Thank you, Mr. Chair. What we have heard here today is that the challenges and issues facing the Northwest Territories and its residents are plentiful. However, there are five key areas that I believe we need to focus on as a government over the next four years: growing and diversifying the economy, keeping money in residents’ pockets, dealing with social issues, addressing climate change, getting northern governance right.
The one theme these priorities have in common is health; healthy economy, healthy residents and a healthy environment. These priorities focus on a number of areas that require our attention as we move forward as the 18th Assembly, and if addressed can have impacts immediately in the short term and for the long-term future of our people.
Growing and diversifying the economy. The Northwest Territories’ economy was severely affected by the global economic and financial crisis in 2008, and not all aspects have returned to pre-recession levels. The Northwest Territories economic outlook over the next five years is mixed at best. Although some regions are benefitting from resource projects, economic activity in other areas has either slowed considerably or declined. Over the next five to 15 years, the data suggests a protracted decline in resource production. Existing diamond mines are maturing and identified potential mining operations will not replace the economic activity of current operations. Resource exploration, which is necessary for further development, is also slowing down. We need to move forward in a bold fashion.
Growing the Northwest Territories economy requires transformational investments such as the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Optic Link, the Mackenzie Valley Highway, and addressing our energy costs and supply challenges. These strategic investments and other initiatives to lower costs for residents and businesses are vital for the long-term growth and sustainability of the Northwest Territories economy. Whether it is big projects like the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway or small-scale projects, communities will benefit from these investments through jobs and contracts for local businesses. It is important we remember that while small projects in larger communities may not have a significant impact on the local economy, smaller communities will see great benefit.
The 18th Legislative Assembly must invest in infrastructure needed to open our territory to exploration and transport our vast resources to the market that, in turn, will provide jobs and attract new residents to live in our communities. For this reason, we must pursue new infrastructure investment through closed partnerships with Aboriginal governments and the Government of Canada. Access to the Northwest Territories vast resource wealth and resulting economic development is hampered by the lack of all-weather roads connecting the territory, the Mackenzie Valley Highway, Tlicho all-weather road or the Slave Geologic Province overland route. These projects will help open up all of the territory for business and allow for more cost-effective exploration and development.
Our efforts must be focused responsibly on those investments most likely to yield positive results for our economy and sustainable jobs for our residents. We need to reduce the risk of putting all our eggs in one basket. Skill development, diversification and improving conditions for entrepreneurship and capital investment must continue if we are to meet our goal of increasing the Northwest Territories population, which both builds our economy and improves the Government of the Northwest Territories’ revenue.
The Government of the Northwest Territories needs to look at its own procurement and contracting practices to make sure we are supporting the use of made-in-the-Northwest Territories products and a development of a strong, northern manufacturing sector. Population growth benefits the economy, leading to more demand for goods and services and, therefore, supporting overall business activity. Increased economic activity means more employment opportunities. People have said they want a more accountable government and how government spends public money is one of the most important measures of accountability there is. It is important to the future health of the Northwest Territories to spend within our means and maximize the spending we do by prioritizing where we make strategic investments, but we have to make sure that this is done in the context of the fiscal reality that we face.
We have heard that the Government of the Northwest Territories’ revenue outlook for the next few years is flat. It would not be responsible for us to spend money that we do not have, and we will have to work together collectively to make decisions about how we bring government expenditures in line with our revenues and each take responsibility for explaining our decisions to the people of the Northwest Territories. Keeping money in residents’ pockets, the high and increased cost of living is a threat to our individual and collective well-being. Whether it is the price of a litre of milk in Colville Lake, an entry-level home in Yellowknife, or a kilowatt hour of electricity in Hay River, every resident, business and community is impacted by the cost of living in the Northwest Territories. It is also an impediment to attracting new residents to the Northwest Territories and is a significant factor for those who leave. We need to pursue opportunities to lower the cost of electricity generation and distribution in all our communities.
For the electricity system, value-added improvements would enhance the environmental performance and reliability of the system. However, these improvements usually require government subsidies if the goal is to maintain or reduce existing electricity rates. For example, improvements include renewable energy projects, hydro development and transformative projects such as long-distance transmission infrastructure. We must work closely with the federal government to develop a new funding partnership for public housing and improve the effectiveness of existing programs to lower the cost of basic food items in our smallest and most remote communities. Although the Northwest Territories has an electricity system that meets the needs of residents, opportunities are available that would make the system more resilient, accessible and environmentally friendly. It is time we stop studying the possibilities and start acting on the work that the previous government has done on the Northwest Territories electricity system.
