NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane says Ottawa must prioritize closing the longstanding gap between the North and the rest of Canada as the Trudeau government attempts an economic recovery from the pandemic.
Cochrane met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal cabinet members in the capital this week to discuss the territory’s priorities, including housing, infrastructure, clean energy, and broadband.
Cochrane said her biggest message to the Liberal government was “it’s time to make the Northwest Territories a bigger priority.”
“For decades, the Northwest Territories has been playing catch-up to southern Canada,” she told reporters on Thursday. “It’s time for northerners to be given the same opportunities afforded to the rest of Canada.”
Ensuring northerners have the same quality of life as other Canadians is important for reconciliation, Cochrane added, as more than half of the territory’s residents are Indigenous.
“It’s time to stop talking, it’s time to start getting action.”
The premier called Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework a “roadmap” to closing that gap. The Northwest Territories chapter outlines seven objectives, including clean energy infrastructure, food security, and environmental stewardship.
“I believe that we were heard and I look forward to moving this important and necessary work forward for the benefit of all our residents,” Cochrane said, adding the Prime Minister and minister of Crown-Indigenous relations plan to visit the territory as soon as possible.
The federal government has previously been criticized by northern premiers for introducing the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework without, in their view, attaching clear spending targets and timelines to the ambitions outlined.
Projects the NWT wants the federal government to support include the Taltson hydro expansion, Mackenzie Valley highway, and Slave Geological Province all-season road. Cochrane said she also raised the impacts of climate change and the need to support the territory’s tourism sector.
“We can’t be reliant on one industry, it’s not OK,” she said, referring to the NWT’s decades-long reliance on mining.
“Part of getting the major infrastructure projects off the ground will help to make sure that there are jobs for people in the North.”
Cochrane added a new childcare agreement between the NWT and federal governments, announced on Wednesday, will support early learning childcare jobs and provide sustainable wages.
Not all territorial politicians agreed with the list of asks for the federal government.
Earlier this week, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said in a statement on social media he was “disappointed” Cochrane hadn’t consulted regular MLAs before heading to Ottawa. He worried that capital projects were prioritized over the need for more affordable housing.
O’Reilly was one of two MLAs to vote against the territory’s latest $502-million capital budget, the largest in its history, in part due to what he argued was a failure to prioritize housing.
Cochrane, however, said she felt MLAs had been consulted, as all members of the 19th Legislative Assembly developed the legislature’s 22 priorities together.