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This is from the 19th Assembly, 2nd Session. The original version can be accessed on the Legislative Assembly's website or by contacting the Legislative Assembly Library. The word of the day was 911.

Topics

MEMBERS PRESENT

Hon. Diane Archie, Hon. Frederick Blake Jr, Mr. Bonnetrouge, Hon. Paulie Chinna, Ms. Cleveland, Hon. Caroline Cochrane, Hon. Julie Green, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Lafferty, Ms. Martselos, Ms. Nokleby, Mr. Norn, Mr. O'Reilly, Ms. Semmler, Hon. R.J. Simpson, Mr. Rocky Simpson, Hon. Shane Thompson, Hon. Caroline Wawzonek.

The House met at 10:00 p.m.

---Prayer

Prayer
Prayer

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you. Good morning, everyone. We'll start with item 2, Ministers' statements. Minister of Finance.

Minister's Statement 63-19(2): Fiscal Update
Ministers' Statements

Caroline Wawzonek Yellowknife South

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I rise today to provide a fiscal update, and in doing so, I want also to speak about one of the most valuable economic resources that exists across the whole of the Northwest Territories: resiliency.

The world remains in the grip of a pandemic the likes of which few people alive in the world today have any reference point to. Canada is currently experiencing a second wave. In the Northwest Territories, we are fortunate that, since the start of the pandemic, we have been able to limit the cases of COVID-19 that have entered our borders, but that comes with a cost; travel within the territory remains tightly restricted, and as a result, many sectors of our economy continue to be seriously impacted. This follows on several months of lockdown or near lockdown earlier in the spring.

I would venture that no household in the Northwest Territories is untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, there is likely no business or industry that has not faced, or does not continue to face, financial or human resource challenges. Many households, businesses, employers, and employees are stressed, scared, or both. That is the reality of the times we are in.

Mr. Speaker, the Northwest Territories has a strong history of resiliency. The climate is harsh, but people have thrived here since time immemorial. Costs of living are high, but people come and grow their families here. The cost of doing business is high, and yet we do continue to attract investment.

A lot has changed since the budget speech in February. Budget 2020 spoke to the importance of working within our means by finding internal efficiencies and using creativity and innovation to deliver our mandate priorities, even in a time of slow economic growth. The need for innovation and creativity is more pressing than ever, but in the current context, we must start from a place of resiliency to put innovation and creativity to the test.

Despite all of the pandemic-related upheaval, the core values we are using to deliver fiscal responsibility to the Northwest Territories have not changed. We will still work within our means to deliver not only on the priorities of the 19th Legislative Assembly, but also to ensure that people and communities across the territory are healthy and safe. We continue to seek creative solutions to these wholly unexpected challenges. We strive to strike a balance between all of the many diverse needs that exist.

Fortunately, we will start with some good news: signs of an economic recovery are appearing. Our job market has recouped many of the resident jobs that were lost, the labour participation rate has climbed back to its March level, and the employment rate has partially recovered. Retail sales are rebounding, with the Northwest Territories outperforming the provinces so far this year, and this consumer spending is supported by stable and high average weekly earnings. We are painfully aware of sectors in the economy that are still in serious hardship, but we are cautiously optimistic that we will have 90-percent job recovery to pre-pandemic levels by the end of calendar year.

Our own revenues will drop this year. We are forecasting significant corporate income tax and resource revenue declines, as the events of 2020 will likely continue to some degree through 2021 and work their way through the economy. It is simply not possible to give direct financial support to every person or business in need, all at the same time; but from the earliest days of the pandemic, we made efforts to immediately support Northwest Territories people, businesses, and communities by waiving a number of revenues, including airport fees, bridge tolls, and leases, which will result in a decrease in our projected revenues.

Despite these revenue losses, our fiscal situation remains stable thanks in large part to two facts: we have received $92 million in immediate and very welcomed support from the Government of Canada to address the expenditure challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; and in addition, Territorial Formula Financing provides a mainstay of fiscal support that will respond to current own-source revenue losses in future years. As a result of the new federal support, we are currently projecting this year's fiscal revenues to be $2.2 billion. That is $38 million more than what was estimated in the 2020-2021 budget.

