This is page numbers 3411 - 3440 of the Hansard for 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 budget.

Topics

Members Present

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

The House met at 1:31 p.m.

---Prayer

Prayer
Prayer

Page 3411

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

Budget address. Minister responsible for Finance.

Budget Address
Budget Address

Page 3411

Caroline Wawzonek Yellowknife South

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

This is the third budget of the 19th Assembly. It is an opportunity to restate, and reset, our vision for the economic future of the Northwest Territories.

The first budget came only months after this government was sworn in and was an occasion to describe our approach to managing the government's finances and, more important, our vision for how we would work to improve the overall fiscal outlook for the Northwest Territories. Before that first budget session was even concluded, the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Our second budget in 2021-2022 was focused on stability: Both in terms of supporting the health and well-being of residents and the economy through the pandemic but also by ensuring that government continued to do all the many and varied things that are expected and needed of us during times of uncertainty.

[Translation] I would ask you to think back to those pre-COVID days, and to the vision delivered in the first budget when we committed to being open to taking risks and promised to promote a spirit of creativity and innovation in the way we deliver government programs and services.

Finding comfort with risk, seeking and supporting innovation, and building a culture of collaboration and value-driven efficiency in the delivery of government programs and services is what we were striving for, what we have begun and what we will continue to do with this Budget. [Translation ends]

Keeping to, and delivering on, that vision has not been easy in the last two years.

We have, and will, continue to support residents and businesses through times of crisis. We have worked with the federal government to identify needs and secured flexibility in federal funding programs. Moreover, we have filled gaps not addressed by federal funding through creative and unique programming. In doing this, we have assisted residents and businesses through a pandemic that has been unprecedented in my lifetime. At the same time, we have supported communities through a devastating flood season.

Even while providing relief and recovery from a once in a generation crisis, we have also managed to maintain the vast breadth of government services across all regions and communities. As well, despite these unprecedented challenges, all departments are largely on target to advance and achieve the mandate priorities of the 19th Assembly.

Mr. Speaker, the GNWT will continue to be bold when it comes to supporting our people, communities and businesses. However, bold does not necessarily always mean easy or popular. Nor does it necessarily mean immediate.

Making flashy announcements, hoping that new money will solve long-standing problems, is often the easier political path. But what sometimes most needs doing takes time. Changing an organization the size of a provincial or territorial government takes time; changing a society takes even longer. The goal is not headlines to last the next few days or the term of this government. The goal is to influence the path of the Northwest Territories for the next five or even ten years.

This budget is not flashy, but it offers stability in a time of continued uncertainty. With that stability, we will continue to deliver on our original promises of building, fostering, and supporting innovation, creativity, and efficiency both within government and the private sector.

One might say that the themes of this budget are consistency and patience, but that is only true because those values allow us to continue to pursue the core values I have spoken of in the two previous budgets: Using innovation and creativity to find efficiencies and also to build a strong economic future that benefits Northwest Territories residents. Today's budget address will provide examples of where we continue to build on key initiatives for the future while also remaining present in the needs of today.

This budget includes operations spending of $2.1 billion. This is an increase of 3 percent from 2021-2022. Additionally, the Legislature approved a capital plan in December that included $502 million in capital spending for 2022-2023. Revenues are projected to be $2.3 billion in 2022-2023. This is an increase of 2.3 percent from what is projected for 2021-2022. After including the supplementary reserve and other adjustments, the 2022-2023 Main Estimates show a projected operating surplus of $131 million.

In addition to the budget, I am also pleased to present an Economic Review. This review shows our economy is poised to experience modest growth in the coming years as we emerge from the COVID pandemic. However, economic risks which may dampen economic success need to be managed.

Mr. Speaker, in this address I intend to outline our plan to use this government's third budget to build on the work we have already undertaken to fulfil our mandate priorities while also managing and providing relief from many unforeseen challenges.
I will first provide an overview of the economic outlook, then outline how the economic indicators will affect our fiscal results and, finally, I will outline some of the specific initiatives this government will undertake in 2022-2023 to both fulfill our mandate and ensure the long-term vitality of the Northwest Territories.