Improvements to the cost of power would not be viable without government intervention and subsidies. It is critical for this government to make strategic investments to help bring new options of power generation to our residents at the territorial and community levels and empower them to improve their personal situations.
With a new federal government in power for the first time in a decade and a renewed focus on infrastructure and energy spending, the Government of the Northwest Territories is well positioned to lobby access to funds to pursue infrastructure and energy projects that will not only benefit the economic prosperity of the territory but also improve the quality of life for residents.
Social issues and the future of the Northwest Territories. The social issues that have plagued the Northwest Territories for too long – suicide, addictions, family violence and incarceration – are significantly higher in the Northwest Territories than in most other jurisdictions in Canada. The devastating results are suffered disproportionately by Aboriginal people but felt in the homes and on the streets of every one of our communities.
The consequences for our society include low school attendance and graduation rates, unemployment, poor health and ultimately a quality of life below Canadian standards. This persistent and devastating cycle drives up the costs of social programs and law enforcement, causes a drag on our economy, lowers revenues and, thus, lessens resources available to meet other priorities. We need targeted policies and programs that will, over time, improve early childhood development, school attendance rates and education attainment, improve mental health and lower rates of addictions.
We also need to do more for our seniors in the areas of care and housing. Through the Government of the Northwest Territories’ response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that recently announced an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, and the many other efforts already in place to improve the lives of our residents, we can truly bring about the necessary changes for those who need it most. This should be done, in part, through improved system governance, program improvements and efficiencies, actions to reduce poverty, and investments in technologies for health and education. The future of the territory depends on a vibrant and empowered population. We can make this a reality.
As Northerners, we are on the front lines of climate change and it is not a comfortable place to be. Over the weekend, world leaders endorsed an ambitious agreement on climate change in Paris. This is good news, and the Northwest Territories will continue to mitigate the effects of climate change with the global community.
It was interesting to note that challenges facing emergency economies were recognized. One hundred billion dollars a year between 2025 and 2030 was committed to help developing nations transition to cleaner energy. It is important to note that for the Northwest Territories, our reality is that we are dependent on fossil fuels. We can and have begun transitioning to cleaner fuels and alternative energy. This will not happen overnight and we will have to balance our residents’ ability to pay for renewable and alternative energy with a need to reduce the impacts of climate change.
Climate change is a serious concern. It is disrupting the global environment, affecting everyone, including, and very specifically, Northerners. Thawing permafrost and coastal erosion have become common problems affecting transportation infrastructure, water quality and causing the draining of our lakes. Such impacts bring heavy costs both directly and indirectly, many of which are only partially reflected in annual budgets. The impacts of climate change are more likely to increase than subside. The people of the Northwest Territories are expecting leadership from all of us and making sure the Government of the Northwest Territories does its part to implement the Paris Accord. Working together, I believe we can take up that challenge, and I believe it should be one of our priorities.
Getting northern governance right, we need to be committed to finalizing and implementing land and resource agreements across the Northwest Territories. Negotiations on land claims, self-government and land use plans have dragged on for too many years I believe that a clear political statement from this Assembly supported by a renewed approach to outstanding negotiations including the Joint Oversight Committee of Cabinet and Regular MLAs will send a message that we are committed to creating a strong territory in collaboration with our Aboriginal government partners.
I believe that the style of negotiations needs to be changed. The old way was far too adversarial, has taken far too long and is costing far too much in time, energy and money. That is why interest-based negotiations would benefit all parties. Mandates need to be flexible and respect that each of the Aboriginal governments are faced with different circumstances, and in many cases, the challenges they face are unique to their people and their region. It is time to focus more on collaboration and partnerships, and that means changing the way we interact with our Aboriginal government partners.
I will wrap up by saying settling land and resource agreements, completing self-government agreements and land use plans are necessary and the right thing to do. We have a great task ahead of us. Setting priorities for the next four years is a challenging task. However, with a collective and collaborative approach, I truly believe we will accomplish great things for the Northwest Territories and the people we represent. Thank you very much.