The NWT government revealed its operating budget for 2021-22 on Thursday, promising stability in the form of continued spending even as some revenues dip.
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said mid-pandemic was no time for cuts, even if Covid-19 and the territory’s already weak economy meant a drop in GNWT revenue from sources like mines, corporate tax, and personal income tax.
Budget documents published on Thursday highlight a range of areas in which the NWT government committed to what it said was new spending.
Here are a selection of programs and initiatives earmarked by the GNWT.
The Covid-19 Secretariat is expected to continue at least for the time being. Wawzonek believes there is a good chance it will be wound up at some point during the coming financial year, which stretches from April 2021 until March 2022.
A total of $41 million is outlined in the budget for programs and services related to Covid-19, of which $35 million is set out to pay for the Covid-19 Secretariat’s functions.
Wawzonek stressed she did not expect to spend that full sum if vaccination meant reopening the territory to at least some extent and shutting down some of the secretariat’s duties.
The budget also sets aside $4.3 million in pandemic-related support for schools, to ensure learning continues while students are kept safe.
Other health and social programs
The GNWT says it is increasing spending by $64 million on social programs and community wellness.
Of that, $7 million is related to improvements at Child and Family Services, including more front-line staff. The division will also speed up its work on a quality improvement plan put in place after a damning report from the Auditor General of Canada in 2018.
$4.5 million will be spent on continuing improvements to the territory’s child and youth care counsellor program. Among that spending, 10 positions will be added this coming financial year.
Income assistance will receive an additional $4.1 million in funding.
The GNWT will also earmark $5 million for the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, a federal fund that achieved a degree of infamy late last year when it emerged a $60-million section of the fund set aside for the NWT had not been touched.
Cabin Radio, with some difficulty, was able to establish that the $60-million carve-off had probably been left alone because the NWT was trying to get more money from the main national fund first, before touching its own $60-million pot.
This $5 million will now see the territory start to help projects in various communities access the $60 million.
There’s also $615,000 for dialysis unit expansion in Hay River and $500,000 to pay for more daycare spaces.
Elsewhere in the GNWT
The territorial government says it’ll put $3.3 million this year toward reducing the long-discussed municipal funding gap, whereby communities – with some support from a GNWT study – have argued the territorial government underfunds them.
Tourism receives $936,000 for the first year of a new five-year tourism strategy, intended to restore tourist numbers to their 2018-19 levels (which were a record) by 2024-25.
There is $600,000 to continue developing an Indigenous languages adult immersion diploma at Aurora College, “to help develop a new generation of proficient Indigenous language speakers.”
$422,000 will pay for three new RCMP constables in Yellowknife. The positions are needed because there are additional training and administrative commitments that police can’t currently handle with their 24-hour workload, a GNWT briefing document stated.
Wawzonek, the finance minister, said that shouldn’t suggest the NWT government was ignoring the past year’s calls for police work to change.
“As for what it says more broadly, what I’d point to is the initiative coming through with the Department Justice for a pilot to do community-based policing,” she said.
“Something similar in the Yukon was often pointed to as a direction when we speak about defunding the police. And that is an initiative that’s being funded in this budget.”
Some of the new spending doesn’t provide new programming but simply responds to increased costs.
Overall, $22.6 million in so-called forced growth is expected in the coming year. Around half of that is expected at the Department of Health and Social Services.
Other examples include $1.8 million in additional electricity costs at GNWT facilities compared to 2020-21’s budget, and an extra $1.2 million this coming year in maintenance costs on the Dempster Highway, driven by increased contractor costs and issues related to climate change.