Economic Outlook

Our short-term economic indicators are positive: Preliminary projections suggest that the Northwest Territories grew 7.3 percent in 2021 and we are forecasting the economy to remain close to this level in 2022-2023. Moreover, investment in the economy is increasing. New investment in the territory was 13 percent higher in 2021 than in 2020 with private investment rising 18.8 percent and public investment increasing 11.5 percent.

The employment rate also continues to trend upwards, rising 5 percent in 2021. The unemployment rate decreased from 8.5 percent in 2020 to 5 percent in 2021. Residents earned more in 2021 as well. Average weekly earnings remained high compared to the national average with Northwest Territories employees earning on average 35 percent more than other Canadians. Average household incomes continue to be higher in the Northwest Territories than in any other jurisdiction.

However, there are near-term difficulties that threaten economic growth. Although the Northwest Territories is rebounding, the recovery has been uneven across sectors, industries, and demographics. Industries such as retail, construction, and public administration have all returned to pre-pandemic levels, while hard-hit sectors such as tourism, hospitality, mining, and wholesale trade continue to struggle.

Long-term challenges, such as maturing diamond mines, an aging population, a lack of economic diversification, and declining private sector activity will depress future growth unless there are substantial changes. Most pressing of these long-term challenges is that the diamond mining industry, which has been the engine of the private sector economy for the last two decades, may see all existing diamond mines close by 2030.

We cannot let the fact that these challenges are still in the medium to long term allow us to not begin responding to them today. Rather, the fact that there are these challenges on the horizon should motivate action and innovation. The Northwest Territories has the potential to grow and contribute to economic resilience within the rest of Canada. Indigenous governments within the territories' boundaries are poised to play expanded roles in economic diversification and infrastructure development; environmental, social and governance are already factors in the way the Northwest Territories resource industry does business; and, the fact that our territory is on the front lines of climate change makes us an obvious place for research and investments in initiatives that can help green economies.

Potential is just that; it will be realized and flourish sooner and stronger within healthy and well-educated communities. These communities support opportunities for the opening of new businesses, foster the growth of local enterprise, nurture a healthy and well-trained domestic labour force and encourage overall investor confidence.

Mr. Speaker, all of these goals are reflected in the priorities and mandate of the 19th Assembly. That is why it has been important to ensure not only relief and recovery but to also keep a steady eye on achieving our mandate priorities.

Fiscal results and outlook

Mr. Speaker, last year I said that I was cautiously optimistic about our longer-term fiscal outlook. As I just observed, there are significant challenges that we need to be prepared for but so far I believe my optimism has been justified as we saw our economy grow and employment rebound.

This positive economic outlook is reflected in our fiscal situation. We closed 2020-2021 with a
$67 million operating surplus instead of the $31 million deficit projected last year due primarily to improved revenues from federal supports and savings in program delivery.

For the current fiscal year, direct federal supports to businesses and individuals have greatly improved our own source revenues, which are $86 million higher than we forecasted in the 2021-2022 budget. Although there were additional costs related to emergency support, an operating surplus of $28 million is projected for the current fiscal year.

We are forecasting a surplus of $131 million in 2022-2023 and continued surpluses going forward to 2025-2026. We plan to use these operational surpluses to help fund planned capital investment of $1.34 billion between now and 2025-2026. However, the surpluses won't be sufficient to pay for all this needed infrastructure. We will continue to need to borrow. We expect to end 2021-2022 with total debt of $1.5 billion, $345 million under the federally-imposed borrowing limit. This debt is expected to grow to $1.7 billion by the end of 2022-2023.

Good fiscal governance comes from deliberate actions, not ad hoc reactions to a snapshot in time. We still need careful expenditure management. In our fiscal planning for 2023-2024, we are proposing to limit forced growth to $10 million and new initiatives to $5 million annually. If we want to do more, we will be calling on departments to find the means from within existing resources.

I am optimistic that we can control future spending through internal savings and continuing to find more value from the $2.1 billion that we spend without having to reduce programs and services. This has been the fiscal goal since our first year in the 19th Assembly and is the cornerstone of our government renewal work. I look forward to continuing to work with all Members of the 19th Assembly to find creative and effective solutions to the fiscal challenges we face together.

Revenue Initiatives

Mr. Speaker, we are not introducing new taxes in the 2022-2023 budget. In keeping with past practice, property tax rates will be increased with inflation. We will undertake the scheduled five-year fee review which could yield changes in fee amounts for 2022-2023.

