Mr. Speaker, I would like to welcome all Members back to the continuation of our Second Sitting of the 19th Legislative Assembly.
Much has changed in the Northwest Territories and around the world since our sitting was interrupted by the declaration of a global COVID-19 pandemic this past March. Governments across Canada, including our own, have had to take swift and strong action to protect the health and safety of Canadians from this disease.
COVID-19 is a disease that no one in the world has a natural immunity to. There is no vaccine, and there is no effective anti-viral treatment for it. The best way to prevent its spread is to ensure people are not exposed to the virus.
Physical distancing was and still is the best protection against COVID-19, and that is why governments across Canada moved quickly in mid-March to close businesses, restrict travel, and put limits on gathering of people.
Mr. Speaker, while these strict limits were absolutely necessary for protecting everybody's health, they were devastating for the national and territorial economy. The situation has left our government, like all governments in this country, grappling with two challenges at the same time: a public health crisis and a socio-economic crisis.
On the public health side, we have relied heavily on the work of the Northwest Territories' Chief Public Health Officer as well as the Department of Health and Social Services and the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.
Along with public health officials across Canada, the Chief Public Health Officer was monitoring the progression of COVID-19 in other countries and taking steps to make sure the Northwest Territories was ready for it even before the global pandemic was declared on March 11.
The day before the pandemic was declared, the Chief Public Health Officer issued an update on COVID-19, and gave extensive advice to Northwest Territories residents on how to keep themselves safe. Recommendations included avoiding non-essential travel outside the territory, self-monitoring for people who had recently travelled, reconsidering plans for public gatherings, and keeping a two-week supply of food and medicine at home.
As COVID-19 began to spread in southern Canada, the Minister of Health and Social Services, on the recommendation of the Chief Public Health Officer, declared a public health emergency in the Northwest Territories on March 18, 2020. The following day, the Government of the Northwest Territories took the unprecedented step of directing its employees to begin working from home in an effort to help encourage physical distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19.
Two days later, on March 21st, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Northwest Territories and a public health order prohibiting travel into the territory was put into place, except for residents returning home and workers providing essential services. All people entering the Territories from outside were also required to self-isolate for 14 days in one of four regional communities where appropriate medical care was available in the case that they developed COVID-19.
On March 22nd, the Chief Public Health Officer recommended that all mass gatherings be cancelled immediately and that certain businesses, where it would be impossible to maintain physical distancing, be closed. These recommendations were made into binding public health orders on April 10, 2020.
To assist with the implementation of the Chief Public Health Officer's orders, the Government of the Northwest Territories set up regional self-isolation centres for people returning from outside the territory and established a compliance and enforcement taskforce, drawing on staff from across the Government of the Northwest Territories with enforcement experience.
To better coordinate the whole-of-government response, the Municipal and Community Affairs Emergency Management Organization was fully activated and a territorial state of emergency was declared on March 24th.
While all these measures were necessary to protect residents and communities from the spread of COVID-19, our government recognizes that these decisions also had serious economic consequences for people, businesses, and communities. We also recognized that we had an obligation to not just protect public health, but to help the territory weather the financial and economic storm that COVID-19 had caused. This would require a whole-of-government effort with all departments involved in the response.
On March 20, just days into the crisis, the Ministers of Finance and Industry, Tourism and Investment announced on behalf of our government the first set of measures designed to help reduce the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdown on the NWT and its residents.
Valued at $13.2 million, this first economic package included measures like providing low-interest loans through the Business Development and Investment Corporation to help businesses offset the impacts of COVID-19.
The Government of the Northwest Territories also agreed to advance resource revenues to Indigenous governments that are signatories to the devolution agreement and to allow Indigenous governments, non-government organizations, and community governments to carry over unused contribution amounts into the current fiscal year. Increased funding was also made available through Education, Culture and Employment for Income Assistance clients and seniors to help address the impacts of COVID-19.
In addition to new funding, the Government of the Northwest Territories also decided to suspend or defer the collection of fees and revenues owing to it. This was another way to relieve the financial burden being experienced by people, businesses, and communities as a result of COVID-19. These measures included removing transportation fees by the Department of Infrastructure, deferring Business Development and Investment Corporation and student financial assistance loan payments, pausing most collection efforts, and extending the due date for Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission employer fees. The Northwest Territories Power Corporation contributed to these relief efforts by removing load limiters and ceasing disconnections, as well as pausing its collection efforts.
