As the Covid-19 pandemic nears the one-year mark in the Northwest Territories, some MLAs are wondering when the territory will release a comprehensive social and economic recovery plan.
The territory’s economy had been struggling even before the pandemic, Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland said in the legislature on Wednesday, a day before finance minister Caroline Wawzonek reveals her budget for the year ahead.
Cleveland said the pandemic had only “heightened the need” for a plan, but residents are still waiting.
In April 2020, the territorial government unveiled an initial, bare-bones economic recovery plan entitled Emerge Stronger. Light on detail, the plan set out broad steps to restart the economy after the pandemic.
In early June, a 17-member business advisory council met for the first time, tasked with advising the territory on ways to mitigate the pandemic’s short-term economic impacts and providing recommendations on recovery.
Last month, council members announced they would stop meeting regularly as they felt an economic recovery plan was not a focus for ministers. Meanwhile, council co-chair Paul Gruner stepped down.
Cleveland said the advisory council’s perception of cabinet was “deeply concerning.”
“The GNWT has managed to keep Covid under control but our territory has not been immune to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic,” she said.
“Our success depends on our collective ability to plan for a brighter tomorrow.”
‘We haven’t forgotten the economy’
Premier Caroline Cochrane said while some provinces and territories have released economic recovery plans, others have not – and some are having to adjust plans released earlier.
“I don’t think the timing is bad,” she said of the NWT’s approach.
“We haven’t forgotten the economy. We haven’t forgotten people. In fact, it’s made our services stronger over this last year because of the pandemic.”
Cochrane acknowledged the territory’s economy was “in trouble” before the pandemic and said she was “sorry to hear” of the advisory council’s view of cabinet – but added tough decisions had been made, and had paid off.
“We are probably the only jurisdiction in Canada that hasn’t had a death from Covid. We’re probably one of the only jurisdictions in Canada that hasn’t had to go into lockdown over Christmas,” she said.
Cochrane pointed to some recovery steps taken. She said the territory had approved one of the largest capital budgets in its history and received more than $120 million in federal funding during the pandemic, some of which had gone to support airlines, mining, tourism, and small businesses.
Yet Rylund Johnson, the MLA for Yellowknife North, said cabinet had to seize a “time of political opportunity” to roll out a better plan.
“There are lots of ways to go, there are tough decisions to be made,” he said, “but those decisions have to be made.”
What should be in the plan?
In November, the business advisory council made a number of short and long-term recommendations to the territorial government. Those included specific recommendations supporting tourism, the hospitality industry, the traditional economy and the aviation sector, as well as steps toward developing a green economy.
Johnson said the territory could now consider adopting a form of universal basic income or developing a universal daycare plan.
Cochrane said she could not comment on what was likely to appear in the NWT’s economic recovery plan, nor commit to tabling it during the current sitting of the Legislative Assembly.
The premier did say work on a draft plan was under way. She promised a copy would be presented to regular MLAs during this sitting.
Meanwhile, finance minister Wawzonek will on Thursday afternoon set out the NWT’s budget for 2021-22.
That budget is itself expected to include some recovery measures, particularly with the tourism industry likely to be heavily hit for a second summer.
How the territory handles its debt is also likely to come under scrutiny, with the financial demands of a long-term response to Covid-19 set to be fully reflected in an NWT budget for the first time.
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.