That said, the pandemic has driven expenditures significantly higher as we implement measures to protect Northwest Territories residents and provide economic support. In total, we estimate $170 million in new expenditures for emergency measures, including additional health care costs, income assistance, and other various forms of economic relief and supports for people, businesses, and communities. To better sustain our delivery of the crucial programs and services we have implemented to protect the territory from COVID-19, we are proposing this sitting to bring these existing functions together under a COVID-19 Coordinating Secretariat that will help us better meet demand, ensure more efficient use of the GNWT's fiscal resources, and provide a clearer point of accountability for the ongoing implementation of the public health orders. With respect to COVID-19 costs, the Department of Finance will publish cost information on its website to maximize transparency.

Regardless of how we deliver the pandemic-driven activities, all these expenditures will have a material impact on our fiscal bottom line. We are planning for the worst while hoping for the best, and we are including the projected costs of $175 million by the end of this fiscal year in our updated forecast for this year. Even within this, we have tried to find efficiencies and innovative delivery methods, and to strike a balance between all of the many needs created or contributed to by the realities of the pandemic. This response includes $31.7 million, that would otherwise be spent across departments, coming into the COVID-19 secretariat as, again, a single point of accountability and administration; $72 million for other related healthcare costs, such as testing and supporting healthcare system capacity; and $72 million for economic supports, including the foregone revenues. Taking the $92 million in direct federal support into account, the projected net effect of the COVID-related expenses and costs is expected to be $83 million.

Although these high costs are not good news, the GNWT has a track record of fiscal responsibility, as demonstrated again this summer when Moody's Investors Service confirmed our Aa1 credit rating for the 14th consecutive year. Past financial responsibility will help us weather the pandemic's revenue and expenditure shocks in our medium-term fiscal outlook. We are committed to continuing on this track.

This commitment will require work. Our latest medium-term outlook projects a course which, if not adjusted, results in both an operating deficit in three years and exceeding the new borrowing limit. Despite a $1.8-billion borrowing limit, our current path will start the next Legislative Assembly in violation of that limit. Resilience is not an accident; it must be consciously sought and developed through diligent effort.

We are paying for our COVID-19 pandemic response by shrinking our operating surplus, not by increasing debt and not by increasing taxes. The 2020-2021 operating surplus is projected to narrow a full $143 million from the February 2020-2021 budget to $60 million. This reduced position could impact our longer-term fiscal sustainably. But it is a response that should allow for short-term cushioning and, as a result, hopefully, more long-term resilience within our private sector.

The lower operating surplus will also increase our total debt to a projected $1.262 billion by the end of this fiscal year. Had we not successfully negotiated a $500-million increase to the federally imposed borrowing limit, this level would have been unacceptably close to the previous limit. Although the new $1.8-billion limit will provide $538 million in borrowing capacity at year-end, we need to be conscious of the risks of carrying too much debt. COVID-19 is not an excuse; we must focus on the difficult choices we need to make to live within our means, while providing the programs and services that Northwest Territories residents need, especially within the context of COVID-19.

During the budget dialogues that I held over the summer, we heard loud and clear that spending reductions are preferred over tax increases. By themselves, increasing revenues will not be sufficient and is frankly unlikely to be fruitful in the short term as the pandemic continues to impact markets across Canada and the world. Continued borrowing will be fiscally unsustainable, and letting capital assets deteriorate by starving our capital budget is unacceptable. The reality is that expenditure management will need to be the main pillar in moving the GNWT onto a sustainable fiscal path, but I want to be very clear: expenditure management is not the same as expenditure reduction. The budget dialogues participants gave considered suggestions for better expenditure management to improve our efficiency and find more value for our dollar. Now is the time to be creative and innovative. There is a path forward that will allow us to budget in a way that reflects the values and priorities of the people of the NWT. That will have to be our fiscal path.

Last, Mr. Speaker, during the budget dialogues, I also heard many thoughtful comments from people making connections between health and productivity, between education and labour market participation, and between economic growth and government-revenue growth. I believe underlying much of what we heard is evidence that we are truly pulling together as a territory. This energizes me with optimism that we show resiliency, we will rebuild and provide a legacy for the future to realize the great potential that this territory offers. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Minister's Statement 63-19(2): Fiscal Update
Ministers' Statements

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Minister. Ministers' statements. Item 3, Members' statements. Member for Hay River South.

