Premier Bob McLeod suggested the “red alert” he issued last year could now be downgraded as Canada’s new northern affairs minister, Dominic LeBlanc, visited Yellowknife on Monday.
In November 2017, McLeod attracted national attention when he published a statement beginning: “Today I am issuing a red alert and calling for an urgent national debate on the future of the Northwest Territories.”
The statement claimed policies “imposed on us from Ottawa and southern Canada” were threatening the NWT’s economic future and efforts at reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“Everything we have built is in jeopardy,” McLeod proclaimed at the time.
On Monday, the Premier – facing reporters with LeBlanc at his side – implied the territory could probably afford to lower its shields again.
“In my view, circumstances have improved significantly since the red alert was issued,” he said, without elaborating in detail on what had changed.
The Premier did, however, emphasize his belief in LeBlanc as the North’s representative in cabinet. LeBlanc inherited the northern affairs portfolio from Carolyn Bennett in July’s cabinet reshuffle, alongside responsibility for intergovernmental affairs and internal trade.
“We’ve worked very well with Dominic LeBlanc and he has a very good understanding of the North,” said McLeod.
“He has indicated the Prime Minister has given him a very strong mandate to work on behalf of the North and for the North.”
In response, LeBlanc sought to portray himself as a man close to both McLeod and the North, despite his being born in Ottawa and representing a New Brunswick riding.
LeBlanc, who playfully ribbed McLeod for being Canada’s “most senior premier … he’s been premier for about 120 years, I think,” said he had visited the NWT on many occasions, calling it “a personal interest of mine for some time.”
He continued: “I’m obviously familiar with the concerns the Premier articulated last fall. The entire government of Canada took note … I understand why the Premier and his government felt there was an urgency they were facing.
Promising to both be the North’s voice at cabinet level and work to secure funding for several major projects, LeBlanc joked: “I don’t want [McLeod] to issue some other flashing purple alert or something.”
In the coming years, the Northwest Territories is expected to scrap for some $2 billion or more in federal funding to complete the Mackenzie Valley Highway, build a road north to Nunavut through prime mining territory, and connect its power grid to the south.
Alongside that, Premier McLeod wants continued devolution of powers from Ottawa to Yellowknife and is demanding more control of the territory’s offshore oil and gas resources, currently the subject of a five-year federally imposed moratorium.
McLeod wants negotiations over co-management of those resources to take place before the moratorium comes up for its first review.
LeBlanc promised immediate action on that front, telling reporters: “We’ve heard the Premier clearly, we’ve listened, and I hope in the next few weeks we’ll have something positive to say about a path forward.
“Decisions shouldn’t be done at an office in Gatineau, they should be done in partnership with the elected representatives of northerners and also with Indigenous groups and partners.”
Asked how much responsibility he is prepared to bear for ensuring Ottawa funds transformative territorial projects, LeBlanc stopped short of any pledges but did say he was “responsible for doing everything I can.”
“I’m entirely confident we’ll have more success than frustrations,” he added. “I’ll just keep pushing.”