As the NWT government grapples with Covid-19, MLAs last week warned they believe other important issues are being overlooked.
At the Legislative Assembly on Friday, several regular MLAs decried the price tag of the government’s proposed new Covid-19 Coordinating Secretariat, estimated to cost $86.1 million over the next three years.
The MLAs said creation of the secretariat overlooked other areas in sore need of government spending.
The secretariat, in effect a miniature department, is designed to centralize work on the pandemic currently being done by several existing departments.
The territorial government has argued the actual cost of the secretariat is less than $3 million, as the rest of the money was already earmarked for spending on Covid-19. Most of the cash is simply being moved from one budget line to another, the territory argues.
Even so, Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty said the secretariat “diverts scarce resources from the 22 former priorities of the 19th Assembly.” Those priorities were set out in a one-page document shortly after last year’s territorial election.
“It boggles me that we’re creating this Taj Mahal bureaucracy. It’s unthinkable,” Lafferty said of the secretariat.
The secretariat model abandons the government’s initial, proven response to Covid-19, Lafferty said, for a “new, burdensome bureaucracy that promises no improvement” at an increased cost.
The government, he argued, should instead focus on boosting the economy and “real issues” like affordable housing and increasing graduation rates.
Lafferty further criticized Premier Caroline Cochrane for deciding to create the secretariat without consulting regular MLAs, Indigenous governments, businesses, or the general public, “contrary to the spirit of consensus government.”
Cochrane, responding in the legislature, rejected those criticisms.
The premier said Indigenous and municipal governments had asked for more support to protect their communities from Covid-19, and the secretariat would provide that.
Meanwhile, she said, the territory’s initial Covid-19 response was “unsustainable” as people tried to do two jobs at once – a problem the secretariat is designed to solve.
“The Covid secretariat wasn’t something that just came up and we said, ‘We’re going to have a new agency because we have nothing better to do.’ It came out of trying to do the best we could,” Cochrane said.
The premier said her government had not always consulted the public about decisions like public health orders and border controls because they needed to act fast.
“If that is the reason that they will say, ‘Take her out,’ then take me out, because health and safety is priority,” she said.
“I have an obligation as the Premier of the Northwest Territories to make sure that the health and safety of our residents comes first, and I will hold that to my end.”
Government defends secretariat costs
Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake in Yellowknife, said the coordinating secretariat had not been well-received by her constituents.
“The safety of northerners is paramount and so far we have been lucky. We have not lost northerners to Covid. But this year we have lost northerners to suicide, addictions, inter-partner violence and illness,” Cleveland said.
“I want to remain conscious that we not become tunnel-visioned by Covid while our real demons demand more funding.”
Cleveland said policies around isolation centres – one of the biggest costs in the coordinating secretariat budget – should be reviewed to curb misuse. In a breakdown of the proposed secretariat budget reported by NNSL, isolation centres were estimated to cost $35.8 million between 2020 and 2023.
The premier said discussions about a review of isolation centre costs have begun. The territory is also considering contracting out some services – like border services and storage of personal protective equipment – to reduce costs, she added.
The NWT government has said the estimated cost of the coordinating secretariat accounts for the current cost of Covid-19 services in the territory, plus an additional $2.6 million.
The territory plans to use $23.4 million in federal funding, which Canada granted in April to help the NWT’s health care system, toward secretariat costs – including existing costs presently being met by various departments.
The secretariat will centralize responsibility for border patrols, enforcement, isolation centres, personal protective equipment, 8-1-1 and ProtectNWT, which together are currently the domain of at least four separate departments. The new mini-department will be staffed by around 150 people.
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said bringing these services together under one unit is a more efficient use of financial resources. She said her department will publish Covid-19 costs on its website to ensure transparency.
MLAs still have to vote on a supplementary funding bill for the secretariat.
“If the supplementary budget isn’t approved, we go back to making a choice,” said Cochrane. “Do we have business as usual, continue with these mandates? Or do we focus on the secretariat, isolation, and border patrols.
“Those are tough choices I have to make.”
MLAs say addictions treatment, 9-1-1 need funding
MLAs highlighted a number of areas where they’d prefer to see the territorial government allocate resources.
In an impassioned speech, Rocky Simpson – the MLA for Hay River South – highlighted the need for addictions services and supports.
“Knowing that this government has no issue identifying $87 million to address Covid monitoring and enforcement when no one has died in the NWT – but is slow to act when it comes to dealing with the disease that is hospitalizing, killing, or destroying our family and friends, our family members, on a regular basis – I find this to be a travesty,” he said.
Simpson demanded the government take a cross-departmental approach to address addictions and related issues like housing, mental health, and employment.
“I do not want to see another mother or father having to experience the death of a child because we are not doing enough to support the treatment of addictions,” he said.
There is currently no treatment centre for addictions in the NWT. The territorial government shut down the former Nats’ejee K’e treatment centre at the Kátł’odeeche First Nation in 2013.
NWT residents seeking residential treatment are now sent to one of a number of facilities in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia. Multiple health ministers have defended this as the best plan for residents, on the grounds that help available in the south is better tailored to individual needs, better staffed, and often has no waitlist.
In the Legislative Assembly on Thursday, restating a view she expressed to Cabin Radio on taking the job, new health minister Julie Green said the territorial government has no plan to reopen a residential addictions treatment centre in the NWT.
Katrina Nokleby, MLA for Great Slave, raised concerns that the territory’s 9-1-1 emergency service is being underfunded. She said she’s worried about dispatcher burnout as, with five staff currently funded, only one dispatcher is on duty per 12-hour shift – answering more than 60 calls a day, according to Nokleby.
“At times, 9-1-1 has been so short-staffed that the dispatcher on duty doesn’t get a meal or break times and has to run to the bathroom hoping a call does not come in,” she said.
After six months, Nokleby said, the 9-1-1 service asked for two additional staff and extra funding. The territorial government rejected that budget, she said, as 9-1-1- had not been operational for at least one year.
Comparatively, she continued, 8-1-1 – the NWT Covid-19 support line – has nine operators, three nurses, four relief positions, and one manager. This service is not available 24-7, unlike 9-1-1, Nokleby noted. She said she and many of her constituents had difficulty reaching anyone when calling 8-1-1.
Paulie Chinna, minister of municipal and community affairs, said both numbers were “important services to residents who need appropriate resources.”
Chinna said her department was in the process of adding relief staff to the dispatch centre.