Addictions
Members' Statements

Rocky Simpson Hay River South

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Addictions have a devastating impact, not only on individuals but on families and the community, as well. It is a difficult and sensitive issue, one that is hidden in the background, quietly discussed, provided some support, but never appears front and centre.

In the past several months, Hay River has had to deal with several events that included the tragic loss of local residents. The community has seen the hospitalization of others due to overdose and vehicle accidents brought on by alcohol or drugs. When events such as these happen, we immediately look to lay blame in order to deflect responsibility from ourselves. We try to remove it from what we consider mainstream society, when in actuality it is interwoven in the very fabric of society, and we tend to normalize it.

Mr. Speaker, I recognize and admit that I have limited knowledge in the area of addictions. However, I do understand that drug addiction, no matter what walk of life you are from, does not care who it harms or what agony and grief it causes individuals and families.

I have met with people who have drug addictions, those who experience mental health issues due to drug use, those families personally impacted, and medical staff dealing with persons detoxing. I strongly believe addictions needs to be brought to the forefront and provided resources to seriously address it.

Mr. Speaker, this government is providing some financial resources to address addictions, but knowing that this government has no issue identifying $87 million to address COVID monitoring and enforcement when no one has died in the NWT but is slow to act when it comes to dealing with a disease that is hospitalizing, killing, or destroying our family members and friends on a regular basis, I find this to be a travesty. This disease does not work in a vacuum. To fuel itself, it takes advantage of peer pressure, lack of housing, unemployment, mental health issues, personal trauma, effects of residential schools, and other realities. Because of this, I expect and look to this government to take a cross-departmental approach to address it. We must look for and action real solutions that work for the people of the NWT.

Mr. Speaker, I do not want to see another mother or father having to experience the death of a child because we are not doing enough to support the treatment of addictions. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Addictions
Members' Statements

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Hay River South. Members' statements. Member for Deh Cho.

Long-Term Care in Small Communities
Members' Statements

Ronald Bonnetrouge Deh Cho

Mahsi, Mr. Speaker. The Northwest Territories has a growing demographic of people whose voices are often not heard nor adhered to. This demographic is the elders or knowledge-keepers.

Mr. Speaker, in my Dene culture, we say to the young to respect the elders as the young do not know what the knowledge-keepers have experienced in their lifetime. Many have experienced hardships in their lives in providing for their families but have prevailed in some way, and they have always had comforting words to soothe away any pains others may be going through. There is a term coined that best describes what one does not know of them: do not criticize a knowledge-keeper unless you have walked a mile in their moccasins.

Mr. Speaker, one of the mandates that this Assembly has identified is to assist the elders to age in place, that is to stay in their own home and in their home community. Families do not want to see their knowledge-keepers leave the community to be placed into a home in another community, a place where they are in a totally strange environment, that they did not grow up in, most of all, away from their families, the very people they have nurtured all their lives. We must not forget the many grandchildren who are left behind. Far too often, the children and grandchildren do not get to spend time with the knowledge-keepers who, in time, will pass, and for all that we know, they may have been lonely for family and aching to be in the community they call home.

Mr. Speaker, I will have questions for the Minister of Health and Social Services at the appropriate time. Mahsi.

Long-Term Care in Small Communities
Members' Statements

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Deh Cho. Members' statements. Member for Thebacha.

Housing Requirements in Thebacha
Members' Statements

Frieda Martselos Thebacha

Mr. Speaker, since getting elected last year, I have assisted my constituents with a wide range of different issues, spanning all of the major departments of the Government of the Northwest Territories. By far, though, the one department I have dealt with the most has been the NWT Housing Corporation. In fact, I would estimate that roughly 90 percent of all my constituent concerns involve housing.

Mr. Speaker, I have noticed a concerning trend regarding housing in the NWT, particularly public housing. I am seeing a trend of mistreatment to vulnerable people, specifically for seniors and low-income people. As an example, just in the last two weeks alone, I have dealt with three constituents who are facing potential eviction from their rental units, two of whom are seniors. At a time during a global pandemic and with winter upon us, these sorts of actions by the Housing Corporation are unacceptable and must stop immediately.