A second economic relief package valued at almost $8.3 million was announced on March 31st, including additional supports for Income Assistance clients and further fee reductions.
This package also identified $5 million for the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation to create temporary housing for homeless persons, including housing in Yellowknife and 130 units in communities outside of the capital.
Further announcements saw Education, Culture and Employment allocate $5 million to support childcare for essential workers and decide to exempt federal emergency benefits from Income Assistance eligibility calculations. The Department of Finance also introduced a wage top-up plan for workers earning less than $18 an hour.
The Department of Justice also instituted a moratorium on residential evictions, allowed for rent deferrals for residential tenants affected by the pandemic, while the Housing Corporation enhanced the Territorial Rent Supplement Program.
Leaseholders on public lands were also seeing relief in the form of a $2.7-million decision to waive rent on existing leases for the 2020-2021 fiscal year from the Department of Lands.
Support to businesses has been a joint effort of our government and the Government of Canada, with Government of the Northwest Territories efforts being designed to complement immediate relief available to territorial businesses from the federal government. In addition to working capital loans provided by the Business Development and Investment Corporation, $4 million is available to territorial businesses through Industry, Tourism and Investment's SEED Program to help businesses recover as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
In the first of two planned announcements, the Government of the Northwest Territories, in partnership with the Government of Canada, is helping four northern passenger-based airlines access $8.7 million in funding. Further funding announcements with Canada are expected for additional airlines.
Of course, the Northwest Territories is not alone in facing this pandemic, and all Members of Cabinet have been working closely with their federal, provincial, and territorial counterparts to help coordinate efforts and advocate for the Northwest Territories. All Ministers are working hard to ensure that the Northwest Territories' needs are clearly understood so federal assistance programs benefit our residents and businesses. We are also coordinating on key issues like securing the national supply chain so the territory continues to have access to essential goods and participating in national bulk orders for personal protective equipment.
While the threat of COVID-19 is not over, our government also recognizes that a complete shutdown of the Northwest Territories economy and society is not sustainable or affordable. Although our priority in the past two months has been on managing the immediate threat to public health, we have also been working on plans for recovery and for emerging wisely.
Mr. Speaker, I am sure all Members felt the same relief I did when the Chief Public Health Officer unveiled her phased plan for carefully relaxing the public health restrictions that have kept Northwest Territories residents safe during the first stages of the pandemic. To be clear, emerging from those restrictions means taking on greater risk that there could be new COVID-19 infections, but the gradual relaxation outlined in Emerging Wisely will help us manage that risk together.
With a plan in place for managing the public health risk, the Government of the Northwest Territories is now focusing on emerging stronger with a plan for broader social and economic recovery.
This will not be a plan the government develops in isolation; the pandemic hit all sectors of the Northwest Territories, and all sectors need to be involved in designing the recovery. As outlined to Members previously, we will be working closely with Members of the Legislative Assembly to design a plan, advised by committees representing business and industry, Indigenous governments, community governments, and community organizations.
COVID-19 presents a shared challenge like none this government has faced before, Mr. Speaker. No previous territorial government has had to respond to a global health threat so quickly and with so little time to prepare. I am proud of the work this Government of the Northwest Territories has done to design solutions on the fly; protect public health; manage and mitigate the social and economic impacts on individuals, businesses, and communities; and keep essential services running safely.
I want to thank all the staff who worked tirelessly to help support the government's response to COVID-19, especially our front-line staff in the healthcare system, staff managing the self-isolation centres, and the compliance and enforcement staff protecting our borders and making sure people are following public health orders.
I also want to thank and recognize all the essential workers who have continued to come into work throughout this pandemic, like the truckers, grocery store and pharmacy workers, childcare workers, law enforcement, and airline employees, who have continued to keep the Northwest Territories moving.
While the entire territory has risen to the challenge of COVID-19, there are more challenges to come. We are a strong and resilient territory, and I am confident that we can successfully manage our way through this pandemic and emerge even stronger, by working together with the same kind of spirit and determination that Northwest Territories residents displayed over the past two months. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.