The financial hardship faced by many residents and businesses and the ongoing economic uncertainties owing to the fallout of COVID-19 make this not a time for increasing income taxes to improve our fiscal situation. We will continue to monitor the data on who is paying taxes in the territory and on what kinds of income. At the moment, we have only a small number of individuals who could be potentially in a higher tax bracket. This will bring minimal benefit to the government but substantial risk to our competitive position compared to other jurisdictions who also compete for skilled labour.

We will honour our commitments under the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change and raise the carbon tax rate to $50 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions on July 1, 2022. Our current carbon pricing system was implemented to encourage the reduction of fossil fuel while not adding to the cost of living or providing barriers to economic development. These carbon tax rate increases also come with an increase to the cost of living benefit of $260 per adult and $300 per dependent under the age of 18 years effective July 1, 2022.

Further, $5.9 million will go to rebates on heating fuel, diesel used to generate electricity for distribution, and for the large emitter program.

Expenditures

The 2022-2023 budget continues our commitment to using our resources efficiently to deliver needed programs and services in times of uncertainty while keeping an eye to ensuring that we unlock the strong future potential of the Northwest Territories.

Our $2.1 billion operating budget includes new funding of $95 million which will go to the key mandate priorities.

Before I provide the details of new spending, I want to talk about how the other $2 billion in proposed spending in the 2022-2023 budget provides stability and encourages innovation. Not all things that we do, and should do, needs new money. To make this point, I want to first highlight, not the biggest expenditure items in this budget, but rather some of the changes we have been quietly making to improve without incurring significant or new expenditure lines.

We are already seeing notable progress under the Government Renewal Initiative announced in the first budget. Departments have been coordinating in their efforts to gather the information that decision-makers need to be able to effectively allocate limited resources in a way that provides more value for the dollars we spend. Largely funded internally, the Government Renewal Initiative is already producing meaningful evidence for decision-makers to make better choices about how to allocate government resources. More important, this information gathering stage is paying dividends in changing how we think about service delivery government-wide.

Movement towards greater whole-of-government thinking is perfectly exemplified by the Integrated Service Delivery initiative. Integrated Service Delivery makes government services accessible in a timely and flexible manner, recognizes that not everyone starts from the same point, and ensures all members of the community are treated with dignity and respect. Multiple departments are advancing this work together without new resources by trying to find ways to work together differently and put Northwest Territories residents at the center of service delivery. Making it easier for people to access services allows for greater support for people and families and more effective and efficient service of GNWT programs.

How we use the half a billion in capital dollars is as important as the capital budget itself. We are working on our mandate promise to ensure that GNWT spending maximizes benefits to Northwest Territories residents and businesses by reviewing our procurement policies and practices. We are also working with Indigenous government partners to increase their opportunities for equity participation in future territorial projects so that together we can encourage the development of northern skills and trades and provide more opportunities for local contractors. This collaboration without new spending will help achieve the end goal of ensuring that more of GNWT infrastructure spending stays in the North.

The Red Tape Reduction Working Group has provided some recommendations that, again, do not require more financial resources to help reduce the regulatory barriers that cost businesses time and money. I am pleased with departments' acceptance of their recommendations and proud of the way they have embraced an examination of their program delivery from the end user's perspective. For example, one department agreed to change the way it processes different types of applications to speed up the time in which the end user gets a certificate. The GNWT has also launched an eServices portal for greater online access to government services and is working to develop the necessary policies and assess the technical solutions required to enable electronic signatures within our programs and services.

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls initiative was from the outset a truly collaborative effort and an example of what we can accomplish when we work together. We are working with Indigenous governments and organizations, communities, non-government organizations, and people with lived-experience to develop an action plan. This plan makes the Calls for Justice an integral part of how we operate as a public service and begins the necessary process of addressing colonialism and racial and gendered discrimination from all levels of government and public institutions. This will result in meaningful change, again without new funding but, rather, a change in how we approach what we do and why we do it.

Implementing the Public Lands Act involves every Department of Lands' employee and a temporary reassignment of nine staff to a dedicated project team to bring the legislation into force. The department is also reorganizing the land administration division. Both of these initiatives will be achieved without additional dollars. By the time they are done at the end of this year, they will have rolled up a lot of red tape by merging the territorial and Commissioner land administration units and establishing quality customer service standards for land authorization transactions.

