Premier Caroline Cochrane at the legislature on September 8, 2020. Sarah Sibley/Cabin Radio
A group representing businesses across the NWT has questioned why the territorial government is spending tens of millions of dollars on a new Covid-19 Secretariat.
The creation of the secretariat was announced on September 3. Plans include employing 150 staff members dedicated to the territory’s pandemic response, at a cost of around $86 million over three years.
In an open letter to Premier Caroline Cochrane on Thursday, the NWT Chamber of Commerce said that was hard to square with pressure on businesses to find money during the pandemic.
“We just went through budget deliberations [with the GNWT] where the business community was essentially told that it is up to us to generate more revenue,” the letter stated.
“It was indicted that the GNWT could not cut costs anywhere, thus the business community would have to carry the burden through increased small business tax (we currently have the highest small business tax in Canada already) and the possible introduction of a sales tax.
“By creating 150 new permanent positions, the GNWT puts an even further burden on the business community to financially support these new jobs.”
The territory says it will use $23.4 million from the federal government, previously allocated in April to assist the NWT health system in preparing for the pandemic, to help cover the cost of the new positions.
“The primary justification for our extensively restrictive regulations, rules, and policies regarding Covid-19 was not to overburden an already taxed health system,” the chamber’s letter continued.
“Thus, we feel the $23.4 million would be better allocated to better preparing the healthcare system, not creating another unnecessary level of bureaucracy.”
Three other chambers – Yellowknife, Thebacha, and Fort Simpson – had endorsed the NWT chamber’s open letter as of Friday.
Premier Caroline Cochrane told Cabin Radio the health and safety of residents needs to remain the top priority of the government, and the current rate at which staff were working was not sustainable.
“We needed to actually have a secretariat. Covid-19 is probably not going to go away in the next six months. I wish it would. But I’m not naive enough to think that. So we need to be prepared,” Cochrane said.
The premier said staff had worked a lot more than they typically would, which in turn had kept case numbers low, and the new division would alleviate pressure on workers trying to do two jobs at once.
“We could spend less. Absolutely. And people say, ‘Why don’t you just ease off?’ But [chief public health officer] Dr Kandola has said many times now, it’s not just luck that we’ve had five cases. It’s because of the work that we’ve done,” she said.
“We need to have people that are ready and we need accountability and responsibility.”
Businesses not impressed
Renée Comeau, executive director of the NWT Chamber, said she had heard from businesses across the territory concerned by the estimated cost of the secretariat – or how necessary and effective it would be.
Comeau added businesses have been struggling since the beginning of the pandemic, with many bringing in minimal revenue over the last several months, and the impact will start to be seen in the near future.
“It has been extremely difficult for businesses in the NWT to get any form of financial support outside of loan programs,” she said.
Comeau argued spending the secretariat money directly on healthcare, such as the swifter introduction of rapid testing, could help businesses by leading to the end of some “very restrictive constraints we have here in the NWT against residents and businesses.”
The new NWT health minister, Julie Green, has said her top priority on entering the job is to bolster Protect NWT and the 811 hotline dedicated to helping residents with travel or public health restriction-related enquiries.
One of the biggest complaints Comeau said she had heard from businesses was how long it takes to hear back from the GNWT on matters such as reopening or expanding the maximum occupancy of their shops – and she did not think a new department would change that.
“It doesn’t take money to return a phone call,” she said.
“It’s something that’s quite urgent and needs to be dealt with right away.”
‘Could be better spent’
Kirby Groat, president of the Fort Simpson chamber, said government in the NWT is already too “top heavy” and he would rather see healthcare supports – such as testing facilities – put in smaller communities across the territory.
“We still have not set up a testing regime around the NWT, and improving our health system would be a much better use of that money than just creating a police force,” he said.
“Right now, testing doesn’t help when we have to send it out. We have virtually no testing in the outer areas here.”
Denise Yuhas, the president of the Thebacha chamber, said the money could address gaps in education and healthcare.
“We have a shortage of healthcare professionals, our school system is limping along, our college here needs a massive injection of life,” she said. “That’s a big price tag.”
Groat says he is concerned that when the secretariat’s limited lifespan is over – it’s currently set at around two years – the government will not disband the division, which may cause further financial burdens for businesses such as tax increases.
“They are not going to give pink slips to 150 people, it’s not happening,” he speculated.
Comeau called on MLAs to listen to their constituents before they vote on the funding for the Covid-19 Secretariat in October.
“It’s not just businesses that are really going to feel the lasting negative effects of that. It’s every resident in the Northwest Territories,” she said.