Hay River North
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I am honoured to have the opportunity today to speak to the Assembly and to the people of the Northwest Territories. I look forward to hearing from all of the Members and working with them as we set the priorities of the 18th Assembly.
When considering our priorities, I look to the future. As the recent Snap Lake announcement has reminded us, the diamond mines will not be here forever. We must take steps now to foster an economy that will be able to provide for our children, our grandchildren and generations beyond. This includes investments in infrastructure, supporting small businesses and emerging industries, encouraging responsible resource exploration and creating a business climate that is attractive to investors.
An essential component to a successful economy is a skilled workforce. We need to do a better job of educating, training and retaining Northerners and attracting skilled workers from other jurisdictions.
While looking to the future, we must not neglect the pressing issues of today. The cost of living affects every one of us on a daily basis and is an impediment to attracting investors and retaining residents. Housing is a concern in every region of the territory. Whether it is a lack of housing units for seniors or chronic homelessness, it is an area that demands our attention.
We must also continue to work on improving mental health and addiction services. We cannot be a prosperous society unless we are a healthy society. Doing a better job of protecting and supporting the victimized, marginalized and vulnerable among us must also be at the forefront of our priority-setting discussion.
My discussion of some very important issues will be brief, and because of time constraints, there is so much I will not mention at all. However, after getting to know the Members of the 18th Assembly over the past few weeks and learning about their varying strengths and backgrounds, I am confident that all of the important issues will be well represented and we can create a set of priorities that are in the best interests of the current and future citizens of the Northwest Territories.
The territory is facing tough economic times. The diamond mines, the main drivers of our economy, are all scheduled to close in the next 15 years, and there are as of yet no projects to replace them. This situation necessitates two responses: We must create a climate that encourages investment and resource exploration, and we must diversify our economy so that we are more resilient against global factors that affect commodity prices.
Despite declining revenues, this government needs to invest in projects that lower the cost of doing business in the Northwest Territories. The resource sector is cyclical, so even though we are on a downturn now, we must position ourselves for the future. This includes investment in projects such as the Slave Geological Province and the development of a regulatory regime that encourages exploration and attracts investment.
In addition to lowering business costs, projects like the Mackenzie Valley Highway will reduce the costs of goods in communities and open up a vast part of the territory for tourism. We must also partner with industry and the federal government to pursue dredging around Hay River and up the Mackenzie, to lower the cost and decrease the liability of shipping.
In addition to large-scale investments, communities must be provided with the funding they need to ensure that they can provide, improve and maintain their infrastructure. We have to develop a funding formula for communities that is fair and based on needs.
To help insulate ourselves from global factors that are out of our control, we need to focus efforts on developing and growing local industries. Stable economies are built from the ground up. We need to support entrepreneurs and northern companies that have already made investments in our communities. We should be supporting entrepreneurs with increased and more flexible seed funding and a stronger Business Incentive Program.
The new pellet plant scheduled to open in Enterprise is proof that there is opportunity for new industries. Manufacturing has grown 26 percent annually between 2009 and 2014. This sector not only creates jobs, it builds capacity by creating opportunities for apprenticeships. Farming and agriculture are other emerging industries that we need to foster, both because of their growth potential and because of the food security they provide to the North. Likewise for commercial fishing.
In addition to the ample North American market, cargo flights from Edmonton to China mean that we can now provide fresh fish to the Chinese market. We have made investments in these areas and we need to continue to do so.
We must also continue efforts to decentralize government jobs from Yellowknife to regional centres and communities. While our economy can’t be built on government jobs alone, they can provide much needed employment outside Yellowknife and bring money into the communities.
Priority must also be given to improving the GNWT’s relationship with Aboriginal governments, settling outstanding claims and implementing settled claims. As we heard at the Northern Leaders’ Meeting this weekend, we have to do a better job in all of these areas. While respect and fair dealing are reasons enough to do this, improvement in these areas will also create a more attractive business environment by providing clarity to companies who wish to invest in the North.
All the talk about building an economy is meaningless if we do not have an educated and skilled workforce to maintain it. Earlier I spoke of investing in infrastructure and entrepreneurs. Nothing provides a better return on investment than education. We need to put more teachers in the classroom, especially in earlier grades. The NWT had one of the worst student/teacher ratios in the country, and we are setting ourselves up for failure unless we do something about it. Our graduation rate is low, and many of those who do graduate lack the skills needed to succeed in university. It’s not fair to them and it’s a missed opportunity for all of us.
We must also do a better job of retaining those students who do go south and receive a university education. We need to communicate with them while they’re in school, create opportunities for them in the North, such as summer positions and internships, and offer a more generous loan forgiveness regime. We are concerned with attracting new residents to the North, but we should not forget about the ones who already have roots here.
There also needs to be a renewed focus on apprenticeships. SNAP is a program that gives high school students a head start on getting a trade. It’s a solid program but we need to make better use of it. When a journeyman takes on an apprentice, he or she is doing a service for the entire territory. We need to support and encourage that with better incentives and programs. We must also work to make schooling more accessible for apprentices both in terms of when and where it is offered. If we are truly concerned about the future of the Northwest Territories, we must make education a top priority.
During the campaign I heard a lot of concerns about the state of the economy. I heard equally as many concerns about the availability of safe and affordable housing. From speaking with the other Members, I know that these concerns are common in every region.
The lack of seniors housing is becoming an increasingly urgent problem because of our aging population. We need to look at ways to keep seniors in their homes longer, such as greater investments in home care, and increasing the number of people who qualify for the Seniors Home Heating Subsidy.
In some communities there are just not enough houses, period. The result is that some people find themselves homeless. With the wealth we have in this territory, I find that unacceptable. Ensuring that everyone has access to safe, affordable housing should be a priority of the next Assembly.
There are many important issues which I haven’t touched on, including, but not limited to, social issues that badly need our attention. I know some of my colleagues will touch on these, and I look forward to working with them to ensure that those issues are also made a priority of this Assembly.
We face many challenges over the next year and we have tough decisions to make; however, given the talent and skills of the people of the Northwest Territories and my fellow Members, I am optimistic, hopeful and excited about what the future holds. Thank you, Mr. Clerk.