An NWT MLA says newly published documents show the territorial government has fostered too close a relationship with the mining industry, an allegation the minister responsible denies.
Kevin O’Reilly, the MLA for Frame Lake, this week tabled documents released under an access to information request that set out notes from meetings between the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment (ITI) and representatives of the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines.
The chamber represents the interests of the North’s mining and exploration industry and its component companies.
O’Reilly said the documents – relating to a body titled a Covid-19 recovery working group – show the Chamber of Mines had access to senior departmental officials every two weeks and the conversation ranged, in his view, well beyond economic recovery planning.
“I encourage all of my colleagues, the media, and the public to review these meeting summaries,” O’Reilly told the legislature on Thursday.
“What was supposed to be a working group focused on economic recovery from the impacts of the Covid pandemic has transitioned into a high-level, bi-monthly lobbying campaign behind closed doors.
“Working group members have been reviewing and editing ministerial correspondence, including letters to co-management boards; reviewing and changing work contracted through public procurement processes; and pushing for land withdrawals … to be lifted or stopped. Political advice on dealing with the federal government is clearly shared and exchanged. Nothing seems to be off-limits in these lobbying meetings.”
Caroline Wawzonek, the NWT’s industry minister, disputed some of O’Reilly’s characterizations of the meetings’ contents and defended their regularity as perfectly appropriate for an industry responsible for a third of the territory’s gross domestic product. More than 1,000 NWT jobs directly rely on mining, she said.
“If ITI wasn’t having regular meetings with industry representatives, I would be facing very difficult questions in the House to explain why we aren’t,” said the minister.
Though O’Reilly expressed deep scepticism that the same access was being afforded to other industries, Wawzonek said the now-defunct Covid-19 business advisory council had at times met with the department weekly, while she was trying to increase the regularity of meetings with the fishing industry.
“Every industry should have access to ITI, that is exactly the role of ITI,” she said.
What’s in the documents?
The documents are to a large extent redacted. They almost entirely comprise the minutes of meetings held in the past year between ITI officials – such as Menzie McEachern, the NWT’s director of mineral and petroleum resources, and John Ketchum, an ITI assistant deputy minister – and Chamber of Mines or industry representatives whose names are blacked out.
Parts of the documents that aren’t redacted often show ITI and the chamber working collaboratively to plot ways of developing the mining industry in the North.
In one meeting, the notes record that the chamber “has not presented to the deputy ministers within the GNWT for many years.”
“ITI will bring this up to the DMs in a multi departmental forum,” the notes state, to ensure a project is “understood as a priority.”
Another meeting’s logs state the chamber “agreed that they could work with ITI on this [the nature of “this” is redacted] to emphasize the importance of the North and mining for the federal government.”
In a third example, the notes state ITI’s deputy minister had been thinking about how to pitch an issue to the federal government. According to the notes, the chamber “agreed that the argument needs to be changed to fit the federal government’s needs.”
O’Reilly says this kind of approach is inappropriate and unfair on other sectors. Wawzonek says that approach is her department’s job.
“The Chamber of Mines does a very good job representing its interests. However, these are not the same as the public interest. This is about the appropriateness of these meetings held behind closed doors,” O’Reilly said.
Wawzonek, responding, said the working group was “intended to look at where industry, and private industry, can come together with government to find overlap to discuss efforts for economic recovery and regrowth of the mineral resource sector, in keeping with the mandate of this government.”
Asked by O’Reilly why the documents appeared to show “the Chamber of Mines and even ITI staff pushing to stop or remove land withdrawals,” the minister said that was to be expected.
“Industry, indeed municipalities, have long said the lack of certainty around land is a real barrier in the NWT. Resolving land claims and moving those negotiations forward is a mandate of this government for very good reason,” said Wawzonek.
“There is nothing new there. It is not a surprise that industry continues to ask what is being done on that.”
O’Reilly said the documents showed the chamber having “direct input” into ministerial correspondence and interfering with the work of publicly hired consultants.
Wawzonek said: “There’s no impropriety in the sharing of information. That correspondence and sharing is just that, it’s sharing. They are certainly not going to be editing any materials.”
The minister said the group’s work was ongoing.