federal government,” the minister said.
“Over and over I have heard it said, the importance of reaching out to our federal partners. The importance of engaging with the federal government to ensure investment in infrastructure in the North, social infrastructure and physical infrastructure.
“I’m not sure where exactly I would go, or how I would restart, if we were to suddenly turn around and say: ‘No, this major nation-building project that you’ve been looking at since the 1950s, we’re turning our backs on it.'”
In a statement submitted a day after the debate, the Yellowknives Dene said the $40-million planning work was the “first step in determining the environmental impacts [and] economical feasibility of the project prior to giving the final go-ahead to design and construction.”
The statement added the First Nation’s “full participation in this project is seen as economic reconciliation in action while creating employment and prosperity for its members, Akaitcho, and the greater NWT.”
What your MLA said
Twelve MLAs spoke in Friday’s debate, most to support the project – albeit with some reservations. (Norn, O’Reilly, and Wawzonek are quoted above.)
Rocky Simpson, Hay River South: “The money is going to go south? It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen. We have to make sure that anybody doing work for the GNWT has to have a stake in the Northwest Territories. They have to have an office here. We have to hold their feet to the fire to make sure they hire people here. As long as the government can assure me that’s going to happen, I have no problem allowing the expenditure to go through.”
Jackie Jacobson, Nunakput: “I know it’s going through traditional grounds for caribou, but we had this same thing with our Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik Highway, and, you know what, it seems to be working. In the big picture, we are open for business.”
Frieda Martselos, Thebacha: “We have to look to the future. A lot of our youth do not come back here because we don’t have a strong economy. I believe the economy is extremely important.”
Caitlin Cleveland, Kam Lake: “How much money are we going to put into a project that we are not sure we will actually be able to financially see through to the very end? Will Nunavut actually contribute their half of the road, which goes up to the Arctic Ocean, which is a huge component of this project?
“It is our responsibility to provide the people of the Northwest Territories with as much information as possible. That is what it is doing. It is providing information so we can say yes, we are going to do this, or no, we are not going to do this.”
Julie Green, Yellowknife Centre: “The 75 percent offered by Ottawa, while looking like a good deal, is actually the tail wagging the dog. By offering 75 percent, it obliges the NWT to spend 25 percent, and we don’t really have 25 percent.
“We have to start somewhere in putting our feet down and saying we are not going to have any more projects in which the majority of the benefits are flowing out of the NWT.”
Premier Caroline Cochrane, Range Lake: “You need money to have social programs. I do not want us to end up being a welfare state. I think we have to look for resources now. If we don’t find resources now, we are in trouble, and we are not helping our children and our future to come.”
Rylund Johnson, Yellowknife North: “This work is key to answering some of the questions I have. There are so many what-ifs about this project. Should we be building a highway through Akaitcho territory, knowing eventually that will be their land? [This work] will help me with many of those questions.
“The reality is that if the feds are willing to give us 25-cent dollars, I will take them. I keep directing cabinet to do so, so I don’t feel comfortable voting to remove what are 75-percent dollars.”
Jackson Lafferty, Monfwi (translated from Tłı̨chǫ): “We have issues like housing, education, and now a virus within Canada and the Northwest Territories, and where is that going? What is going to happen? We are going to spend millions and millions. Now we hear $1 billion. In Tłı̨chǫ, we can’t say ‘$1 billion.’ You just add million, million, million.”
RJ Simpson, Hay River North: “Right now, the GNWT is on income assistance. Our grants from the Government of Canada are income assistance payments. While we are making progress in many areas, we have a long way to go. This project is us taking the steps to become self-sufficient.”
Regular MLAs Lafferty, Johnson, Martselos, Jacobson, Simpson, and Cleveland joined the six present members of cabinet in voting down the motion.
O’Reilly, Green, and Norn voted in favour. Katrina Nokleby and Ron Bonnetrouge were absent. Lesa Semmler, as chair of the debate, and Speaker Frederick Blake Jr did not vote.