Furthermore, I have also tried to help several constituents find more suitable housing for their situations. However, I continually, always, get a response back stating that the client's income is over the core net income threshold as per NWT housing policy. Anyone with an income above the core need income threshold is considered to have sufficient income to address their own housing needs, thus is ineligible for any NWT housing programs. Again, Mr. Speaker, this type of policy is not acceptable in its current form because people are falling through the cracks and are being adversely affected as a result. This policy therefore must be re-examined and changed because it is causing more harm and more headaches for long-term residents of the NWT, especially my constituents of Thebacha.

Another major issue with this Minister and her department is the lack of communication from emails I have sent to her about my constituents, along with my concerns, as ordinary MLA, regarding awarding of contracts that were done by the RCMP contract homes. In the last budget, there were funds allocated for two public housing units to be built in Fort Smith, which were not awarded, and contracts did not go out. I asked the Minister about this verbally and through email and still have not received an answer. I am concerned because there are major housing needs in Fort Smith. What happened to the allocations of these funds for these two units?

Mr. Speaker, in conclusion, there are major communication gaps within the NWT Housing Corporation, and things have got to change. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Housing Requirements in Thebacha
Members' Statements

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Thebacha. Members' statements. Member for Inuvik Twin Lakes.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Action Plan
Members' Statements

Lesa Semmler Inuvik Twin Lakes

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We continue to see violence against our Indigenous women and girls, not just here in the North, Mr. Speaker, but across Canada. We have all seen recently over this time, during this pandemic, the loss of a young Indigenous woman from Yellowknife as well as another young woman murdered in Hay River. Outside the NWT, an Indigenous woman and a mother of seven, Joyce Echaquan, who went to the hospital to seek medical treatment, instead died while being treated like no person should be treated in a facility like that.

Mr. Speaker, in June, we were informed that an action plan to deal with the calls for justice had been delayed by the federal government, and in fact, it is my opinion that no substantial work has been done to the national action plan to this date. We also heard that, due to COVID restrictions in place, domestic and sexual violence has surged during the pandemic. The NWT has even received increased federal funding for its shelters to assist with this recently. During our last session, I asked this government to take the lead and develop an action plan, not wait any longer to give action to the calls for justice outlined in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls final report. We need to do this now and not wait any longer. We cannot have any more stolen sisters.

Today, Mr. Speaker, I will be asking the Minister responsible for the Status of Women questions on what progress has been made on developing our own NWT action plan. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Action Plan
Members' Statements

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Inuvik Twin Lakes. Members' statements. Member for Frame Lake.

Contaminated Sites and Economic Recovery
Members' Statements

Kevin O'Reilly Frame Lake

Merci, Monsieur le President. On April 17, 2020, the federal government announced $1.72 billion in financial assistance for the remediation of orphan and inactive oil and gas wells in western Canada as part of Canada's Economic Response Plan for COVID-19. On May 28, I made a statement in this House about the potential for the NWT to access similar funding, working in partnership with Yukon and Nunavut. The Premier provided some assurances that "remediation from mine sites has always been a priority." The Premier also said that a joint letter was in preparation to federal Ministers from the three northern territories to advocate for such funding.

Mr. Speaker, I have seen that letter, and it is a request for support for the mining industry with mention of accelerated funding for northern contaminated sites buried on page 3. What I have learned since is that there does not appear to be a clear lead for our government on this file, no specific asks, and little coordination.

To repeat what I said in May, the Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory shows 1,647 sites in the NWT, with an estimated assessment of remediation cost at $12.375 billion. The GNWT 2018-2019 public accounts show a total of 285 sites under our jurisdiction, with a cost of remediation estimated at $70.6 million. Our Premier needs to make this work a priority as part of our efforts on economic recovery and part of the emerging remediation economy here in the Northwest Territories. There are obvious links to NWT Indigenous economic development, businesses, and the proposed polytechnic university. Billions of dollars will be spent on environmental remediation at Giant Mine, Norman Wells, and numerous other sites. In many ways, we are pioneering new technologies, approaches, and partnerships that should be the envy of the circumpolar world and form a central part of the polytechnic university. There will be jobs created in many of our smaller communities and regional centres.

Later today, I will have questions for the Premier on whether she will make it a priority to secure federal investment for accelerated remediation of contaminated sites as a part of our drive towards economic recovery and diversification. Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.

Contaminated Sites and Economic Recovery
Members' Statements

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Frame Lake. Members' statements. Member for Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh.