The Northwest Territories’ 2022-23 operating budget withstood a rebellion from MLAs representing smaller communities to pass by 11 votes to six last week.
Introducing the budget in February, finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said the proposal – which increased spending by 2.3 percent in the coming year, to $2.1 billion – was “not flashy” but consistent.
Some MLAs from regions outside Yellowknife, however, opposed the budget on grounds of geography rather than philosophy.
Hay River South’s Rocky Simpson, Thebacha’s Frieda Martselos, Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge, Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong and Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh’s Richard Edjericon voted no. They were joined by Katrina Nokleby, from Yellowknife’s Great Slave district, who said it was time to “stand with my small community colleagues.”
The budget passed by five votes. The seven members of cabinet were joined in supporting the budget bill by Yellowknife North’s Rylund Johnson, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, Kam Lake’s Caitlin Cleveland and Inuvik Twin Lakes’ Lesa Semmler. (Nunakput’s Jackie Jacobson, who has been absent from the legislature since February, did not take part.)
A third of the legislature’s voting MLAs opposing the territory’s operating budget is unusual.
Wawzonek’s two prior budgets had passed unopposed. The three final budgets of Bob McLeod’s eight-year term as premier, presented by then-finance minister Robert C McLeod, had each garnered one or two opponents but no more. In the years prior, recorded votes were not always taken.
“The capital region gets most of the funds and everyone else is left to fight over the crumbs,” Martselos, who represents the area of Fort Smith, told the legislature on Thursday last week.
The Thebacha MLA said she opposed the budget partly because one of her personal top priorities, a tiny homes pilot project devised by the Salt River First Nation, did not receive funding. (Wawzonek said the project was not yet ready for work to commence.) She renewed her complaint that the territory had “arbitrarily” narrowed Fort Smith’s airport runway.
“If this is truly a consensus style of government, then the MLAs from outside the capital region need to have a better say in what goes into the budget,” Martselos said.
Dividing more than two billion dollars per person would give the Tłı̨chǫ region $135 million to spend, Weyallon Armstrong said, questioning why the sum directly spent in communities she represents was only “approximately half of that amount.”
Weyallon Armstrong said she had been told the remaining money goes toward NWT-wide initiatives, examples being work to modernize the Education Act and select a new curriculum for schools.
She said spending the money on the GNWT’s priorities, rather than Tłı̨chǫ priorities, was unfair.
“If the GNWT was really interested in improving educational outcomes in my region, changing the Education Act will not have the same impact as addressing socio-economic conditions like poverty and housing,” said Weyallon Armstrong. “A change in education legislation is not going to fix the housing crisis.”
Fewer economies of scale
Cabinet members pushed back.
Addressing MLAs who planned to vote against the budget, RJ Simpson said he wanted to “remind them that the alternative is that starting tomorrow, no one’s getting paid.”
Simpson said the budget included money to decentralize positions, meaning jobs would move from Yellowknife to smaller communities. Picking another example, he said the budget gave $500,000 in ongoing funding to heritage centres outside Yellowknife – a change introduced by Wawzonek following consultation with MLAs.
“Maybe everyone isn’t getting everything they want today, but that doesn’t mean there are not significant benefits to this for the MLAs and for the people of the territory,” he said.
Premier Caroline Cochrane said she was “really heartbroken” to hear from MLAs that smaller communities felt left out.
“I do take offence to the implication that this cabinet cares about the capital city more than small communities,” Cochrane said. “I have seen and experienced the opposite.”
Wawzonek went through a series of budget items that she said demonstrated a commitment to all 33 of the NWT’s communities, but insisted she was “hearing the frustrations” of colleagues.
“We’re still operating within a situation where we have limited funds, where we have to still ensure we’re providing every program and service in every community, across 33 communities and across a huge geographic region,” the finance minister said.
“It’s a very complicated thing. It’s actually much more complicated, I’d suggest, than perhaps being one of the provinces, where there’s a much larger opportunity to raise revenues, where economies of scale operate differently.
“We don’t have those benefits here. But we have 33 communities that we’re serving, many of whom don’t have access to roads and all-weather roads.”
‘Room to govern’
Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, said her decision to back the budget had been secured by Wawzonek’s promise of more money for housing.
At the end of month-long budget discussions, Wawzonek said her government was prepared to amend its budget by adding $4 million annually to the budget of Housing NWT, the rebranded housing corporation, above the $11 million in new money already proposed.
That money will be used for home repairs and accessibility work, fuel tank replacements, home purchase programs and the seniors’ home subsidy.
There is also a new $2.2-million commitment, this year only, to the NWT’s emergency shelters.
In return, Wawzonek said, she would increase the tobacco tax “to make the Northwest Territories one of the highest-taxed jurisdictions in Canada” in that regard. Spending on contract services will be reduced by $2.4 million annually across the GNWT.
Cleveland said the new funding for housing still did not fully address the need but “is a start and, to me, a reflection that cabinet is listening.”
“Consensus does not mean we all agree,” said Johnson, the Yellowknife North MLA, warning other regular MLAs to be “hesitant in steering the shipyard too much.”
“We elected those members to cabinet. They are responsible for their portfolios. They know them better than us,” Johnson said.
“We have to give them room to govern at times – even if it’s very annoying.”