Thank you, Mr. Clerk. Between October 26 and November 23, I knocked on 1,384 doors within the Great Slave riding. During these visits I asked many of the residents what they thought the priorities should be for the 18th Legislative Assembly. The priorities that were repeated the most often were the economy, youth, housing and cost of living.
With respect to the economy, the reality is the NWT faces significant economic challenges both today and into the future. Small businesses are struggling to survive in the Northwest Territories, and large, non-renewable resource extraction businesses are slow to start. These challenges are compounded by the fact that the NWT diamond mines, our largest economic contributors, are approaching the end of their lifecycles.
The majority of the people I talked to recognize that the GNWT must continue to pursue environmentally and socially responsible resource extraction opportunities within our territories as they are the most significant contributor to our territorial GDP. At the end of the day, there are no sectors that can bring this type of money and opportunity as the diamond mines and other mines.
Constituents have told me, and I agree, that we need to help restore confidence to potential investors that our Northwest Territories is in fact a good place to do business. To help improve confidence, constituents have told me that the GNWT must work with Aboriginal governments to move land claims and self-government negotiations forward throughout the Northwest Territories. Interim land withdrawals and decades of negotiations cause uncertainty to potential exploration companies and investors. Land claims and self-government negotiations are critical. In addition to recognizing that all people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, of the Northwest Territories can share lands, resources, power, and hope for the future, while at the same time respecting our similarities and differences, completing these land claims and self-government negotiations will help restore confidence in the Northwest Territories as a place to invest and do business.
Further, the 18th Legislative Assembly must consider strategic infrastructure investments that can extend mine life and help reduce exploration costs for future mining interests; infrastructure such as roads into the North Slave Geological Province, Whati, and up the Mackenzie Valley. For any improvements in the mining sector to be successful, the GNWT and the 18th Legislative Assembly must work closely with the NWT Chamber of Mines to set measurable and meaningful priorities.
Non-renewable resource extraction was not the only economic priority identified by my constituents. Constituents told me that the GNWT must also focus on supporting a sustainable and diversified economy. I agree with many of the ideas that you’ll hear today and that we heard out in the public, ideas such as investing in green energy, farming, fishing, forestry, biomass production, tourism, culture, arts and film.
The GNWT must do more to enhance all of these areas. They allow residents to circulate money coming in from sources like mining throughout the Northwest Territories, rather than leaving directly for the south. These economic opportunities may not be huge revenue generators by themselves, but they do help improve the quality of life, cost of living, and can support sustainability through the peaks and valleys of non-renewable resource extraction. They are incentive for people to stay, enjoy and become part of all of our communities.
For any of these initiatives to be successful, the GNWT must work closely with small business owners and operators and find a way to enhance the support for entrepreneurs here in the Northwest Territories. In addition, the GNWT needs to work closely with the chambers of commerce throughout the Northwest Territories, to create real opportunity and sustainability for northern business.
As I’ve already indicated, supporting and improving our economic opportunities in the Northwest Territories will require some strategic infrastructure investment. As a Legislative Assembly, we must be open to taking some risk and utilizing some of our short-term borrowing capacity while the borrowing costs are low, to support economic development and create future opportunities, revenue generation and cost controls.
Another priority area raised by the constituents was our youth. Constituents were clear that to maximize benefits of economic development and activity, we have to support a robust education system that provides options to meet the needs of learners of all ages. This will ensure that Northerners can take advantage of opportunities that are available to them. Unfortunately, our graduation rates remain lower than the rest of Canada. This is especially true in our smaller and remote communities. We constantly hear that when our young people do graduate in our smaller communities that they don’t have the academic credentials to get into colleges or universities. Together, all together, we must stop this trend, we must turn it around, and it must start before kindergarten.
I’ve heard from constituents that the GNWT needs to do more to support early childhood development throughout the Northwest Territories. It must build upon the work started in the 17th Legislative Assembly, but must continue to do more with an enhanced focus on zero to three and the support to daycare providers and parents.
Free play-based education for four-year-old children was another hot topic. Everyone agrees that it must be a priority, but there was also clear indication that one model does not fit all in all situations. The daycare providers, Aboriginal Head Start and parents must be included in the development of programs and identification of alternative solutions in this area. Education Renewal has support; however, I heard that it needs to move quicker and that it must be done in a collaborative way. To be successful in this initiative, the GNWT must engage and work with parents, school boards and other stakeholders to improve the education system in the Northwest Territories, and this is pre-kindergarten to Grade 12.
It was also clear that constituents want more done to support youth who are struggling with mental illness. Helping youth with mental health early and helping them transition out of the school into adulthood, rather than stopping the support at graduation as we often do now, will help these individuals lead healthier and more productive lives. The GNWT must develop and adequately resource a youth mental health strategy.
With respect to post-secondary studies, I’ve heard that more options must be available to our residents at a territorial, regional and community level. There are a large number of young people 18 to 24 who don’t consider themselves part of the workforce. They aren’t looking for work and don’t believe that there are opportunities for them should they decide to work. Our existing models for post-secondary studies or technical training doesn’t seem to be engaging these individuals. The GNWT must be open to creative alternatives that can provide training and education where people are, in their communities and regions.