I would be remiss if I neglected to state my deep appreciation for the ways departments covered additional demands for COVID supports from within budgets and while doing their regular jobs as well. For example, the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources and Health and Social Services worked together to use existing staff and facilities to conduct COVID wastewater testing in addition to their regular duties. Similarly, public servants from across departments accepted transfer assignments, voluntary redeployments, and cross appointments to help us respond to COVID-19 such as renewable resource officers stepping up to be public health officers. The Wage Top-Up Program, which provided temporary financial assistance for over 3800 low-wage workers between April 2020 and August 2021, was delivered by a few people in the Department of Finance in addition to their regular duties. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment amended its entrepreneur and business support programs so businesses could quickly pivot to safe operations during COVID restrictions and prepare for success after the pandemic recedes. The department also increased the flexibility of the Mining Incentive Program to make it easier for exploration work to continue.

Mr. Speaker, improvements from within, and without new money, has been our approach as a first resort. This is the kind of creativity, combined with efficiency I have spoken about in previous years, that is starting to bear fruit. One benefit is that even in times of fiscal uncertainty we have the flexibility to spend money to protect our existing programs and services and to make enhancements to better serve Northerners.

For starters, we cannot deliver government programs and services without excellent and conscientious public servants. To properly compensate our public service and maintain the Government of the Northwest Territories' reputation as an employer of choice, we have included $20 million in this budget to address wage and benefit increases under collective bargaining agreements for public service employees and increased remuneration for judges.

Using Northwest Territories land and water resources sustainably and protecting these resources for future generations is a key priority of this government. We propose to spend over $120 million, or 6 percent of our annual budget, next year to manage Northwest Territories' natural resources.

Adapting to climate change is woven into everything we do, from maintaining and improving existing capital assets to building new infrastructure. We are aided in our efforts by federal funding under the Low Carbon Economy Leadership Fund since 2018. In next year's budget, we propose to use $4.7 million to further the various programs under this initiative. Some of this funding is reallocated from previous years when projects were delayed.

The drastic decline in the Bathurst and Bluenose barren-ground caribou herds since 2015 is a major concern. The GNWT is working closely with its co-management partners to support recovery of these herds using the best available scientific, local, and traditional knowledge. In this budget, we propose to add $1 million to support recovery of these herds through actions on harvest, predator and habitat management, protection of caribou habitat, and enhanced research and monitoring.

We spent $31 million last fiscal year and expect to spend a further $34 million by the end of this fiscal year on our COVID response. We are pleased that the COVID Secretariat is expected to spend $6 million less than budgeted this year but are naturally disappointed that our hopes that the pandemic would be over in 2021-2022 are unlikely to be realized. The COVID Secretariat budget for 2022-2023 is $11.9 million. We continue to hope that this year the coronavirus will fade from pandemic to endemic and become more like an illness that we can guard against with vaccines, treatments, and improved capacity in the health care system to respond to case demand. We will assess what resources this shift to endemic may require over 2022-2023. Federal funding of $265,000 under the Health Services Agreement will provide additional support for activities related to COVID-19 related immunization activities including increased vaccine coverage.

We are all aware of human resource and financial pressures on our health and social services system that existed before the pandemic and will continue after it ends. Excluding the COVID Secretariat and pandemic-related measures, next fiscal year we propose to spend $569 million on health and social services to provide a stable system that can deliver programs whenever they are needed.

This dedication to our resident's health is evidenced by our proposal in this budget to include $23 million in additional resources for our health and wellness priorities and to reduce pressures in the health care system. We have allocated an additional $1.7 million for mental health and addictions that will enhance funding for external organizations to hire counsellors and continue to support activities that are being designed to reflect unique community needs. New funding of $2.9 million under the Northern Wellness Agreement, and $1.4 million for Indigenous wellness and patient advocate services, will also help support this priority in different ways.

This budget will also advance progress on our priority to help seniors age in place. Recommended in this budget is an additional $645,000 for increased demand for the senior citizen supplementary benefit and $884,000 for various services for seniors in home and community care, respite and elder day programs, and chronic disease management.

