As Covid-19 exposes vulnerabilities in northern communities, an NWT group is urging the territorial government to place racial, social, and environmental justice at the centre of its pandemic recovery plan.
The Just Recovery for the NWT campaign, organized and led by advocacy group Our Time Yellowknife, was launched in September to address inequalities exacerbated by Covid-19.
It rests on six sets of demands: good jobs, living wages, and sick leave; a guaranteed liveable income; affordable housing for all; universal access to the internet; culturally relevant mental health and addictions treatment options; and the Green New Deal, in the form of moving the NWT economy away from fossil fuels.
“We thought this specific moment in political time created a chance for change for the better,” Zoe Guile, from Our Time Yellowknife, told Cabin Radio.
The campaign so far primarily features online advocacy, but the group is increasingly pressuring territorial politicians to address its demands.
An “MLA Tracker” on the Just Recovery website – similar to the kind used by unions during election periods – keeps tabs on which MLAs have publicly committed to backing the demands. They get a green checkmark.
Of the 19 MLAs in the NWT, only three have green checkmarks to date: Great Slave’s Katrina Nokleby, Frame Lake’s Kevin O’Reilly, and Yellowknife North’s Rylund Johnson.
Guile said the lack of commitment from most MLAs so far has been disappointing.
“I think it represents more misunderstanding of the campaign, and just the fact that they haven’t taken the time to have a conversation with us and learn more about it,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be something that’s difficult to get behind. This is what our MLAs should be working towards already – towards a better future for their constituents and what their constituents want.
“That’s what we’re trying to show them: this is what their people want to see.”
How achievable are the goals?
Cabin Radio asked the three MLAs with a green checkmark why they had committed to the Just Recovery campaign’s ideals.
O’Reilly said he had long supported many of the demands during his five years in the legislature and was “more than happy to support this.”
Asked how to make those six demands a reality in the NWT, O’Reilly said cabinet must adjust its priorities to reflect them.
He used the example of affordable housing.
“Unfortunately, in the last assembly, when cabinet went to Ottawa, they would basically … only talk about the need for big infrastructure projects, roads to resources,” O’Reilly said.
“So, when it came to federal funding allocations for housing, we really didn’t receive the share that I think we can and should have gotten.”
O’Reilly thinks the current Assembly has shifted its focus toward what he calls “social investment,” but should be doing more.
For example, he believes investing in energy-efficient house construction could create jobs in small communities and provide eco-friendly housing.
“That’s the kind of investment that has lots of payoffs and will create jobs in all of our communities across the NWT, and have environmental benefits as well,” he said.
Are some goals setting the NWT up to fail?
Meanwhile, Nokleby said she interpreted the demands as “lofty goals” to which the NWT’s politicians could aspire.
“Who wouldn’t want good jobs and living wages and affordable housing and a [fossil-fuel] free world?” she asked.
The demand for universal access to the internet particularly stuck out to Nokleby. In a socially distanced world, she said, the internet often is the difference between those who can continue to work, receive their education, and remain informed, and those who can’t.
“Without access to the internet, you are cut off from knowledge,” Nokleby said. “With society kind-of shifting, and climate change, and uncertainty in weather and all of that, being online and being virtual is only going to become more and more important.”
To achieve this, Nokleby said she would “continue to be that squeaky wheel” reminding her fellow MLAs and cabinet ministers of their duty to constituents.
However, Nokleby isn’t without concerns about the Just Recovery’s goals and their achievability.
Realistically, she said, she does not see many of those goals being “achievable in the next few Assemblies, even.”
She points to the Green New Deal, which she argues does not take the territory’s present reliance on the fossil-fuel industry – or distance from other energy markets – into account.
“As the green economy and green energy moves forward, the North almost ends up getting penalized or lost in that whole conversation, because we don’t have the ability – like southern jurisdictions – to make that sort of rapid change off of fossil fuels,” Nokleby said.
“We’re just a very unique situation, and it could set us up to fail to really say we should be going to this when we would have a hard time doing so.”
‘We’ll be watching’
Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North who has also committed to the campaign, has concerns of his own about some of the Just Recovery’s plausibility.
When it comes to a living wage, for example, Johnson said the language surrounding it is “unhelpful.”
“A living wage in Yellowknife is $24. In some communities, it’s as high as $26,” he said. “We just can’t feasibly raise our $13.46 minimum wage by $10. I think probably a number more like $18 is realistic.”
Johnson expects the territorial government to raise its minimum wage “fairly soon,” adding his Just Recovery commitment will come in the form of “fighting for the higher end of it.”
But while some goals may not be immediately achievable, Johnson said, a guaranteed liveable income or living wage can be realized some day.
“There are ways to do it,” he said, suggesting that by raising the minimum wage one dollar each year and offering subsidies to businesses, “you could probably get it done with 10 years of consistent political effort.”
Guile said organizers don’t expect changes to happen immediately, especially the move away from extractive industries in the North.
“It doesn’t mean that we want all those jobs and that part of our economy to go away today,” she said.
“We need a concerted effort and a real strategy for a move away from those type of jobs. And that’s what I think MLAs are there for – that’s their expertise, that long-term planning.”
Guile wants MLAs to listen to communities, determine local needs and solutions, and focus government attention on the campaign’s demands.
Both O’Reilly and Johnson said they would continue to raise the issues outlined in the campaign in the House. Nokleby said she would prioritize what she calls “the bite-sized wins.”
“That’s where I see my role,” said the former minister, now a regular MLA. “The small things that will move forward these goals, that I can point out now as somebody sort-of sitting on the outside looking in.”
Guile said MLAs “can rest assured that we will be on their case.”
“We will be calling and emailing and making a fuss,” she said. “We’ll be watching them.”