The third most common area raised by constituents was homelessness and cost of living. Homelessness continues to be a significant problem in the Northwest Territories. There are a number of initiatives that are currently underway, and unfortunately, and too often, the different groups are working in isolation from each other with the same goal in mind. This seems like a wasted effort and a challenge to success. The GNWT must engage all of the stakeholders, municipalities, Aboriginal governments, industry, in order to support the delivery of collaborative and meaningful Homeless First programming throughout the Northwest Territories.
Constituents also told me that the GNWT must consider a mental health transition facility based on the Home First model, likely in Yellowknife as a starting point. This facility could provide a safe place for individuals suffering from mental illness or addictions to live, where they can receive outpatient programs – things like addictions, trauma and/or mental health counselling, to name just a few – as they transition through their illness into a more stable and healthy life. Nunavut recently opened a facility based on this model in Iqaluit. They have already seen significant success and a direct impact on reducing some of their challenges with respect to homelessness in their community.
There are a number of high quality housing programs being offered by the GNWT through the NWT Housing Corporation to help our residents get into homes. Unfortunately, during the election I heard that people either don’t understand the programs that exist, aren’t aware that they exist, or that they aren’t flexible enough to recognize the realities that many of our individuals are facing. Through the NWT Housing Corp, we must engage stakeholders and users of the programs at a community level to seek ways to improve communication and delivery of housing programs. There are answers, Mr. Clerk, in the communities, and as a government we must listen.
With respect to the cost of living, all residents have a personal responsibility to live within their means. Just like the GNWT, residents must spend responsibly and not take on unmanageable debt or spend beyond their individual earning capacity. Unfortunately, many individuals who are managing their individual finances responsibly have indicated that they are struggling to make ends meet. The GNWT can’t do everything to address an individual’s cost of living, but there are ways the GNWT can help residents. These include controlling costs of power through investment in infrastructure, solar, wind, biomass, et cetera. We need to avoid extreme price fluctuations resulting from uncontrollable challenges like low water levels here in the North Slave.
Working with stakeholders to increase daycare options and affordability for NWT residents. Universal daycare may not be affordable in the immediate term, but more can definitely be done to support families in this area. We need to have a long-term plan moving us towards universal daycare, while at the same time, we need to identify and implement some short-term strategies that fit GNWT’s fiscal reality.
Enhancing and streamlining rebate programs to install wood stoves, more efficient furnaces, solar panels, better insulation for commercial and residential users, increasing the number of long-term care beds available to seniors throughout the Northwest Territories, working with the federal government to ensure they live up to their commitment to update the northern residents tax deduction, working with the federal government to help improve the Nutrition North Program for our isolated communities here in the Northwest Territories, enhancing support for community gardens and other food production opportunities. There are definitely some actions the GNWT can take to help residents control the cost of living in the Northwest Territories.
In addition to the three priority areas I have described, another theme appeared. During many discussions with constituents, they described programs and services that they believed should exist within the Government of the Northwest Territories. In many cases these programs or services they described already exist. This suggests, at least to me, that the GNWT is not particularly good at getting program information to the clients who need the support or will benefit from the programs. This is both unfortunate and unacceptable. The GNWT must review its communication protocols and work closely with end users of the GNWT programs to ensure that potential clients get the program information they need when they need it.
There are a couple areas that I want to mention before my time is up. They didn’t come up at the doors, but they are issues that I believe the 18th Legislative Assembly must address. First, the TRC recommendations. As a government, we must take these recommendations seriously and commit to addressing them as a priority of the 18th Legislative Assembly, both indirectly and directly. Supporting the recommendations from the TRC will help positively impact the priority areas that I have described today, the economy, youth, homelessness and cost of living.
Second, community funding. NWT community governments are struggling to survive an annual funding shortfall of almost $40 million per year for operating costs, infrastructure, water and sewage. The GNWT must make addressing this shortfall a priority moving forward. It will require hard choices, but a way forward must be found.
Third, climate change. This one I was honestly surprised that it didn’t come up at more doors. Weird. However, yesterday at COP21 an agreement was made and Canada is a signatory. Some of the highlights of that deal are signatories must peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century. Signatories must work to keep global temperatures increase well below two degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Our Prime Minister has indicated that he will work with the provinces and territories to implement actions to help Canada meet these targets. The GNWT will be required and expected to do its part to help Canada meet these targets. I know many of the residents of the Northwest Territories expect us to do just that.
Mr. Clerk, these are just some of the priorities I’ve heard from my constituents over the last couple of months. There’s no question that the next Legislative Assembly faces a number of important challenges, a tight fiscal outlook for the GNWT, limited economic activity and an increasing cost of living. By engaging our stakeholders and working together here in this room and down the halls, I’m confident that we can make progress in all of these areas. Thank you, Mr. Clerk.