Economy

With NWT economy ‘worse every day,’ business groups call for change


Five Northwest Territories business groups jointly called for the territory to change the way it is responding to Covid-19.

The groups, which claim to together represent the majority of NWT businesses, said the territory’s response to Covid-19 had “come at a heavy price and is getting worse every day.”

They called on government leaders to “strike a better balance” between pandemic public health measures and the safe reopening of the NWT economy.

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In particular, the groups want restrictions on incoming travellers to be eased.

Caroline Cochrane, the NWT’s premier, has said “the health and safety of our people, territory, and economy are at the forefront of our decisions” as the pandemic evolves.

The NWT is currently in phase two of its pandemic recovery plan. While many businesses have been allowed to reopen, restrictions on their operations remain and – crucially – the territory is still closed to almost all tourists.

In their news release, the five groups – the NWT Chamber of Commerce, NWT Tourism, Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, and NWT and Nunavut Construction Association – said the territory needed to awaken from its protective “induced coma.”

“We now need urgent action in order to preserve businesses and ensure the survival of the private sector,” the news release stated, characterizing the tourism and hospitality industries as “barely clinging to life.”

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Critically, the associations said, the NWT government itself had “shown no initiative” in adapting its ways of doing business to the pandemic.

“GNWT workers remain on full pay with no consequences to their personal incomes, household costs, or pensions,” the groups wrote. “Virtually all its employees continue to work from home where that is possible.

By contrast, the groups said, “the NWT business community is leading the way in adapting to phase two restrictions by reopening safely in the face of an opaque and restrictive public health regime.”

Federal and territorial help

The NWT government has introduced some supports to help industry sectors and relied on Ottawa to bail out others.

For example, the territory’s airlines have received $8.7 million in pandemic funding from the federal government followed by $2.9 million from the GNWT designed to cover gaps in that federal assistance.

Others sectors were already facing problems that the pandemic may have worsened, but for which Covid-19 was not entirely responsible.

Diamond mining company Dominion had already been the subject of bleak financial forecasts before Covid-19 arrived and it chose to shutter its Ekati mine. Dominion subsequently entered creditor protection and is now trying to sell its assets to parent company Washington while fighting another mining company in court.

Katrina Nokleby, the territory’s industry minister, has pushed back at the assertion by some business leaders that the GNWT has done too little to support small and medium-sized businesses.

Nokleby says her department intentionally directed businesses toward federal funding while focusing GNWT money on areas inadequately supported.

However, some have challenged that statement. The NWT’s mining industry body, for example, long complained that neither Ottawa nor the NWT government had provided adequate support for the mineral exploration sector, which did not immediately meet criteria for federal help.

CanNor, the federal economic development agency, has since launched funding initiatives designed to catch businesses that would not otherwise qualify.

A business advisory council – co-chaired by Jenni Bruce, one of the five signatories to the groups’ news release – met for the first time earlier this month. However, the GNWT has faced criticism for the time taken to get that advisory group off the ground.

Five requests

The NWT’s private sector has not been uniformly affected by the pandemic.

While many tour operators have either abandoned their summer season or closed down entirely, some retail outlets have reported steady and even, in some cases, rising sales.

Some companies, like gym operators, spent many weeks unable to generate revenue and even now must operate under restrictive and sometimes confusing measures. (For example, interpretations of the same territorial government guidance regarding squash courts have differed significantly. In Yellowknife, on June 18, the Racquet Club told squash players its courts “are open but you must keep two metres between you and your opponent.” Two days earlier, the Town of Inuvik had told squash players its courts were only open for one person per court, essentially for practice play. The same territorial rules apply to both.)

Three company owners have expressed concern to Cabin Radio that their requests for clarity on restrictions affecting their business are passed back and forth between the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer and the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission.

In their news release, the five groups stated they wished to see a greater “sense of urgency” in addressing the needs of businesses.

The groups set out five requests of the NWT government:

  • Reveal “the economic price tag to date” of the NWT’s Covid-19 restrictions and publish “any economic forecasting the GNWT has performed.” (Rylund Johnson, the Yellowknife North MLA, said on Twitter: “The fact this has to be asked for is embarrassing and reflective of a lack of GNWT data transparency.”)
  • Ease travel and quarantine restrictions for those entering the territory, “even if not uniformly across the NWT.”
  • Get GNWT employees back into their offices “in a manner consistent with the private sector.”
  • Provide “consistent and prompt answers” on the interpretation of pandemic rules.
  • Provide “consistent and accurate messaging” regarding the pandemic.

In closing, the groups said they believed the NWT’s political leaders had “relinquished many … governing responsibilities” to the chief public health officer, Dr Kami Kandola.

Premier Cochrane has stated throughout the pandemic that political pressure would not be placed on the chief public health officer regarding public health measures.

The five groups, though, said Dr Kandola’s decision-making “can no longer take place in a vacuum.”

“Businesses in the Northwest Territories are doing their best to survive. Our elected officials need to step up and govern, lest we see irreparable damage to our once vibrant business community,” the news release concluded.

Kandola has previously said reopening the territory to other Canadians will rely primarily on how southern Canada handles an anticipated second wave of Covid-19 in the fall.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer said last week: “We do not have plans to alter our self-isolation or travel restriction protocols at this time.

“In our public health assessment, they remain essential to continuing to protect the territory from Covid-19 – and especially to prevent outbreaks in remote communities – while allowing activities folks have been missing to get going again safely.”

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