This budget also proposes $5 million to further our objective of increasing resident health care professionals by at least 20 percent, including $1.33 million for additional physician specialists to ensure that life sustaining internal medicine, general surgery, obstetrics, and pediatric services are available in the territory.

Additionally, $1.03 million is allocated to maintain four territorial positions and related services for cancer prevention and care; and $1 million is committed to support additional new midwife positions in Hay River, Fort Smith and Yellowknife.

We are fortunate to have $7.1 million in federal funding under the Territorial Health Investment Fund to help close special health care gaps and address challenges faced by the territory for medical travel, primary health care reform, and system sustainability. The fund will deliver system sustainability to transform the territorial health and social services delivery system into a well-functioning system focused on continuous improvement of quality service delivery at affordable cost.

In November 2019, the 9-1-1 system went live in all 33 Northwest Territories communities and although telephone subscribers are charged a monthly fee, we are still subsidizing the program. We propose additional one-time funding of $507,000 to assist with cost pressures in the 9-1-1 system pending a review of long-term needs.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are key partners in supporting safe communities. We are asking for almost $1.9 million in this budget to provide the RCMP with additional officers in Behchoko and Tuktoyaktuk. We are also directing more resources to the Internet Child Exploitation Unit and have increased funding for the Northwest Territories Guns and Gangs Strategy by $150,000.

Recent enhancements to service delivery in Legal Aid have increased demand for services beyond the ability to provide with current resources. This budget includes $442,000 for additional positions in Legal Aid and Court Services to address increased workloads.

There is a request in this budget for $478,000 to buy more winter road salt, and $135,000 for an additional highway transport officer to help improve road safety.

Mr. Speaker, included in our mandate is the commitment to reduce the municipal funding gap by $5 million by the end of this Assembly. We are working towards this goal by proposing to add $922,000 to our contribution base funding to community governments in budget 2022-2023. This will bring the total community contribution funding for operations and maintenance to $57.6 million, leaving us to find another $744,000 during the term of this government to achieve the total $5 million increase.

Mr. Speaker, this budget also gives us further resources to reduce poverty. We are asking for $860,000 in additional funding to combat poverty through the Anti-Poverty Fund. We are committed to the success of our programs to support healthy families and are recommending $984,000 more in this budget to expand the Healthy Family Program into two more communities, address increased demand for services in the office of the public guardian, and for child and family legal services.

Enhanced programs at day shelters and sobering programs pay dividends by reducing the demand for other government services. We are proposing $1 million in enhanced funding for shelters in Yellowknife, Hay River, and Fort Simpson.

The $260,000 requested in this budget for enhancements to the Hunters and Trappers Disaster Compensation Program will help support harvesters when natural disasters happen.

This budget includes $11 million in capital funding to help the Northwest Territories Housing Corporation continue its work in support of the 19th Legislative Assembly priority to increase the number of affordable homes and reduce the core housing need along with other actions related to housing. We are also proposing $947,000 in increased funding to the corporation for increased operations and maintenance costs for the new federally-funded public housing units.

Mr. Speaker, education in all its forms has always been the key ingredient in ensuring viable futures for Northwest Territories residents to fully participate in a vibrant and diversified society. Access to education is critical if residents are to take advantage of higher-paying quality employment. We need to continue to improve education attainment levels to ensure our children have every opportunity to lead fulfilling and productive lives. We propose to spend $211 million directly on education-related programs in next year's budget, including $7.3 million in new funds.

We cannot educate our children for their futures without teachers. This budget includes $4.7 million for increased teachers' salary and benefits. We are also allocating funding for training for teachers to teach multi-grade classes and for enhanced supports for principals in small schools. Furthermore, we have committed $1.8 million for inclusive schooling and education for children with complex needs and for modernizing the K-12 curriculum.

Mr. Speaker, we know from experience that investments in affordable and quality early childhood care and education reaps multiple benefits. It helps prepare children for K-12 education, enhances equality of access to educational opportunities, and gives parents improved employment options. It also increases economic growth and productivity. For that reason, we are also proposing an additional $500,000 to increase access to child care spaces, and $298,000 to improve the quality of learning for our youngest children who use these child care spaces. This is part of a broader strategy to move towards universal $10-a-day child care in the Northwest Territories within five years.

