The Northwest Territories acknowledged “some businesses will fold” and wrote off international tourism for the foreseeable future as it set out a plan for economic recovery.
Premier Caroline Cochrane and her industry and finance ministers briefed MLAs about the plan, dubbed Emerge Stronger, at the same time as the NWT’s chief public health officer told reporters more news on easing restrictions would come by the end of next week.
There were no dollar figures attached to the economic plan, which instead set out broad steps the territory will take to restart its economy after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The presentation looked in similarly overarching terms at how healthcare and social needs will be supported.
While plotting a “gradual and phased” reopening of the NWT’s economy, the territorial government said the pandemic also presented “an opportunity to focus the NWT on a common objective and goal that has not existed previously.”
The territory’s presentation to MLAs stated: “Prior attempts to engage stakeholders collaboratively have been frustrated by competing interests, goals, and objectives. This should not be the case with a shared commitment to successfully recovering from the pandemic.”
It wasn’t clear which stakeholders the NWT government had in mind. The word usually refers to other levels of government, business interests, and special interest groups.
There was little fine detail in the plan, which instead focused on how the territory will move from responding to the pandemic to a recovery phase, then a longer-term resiliency mode where changes can be made that may make the NWT stronger in future.
The NWT government said the plan would involve, among other aspirations:
- seeking partnerships with businesses “to support GNWT objectives” like job creation, developing a low-carbon economy, and diversifying the economy;
- shifting toward a digital economy, adapting to remote learning or working, and accounting for a declining oil and gas sector; and
- making changes to existing programs and the way the GNWT does business so that when temporary subsidies are exhausted, there are more long-lasting changes in place.
Three advisory councils will help oversee the plan: one for businesses (promised last month but still to be formally convened), one for Indigenous communities, and one for the health and social sectors.
Wednesday’s presentation prepared by the territorial government also attempted to acknowledge the realities facing many industries.
“International tourism is definitely gone in the short term and will take a long time to recover,” the document stated. “Whether the NWT tourism industry can shift to domestic tourism is unknown.
“Some businesses will fold or be scaled down. Many small NWT businesses will have more debt.”
On a brighter note, the document suggested: “Some businesses will have adapted and become more competitive and resilient.”
‘Get money out of the door’
Anyone hoping for a detailed document outline practical actions, with a timeline and measurable goals, would have been disappointed. This was a far broader overview of the philosophy behind the NWT government’s response rather than the detail of how that will translate into action.
“I’m concerned at the lack of detail in this presentation,” said Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, expressing his fear that “this push to start committees and engage stakeholders is an excuse for us not to get money out of the door to small businesses.”
“We’re relying on the federal government [for relief funding] but I think that’s a fundamental problem,” Johnson continued. “if we’re going to rely on entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial spirit to build our recovery, we can’t have businesses closing their doors right now.
“I’m concerned that this presentation has zero dollars attached to it. I really want to see some economic stimulus spending. When is the GNWT going to spend some money?”
Caroline Wawzonek, the finance minister, insisted: “It’s not the lack of wanting to spend money.”
Instead, Wawzonek said, the work being presented on Wednesday showed the territory trying to craft a longer-term vision for its recovery.
“We want to be a little bit careful before we commit to too many things,” she said. “We want to make sure our own fiscal house is in order.”
Pockets ‘not deep enough’ to help mines?
MLAs lined up behind Johnson to craft their visions of how the NWT’s recovery should look, and where the territorial government can be of most use.
Rocky Simpson, the businessman turned Hay River South MLA, said businesses need to be given “shovel-ready work … to generate a profit if they’re going to survive.”
Simpson said: “Loans and deferrals won’t do it. I hear we’re going to try to prop up the economy and make sure work is out there, but what I don’t hear is we’re going to do it with northern people and northern businesses.”
Premier Caroline Cochrane assured him: “I think we’re all in agreement that we want northern contracts and northern jobs for northern people.”
Kevin O’Reilly, the Frame Lake MLA, urged ministers not to prioritize financial support for diamond mines. Dominion Diamond Mines, owner and operator of the territory’s largest mine, filed for creditor protection last week.
“I want to make sure our government is not going to spend too much time trying to help the diamond mines recover,” said O’Reilly.
“We don’t have deep enough pockets. I think we have to shift the focus to small business, where we can actually have some influence.”
News on easing restrictions ‘by the end of next week’
Meanwhile, in a separate news conference on Wednesday afternoon, NWT Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola reiterated that her focus – now she has issued what is probably a final amendment to travel restrictions – is how to safely ease pandemic restrictions.
“Together we have flattened the curve,” she said of territorial restrictions thus far.
“Be proud of yourself. Even though it might not feel like it sometimes, you’re all doing something amazing right now.”
Kandola said she couldn’t yet release details about how and when restrictions will be relaxed, as that plan is still in the works. She said people should continue to follow public health orders. Her office later said she anticipated updating the public about a transition plan away from some restrictions by the end of next week, including an amendment to the ban on gatherings.
“I empathize with our residents and I sense their frustration,” she said, noting that people are encouraged to spend time outside with 10 or fewer people while practising social distancing.
Faster tests come with supply problems
Kandola said the NWT government hopes to expand testing in communities in the next two weeks.
Last week, the government said it had applied for Spartan Bioscience’s Cube Covid-19 system, which can provide positive test results in 30 minutes, with plans to deploy it in regional centres.
On Wednesday, however, territorial medical director Dr Sarah Cook said there were two problems facing quick deployment of the Cube tests: a shortage of a chemical used by the device and challenges getting a patient’s swab into the machine quickly.
Cook said the Xpert Xpress device, a separate type of Covid-19 test that can produce results within 45 minutes, is now on the ground in the territory. She hopes to have it up and running in the next one to three weeks.
Not everyone who gets tested for Covid-19 should expect results in under an hour, Cook said, as there is also a shortage of materials required for running tests with the Xpert Xpress device. That means its use will have to be prioritized.
Emily Blake contributed reporting.
Correction: April 29, 2020 – 18:03 MT. The NWT’s chief public health officer initially told reporters she expected to issue more news about easing restrictions “in two to three weeks.” Her office later said she had misunderstood the question and, in fact, plans to release more information by the end of next week. This report has been updated accordingly.