GNWT told to grow territory’s population 25% by 2043
MLAs have passed a motion calling on the territorial government to grow the NWT’s population by a quarter over the next 20 years.
The motion, put forward by Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland, demands a “comprehensive strategy to match Canada’s population growth” in the Northwest Territories.
Cleveland’s motion was backed by 10 regular MLAs in a vote on Friday last week. Nobody opposed it. All seven cabinet members abstained.
The motion is not binding and cabinet is not obliged to put such a strategy in place. But ministers are expected to provide a formal response within four months.
The text of the motion urges the NWT to set a goal of growing its population by 25 percent before the year 2043. Based on the latest territorial population figures, that would mean growth from 45,640 residents to around 57,000 in the next two decades.
Two decades ago, in 2002, the NWT had a population of 41,700. That represents growth of around nine percent in the past 20 years, meaning the territory’s growth would need to more than double to meet Cleveland’s suggested target.
“People are both our greatest resource and biggest scarcity in the Northwest Territories,” she told MLAs in the legislature on June 3.
“In any given year, about 2,000 residents leave the NWT for another province or territory. It’s impossible to know exactly why these people choose to leave, but the high cost of living is one reason northerners tell me they’re pulling up their roots and sadly looking south.
“In many northern communities, difficult job prospects or inadequate public services also push people to bigger centres hollowing out our small communities.”
Thousands of new homes
Cleveland quoted NWT Bureau of Statistics figures that show 17 of the territory’s 33 communities lost residents in the past year.
Inuvik, she said, had shrunk from 3,600 to 3,300 residents in recent years, while Fort Smith’s population had diminished every year since 2016 and Fort Providence had lost more than 60 people since 2001.
“Depopulation in our small communities undermines the capacity for local decision-making. It takes away the residents who might staff the local health centre, manage the local waste facility, spearhead grassroots community wellness initiatives, care for ageing Elders, or run for elected office,” she said.
Cleveland said initiatives like student financial assistance, which incentivizes young residents to return to the North after graduating by covering the costs of their tuition, proved the territory could get it right.
“But we need so much more,” she said.
Her motion envisages a strategy that would aim to build 3,700 new homes in the next two decades, to match the expected influx of more than 10,000 new residents.
How that level of home-building would compare to previous decades is difficult to easily establish.
Housing NWT, asked multiple times over the space of a month to provide a year-by-year breakdown of public housing it has built or acquired, has so far not provided any such document.
Cleveland said a refreshed immigration strategy must also be part of a population growth plan. Pointing to efforts in jurisdictions like the Yukon, she said others were “doing so much more and achieving real success.”
Prepare for climate refugees?
Rylund Johnson, the Yellowknife North MLA, said in supporting Cleveland’s motion that the NWT government needed “some sort of coherent vision” on population growth.
Bob McLeod’s government introduced a formal growth target in 2015, seeking to add 2,000 people by 2019, a growth rate of 4.6 percent over five years.
McLeod and colleagues quietly abandoned that target in the years that followed, and the NWT missed the proposed target by about 500 people when 2019 arrived.
Johnson said the territory needed to make more effort to turn remote mine workers into NWT residents.
He added that the boom-and-bust cycle of some NWT communities “raises a lot of fundamental philosophical questions about what to do,” pointing to Inuvik’s dwindling population and the likelihood that Norman Wells will similarly shrink when Imperial Oil ceases operations there.
Kevin O’Reilly, the Frame Lake MLA, said the territory should be preparing to welcome people driven north as a changing climate makes other regions harder to live in.
“We have to start thinking about climate refugees here,” O’Reilly said.
“People are going to want to move here because they have nowhere else to go on this planet. We have to start to think about that very carefully.
“I also think we have to plan for the sustainability of our small communities. We can’t just leave it to chance that people are going to stay in small communities. If we want them to thrive and have a good quality of life, we have to plan for that.”