Mr. Speaker, I believe that the fundamentals of the Northwest Territories economy can be made solid over the long-term by the investments we are making now. There is no doubt that an economic recovery is underway but continuing global economic uncertainty suggests that our attention now should be on supports to help the economy grow for the benefit of Northerners. Taking care of what we can do with certainty now will continue to pave the way for more strategic actions in the future.

We are asking for $1.1 million for the tourism 2025 Roadmap to Recovery Strategy to help the tourism sector get ready to welcome back travelers on March 1st. The tourism industry has experienced unprecedented challenges over the last two years and this strategy lays out the roadmap to assist with that sector's recovery. This investment will provide support for community tourism coordinators in four additional community governments and strengthen tourism capacity in these communities.

Along with more resources for the tourism strategy itself, we propose to add $169,000 to the base funding for utility costs at territorial parks so that our parks continue to be a welcoming place for visitors.

The Makerspace YK in Yellowknife and the Arts, Crafts, and Technology Micro-Manufacturing Centre in Inuvik have proven their value and we propose to add $389,000 to extend makerspace services to other communities. These funds will also support an action plan to guide building the knowledge economy through research, entrepreneurship, connectivity, infrastructure, collaboration, and capacity building.

We are taking action on our priority to increase food security through locally produced, harvested, and affordable food by including an additional $188,000 to increase our participation in the Canadian Agricultural Partnership Program.

We are unwavering in our commitment to support resource development in a responsible way. This support starts with attracting interest in mineral exploration. To further the Mineral Development Strategy, we are asking for $100,000 to support Indigenous capacity building and participation in the resource sector. We also propose to expand the Mining Incentive Program with an additional $300,000 to attract and increase support for early stage and advanced exploration projects.

Our support for resource development includes clear and transparent rules to ensure that we work together to maintain a sustainable industry. We will continue our work to develop a modern suite of regulations and systems to effectively implement the Mineral Resources Act and are including $304,000 in this budget to respond to federal policy initiatives, including regulatory changes under the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act.

The budget includes the first $12.2 million for annual services payment for the Tlicho All-Season Road public-private partnership. These annual payments will pay for the road's construction over time and annual maintenance for the next 25 years. Building the Tlicho All-Season Road was an innovative partnership and proof positive of our commitment to use our capital dollars as an opportunity to build capacity in the Northern labour force.

We intend to further strengthen our efforts to bring innovation into investments in the economy. We are advancing three critical infrastructure projects: The Taltson Hydro Expansion; Mackenzie Valley Highway; and The Slave Geological Province Corridor

The 2022-2023 Capital Plan approved last December includes $463 million for the government's own investments and $29 million for community infrastructure investments. When we include the $11 million in this budget for the NWT Housing Corporation investments, our total planned infrastructure investment in the next fiscal year will be over one-half billion dollars.

The 2022-2023 Capital Plan also includes infrastructure investments that support program delivery. This includes $47 million for long-term care facilities, health centres, and the Stanton Legacy Building renovations, and $22 million for investments in schools.

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my Cabinet colleagues, the Standing Committees, the business community, non-profit organizations, and all the other groups and budget dialogue participants for the input and advice they have provided in putting the budget together. It is with this kind of civil engagement and dialogue that we continue to define ourselves as a consensus government.

[Translation] The territorial economy is poised to emerge from the COVID pandemic different but stronger and this budget serves to help manage the uncertainty that may dampen future economic success. Rather than holding to our pledge that the investments we do not [sic] make build on the work we have already undertaken to fulfil our mandate priorities and our demonstrated commitments to provide relief from many unforeseen challenges. [Translation ends].

The Northwest Territories is, ultimately, a small community of people although spread across one of the largest geographic regions of Canada, made up of different nations, and cultures, with 11 official languages.

These times of crisis have put potential challenges faced in this territory front and center in everyone's minds. It has also shown us that it is possible to come together as communities and as a government to adapt quickly and take measured risks in the face of uncertainties. It is time to use that motivation and that confidence to work together to ensure the Northwest Territories remains a place that is dynamic, full of opportunity and committed to equity, compassion, and reconciliation.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

---Applause

Budget Address
Budget Address

Page 3414

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Minister. Colleagues we'll take a short recess.

---SHORT RECESS

Budget Address
Budget Address

Page 3414

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

Ministers' statements. Minister responsible for Health and Social Services.

