NWT MLAs have a week-long sitting ahead. Here are their priorities.
The NWT Legislative Assembly will resume sitting for seven working days from May 27 to June 4. The short sitting will be the first since March, when MLAs approved the territory’s 2021-2022 budget.
Jackie Jacobson, the MLA for Nunakput, said it would be a “busy seven days to get all that we need to get done.” Cabin Radio contacted all 11 regular MLAs to ask about their priorities for the sitting ahead.
Capitalizing on federal pandemic spending, developing a sound Covid-19 recovery plan, and improving access to housing in the territory were recurring themes among MLAs who responded.
As the Covid-19 pandemic approached the one-year mark in February, some MLAs called for the NWT government to release an economic and social recovery plan.
Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, said he’s “still waiting” for that plan.
“I think first and foremost in that plan, we need to capitalize on some of the big budgetary announcements coming out of Ottawa,” he said. “In my experience, in the past we haven’t had our ducks in a row or had much vision in making sure that when Ottawa has programs ready to go, we have an ask in place so we can draw on that money.”
Johnson identified universal childcare and green energy as areas where money is flowing freely from Ottawa coffers.
Childcare, he said, is an example of how the NWT government has the necessary pieces in place yet has been unable to secure adequate federal funding.
The GNWT released a universal daycare plan in 2015 but childcare remains lacking in many regions across the territory. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed daycares across the NWT under greater financial stress, prompting the territorial government to provide $5 million in childcare supports for essential workers last year.
Ottawa has announced several funding packages for the NWT, including millions to support airlines, organized sports, and the territory’s most vulnerable residents.
“There seems to be a disconnect between government departments and how we can actually capture economic benefits,” said Johnson.
For Johnson, that issue is best represented in the territory’s handling of the Giant Mine remediation project.
“I think if you look at Giant Mine as an example, there’s a billion dollars being spent and, by almost everything I can see, the vast majority of that money will flow out of the territory and won’t leave us with a legacy of companies and people who have knowledge and expertise in remediation,” he said.
Johnson said many of the contracts associated with the Giant Mine remediation project, even those awarded to local companies, require consultations or subcontracting with southern companies. He said that does little but build an economic sector around contract management rather than execution.
Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake, said remediation projects could become major economic opportunities moving forward.
“There are thousands of remediation sites across the NWT,” she said. “So far, the North has not really tapped into how they can make sure the remediation takes place with northern businesses and northern workers.”
Cleveland agrees the NWT should be prepared to capture as much of Ottawa’s post-pandemic spending as it can – while also ensuring the money stays in the North long-term.
“The federal government definitely has their wallets open,” she said. “There’s a huge focus on housing right now. As well, there’s a huge focus on infrastructure development.”
Build out housing
MLAs stressed housing is a perennial concern – and an example of the territory failing to capitalize on past federal funding.
Despite calls from MLAs in February for the GNWT to better address a lack of affordable housing across the territory, the government left a $60 million federal housing fund untouched for a year. The delay meant some Yellowknife projects did not receive funding from Ottawa’s Rapid Housing Initiative. The territory eventually spent the $60 million in one go in April.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of housing that’s supposed to be on the ground within this next year,” said Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes. “Where are we with that?”
Semmler said she will be focusing on housing in the upcoming sitting. She said inadequate access to housing underlies many social and regional inequalities in the territory.
“You can’t deal with your addictions when you have no home,” she said. “Who’s worrying about an education when they have no home? Housing is the core of all the other issues.
“If you go into the small communities, you know the housing is less than what anybody should be living in. You’ve got overcrowding. You’ve got three, four generations living in a house because they’re waiting for housing for three, four years,” she said.
Cleveland noted that much of the funding awarded by the Rapid Housing Initiative went to projects outside her Yellowknife constituency. She encouraged organizations within Yellowknife to apply for funding.
“There is still the national housing strategy within the federal government that still has dollars that can be accessed,” she said.
Semmler extends the conversation about housing to include day shelters and emergency shelters.
Yellowknife shelters are currently operated by non-profit organizations. Semmler would like to see the government assume a larger role.
“The government needs to look at how we’re providing facilities for our homeless,” she said. “And if it’s burning out our non-governmental organizations that are volunteering, then maybe it’s time to look at running it through the government and having a place for people to sleep and eat every night.”
Safely lift Covid-19 restrictions
MLAs representing districts in the Beaufort Delta said Yukon border restrictions will be a priority this sitting.
“I know a lot of people in the Delta are looking forward to being able to go to the Yukon,” said Jacobson, whose district of Nunakput covers much of the Delta. “The Delta and the Yukon have a special bond and history … we buy all our goods there. We go down there for holidays. We have a lot of good friends down there, a lot of family.”
Semmler has been pushing for some form of bubble or system of exemptions between the Yukon and NWT since February.
Residents of Inuvik and nearby communities have been without regular road access to Yukon amenities for more than a year.
“There are people who can’t get away or pick up their vehicles, because everything gets shipped through Whitehorse,” said Semmler. “We don’t have access to Yellowknife. We didn’t even have an access road this winter … Whitehorse is our Yellowknife. It’s the next closest city where we can access all amenities.”
Semmler said the relatively high vaccination rate in both the Yukon and NWT should factor into the decision.
“We’re going into a territory that has been relatively controlled in their outbreak and their vaccination rates are the highest in the country,” she said.
More than 60 percent of Yukon residents are at least partially vaccinated, the highest proportion among Canadian jurisdictions and slightly higher than the second-placed NWT.
Jacobson said if residents of the Delta want border restrictions lifted, vaccinations are key.
“For our small communities, if Covid comes into the community it could be devastating,” he said. “I know a lot of my communities took advantage of the Covid-19 shot. I really thank them for that.”
MLAs will be hard pressed to address each of their priorities in the short sitting.
“It’s a short session, but I think it’s an important one,” said Cleveland. “We just need to keep moving forward.”
Cabin Radio reached MLAs Steve Norn and Frieda Martselos by phone. Both declined an opportunity to comment. Kevin O’Reilly, Ron Bonnetrouge, Katrina Nokleby, Rocky Simpson, and Jackson Lafferty could not be reached.