Minister's Statement 201-19(2): Stanton Territorial Hospital Obstetrics Unit Update
Ministers' Statements

Page 3414

Julie Green Yellowknife Centre

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, today I am happy to announce that, starting immediately, we are resuming labour and delivery services for all NWT residents.

This means that any NWT resident who is due to deliver a child can now expect their delivery to happen in the Northwest Territories starting today. This represents a more rapid reopening than announced at the end of last month. The improved staffing outlook through March and April has made this change possible.

At this time residents from Nunavut, who are normally served by Stanton Territorial Hospital, will continue to travel to Edmonton but I am assured that the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority is working to resume services also for these individuals as soon as possible.

Mr. Speaker, I recognize the impact this service reduction has had on families; it hasn't been easy. I want to thank all of the individuals and families who travelled to deliver their children to create space for emergency and urgent care at Stanton during this period of low staffing. Your sacrifice helped us ensure continued care for those who needed it locally in urgent and emergency situations.

I would also like to recognize the staff at Stanton who have worked diligently throughout this reduction to continue providing services while planning to resume them. I would like to thank the casual and agency staff who have come in to fill shifts and add capacity as we move toward delivering additional services.

I want to again emphasize that the top priority for our health and social services system is safety. Current staffing levels will ensure safe care for our patients and clients; however, if there is any point in the future where staffing levels are limited and safe care is not possible, we will adjust services as necessary.

It's worth noting that the recent obstetrics unit shutdown is the first since 2002. In other words, once in 20 years. It's a rare event.

Stanton and Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority leadership will continue to do everything possible to avoid any further service reductions, but the current realities of the nationwide shortage of skilled healthcare professionals, coupled with the impacts of COVID-19, particularly isolation requirements and illness for impacted staff, are a reality we must manage within.

As we proceed with resuming services, Stanton will continue to recruit staff through a variety of means, and is committed to addressing the concerns raised by current staff. We know that retaining the great staff we have is even more critical than attracting new talent.

Leadership will continue to work to ensure adequate staffing in this area by exhausting all possible avenues for recruitment, including pursuing indeterminate staff, casual and agency nurses, and training and development of local staff to gain the skills needed to work in this specialized area.

In closing, I would like to recognize and sincerely thank our permanent local staff who continue to be the backbone of the obstetrics unit and who have worked incredibly hard to orient newcomers and continue to deliver the high-quality services residents have come to expect and deserve. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Minister's Statement 201-19(2): Stanton Territorial Hospital Obstetrics Unit Update
Ministers' Statements

Page 3414

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

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

Member's Statement 915-19(2): COVID-19 Restrictions and the Economy
Members' Statements

Page 3414

R.J. Simpson Hay River North

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I want to speak about restrictions and a post-pandemic economic strategy for the Northwest Territories.

More than ever, we need a working plan beyond the budget address.

Mr. Speaker, I think it is now safe to say that many, not all people, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, are tired of living within those restrictions currently in place. They want to know what is being done to move past them. We currently have existing orders in place but orders without effective monitoring and enforcement are only recommendations at best. This is where I see us at this point.

Business owners and their staff are tired of trying to monitor and enforce restrictions this government put in place. Business owners and their workers, who have no training around monitoring or enforcement, are being harassed and threatened by customers. It is having an impact on their mental wellbeing, which is transferred to their home life.

Mr. Speaker, as we transition out of this pandemic, it is imperative that this government increase its focus on the economy. Access to goods, supplies and labour is limited, all which impact the cost of living and doing business in the NWT. Our communities, residents, and businesses know what is needed. We must listen to them and follow up on the promises we make.

Mr. Speaker, needs throughout the NWT vary, so our focus on the economy must be multi-faceted and consider the artisan in the community that cannot sell goods as there are no tourists; the small motel owner in a community without customers; contractors struggling to find work and the security needed to take it on; the resource sector which contributes to our GDP. Jobs, training and businesses was in decline prior to the pandemic and we must find ways to turn that around.

Mr. Speaker, we need to focus on what we can control, and that is physical and social infrastructure. As well, our current legislation and policies limit not only small businesses but severely impact those larger projects that go through rigorous regulatory review.

Mr. Speaker, as current COVID business supports come to an end and the Government of Canada turns off the tap, it is important that this government revisit the Emerging Stronger document and revise as necessary. We have heard little of it since it was first made public. Mr. Speaker, I seek unanimous consent to conclude my statement.

---Unanimous consent granted

Mr. Speaker, if we expect to strengthen our economy, we must first start with ending the public health emergency and restrictions which have been a barrier to some sectors over the last two years. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, I will have questions for the Premier at the appropriate time.

Member's Statement 915-19(2): COVID-19 Restrictions and the Economy
Members' Statements

Page 3415

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

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

Member's Statement 916-19(2): Pandemic Mental Health Resources
Members' Statements

Page 3415

Jackie Jacobson Nunakput

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Supportive mental health post-COVID-19.

Mr. Speaker, it's been a long two years in the Delta. Public health orders limit social gatherings, the activities in the Nunakput riding across the territory. My constituents are the most isolated communities in the Northwest Territories.

Mr. Speaker, following the health orders after the shutdown of bingos and down of sports activities for the kids shut down, you know, the six weeks of darkness that we put up with, it's been really tough on the communities. At the end of the day, the community hamlets have lost revenues in regards to the only way they get a chance to fundraise is through bingos and they stretch all their monies to host different gatherings and stuff like that, but we're putting them in a catch-22 now.

We're the ones that -- with COVID-19, we shut down everything. Now we have to try to reallocate money where there's no money there. We're shutting down community ice rinks. We're looking at community halls in my riding. Mr. Speaker, that's not right.

We have to look at more important and the shutdown of the people who stayed home with each other under COVID-19, we're now important to building back relationships we rely on and life as a whole, keep our children safe, our families, our elders, our youth, and the social circles that we keep using in the community.

It's been a tough two years. You know, in the Beaufort Delta, we have the highest rates of teen births, highest level of heavy drinkers in the NWT, highest number of people hospitalized in self-injury, highest rates of suicide in the NWT in the Beaufort Delta, Mr. Speaker.

We need help. Our people need help, our constituents. You know, we're all in a tough position. We live it every day because I know when I was in the pandemic, I was at home in Tuk. I see people suffering every day.

You know, and another big one was the stresses of people and the youth and everybody like that, and then it got to, you know, to become social media, the means of, you know, it ended up sometimes people being bullied. Mr. Speaker, I seek unanimous consent to conclude my statement.

---Unanimous consent granted

Mr. Speaker, again, social media has become the means of lateral violence in our communities. That's got to stop. And that's right across the whole territory. Mr. Speaker, people are not mentally healthy. We need to help them. We have to provide, getting the health care system to bring people in to help people to get through it because the epidemic time is coming now. And, you know, our government is talking about the public health emergency pandemic to an endemic, the great deal of healing that needs to happen in our communities, Mr. Speaker. We can't just -- it's not just going to stop. We got to heal together as a whole, and that's our nine communities in the Beaufort Delta have to do that together. And we need help from this government and our Health Minister to not just give a 1-800 number to call. We have to have boots on the ground in the communities. Mr. Speaker, I will have questions for the Health Minister at the appropriate time. Thank you.

Member's Statement 916-19(2): Pandemic Mental Health Resources
Members' Statements

Page 3415

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

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

Member's Statement 917-19(2): Indigenous Hiring
Members' Statements

Page 3415

Lesa Semmler Inuvik Twin Lakes

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I just want to let you know how frustrated I am. I can't even keep track of how many times the Members in this house have talked about the vital importance to increase Indigenous hiring and the concerns that hiring managers are not even using the programs that have been created to increase Indigenous recruitment and retention.

Mr. Speaker, the Standing Committee on Government Operation has set the following priority: Identify the systemic barriers to increasing the prepresentation of Indigenous people in the public service and review GNWT's human resource practices and policies.

It's 2022, Mr. Speaker. This is a territory of over the half the population is Indigenous. Why are we still having to do this.

This government makes statements, writes reports, offers recommendation to guide hiring personnel to do this, yet we are worse off than ever. The most recent public service annual report shows that in 2020 Indigenous representation in the GNWT reached an all time low of 29.3 percent. Mr. Speaker, how can we be going backwards? It is because of the barrier of systemic racism.

Mr. Speaker, this is a huge problem across the whole GNWT. But I want to focus on the problems at the Department of Justice.

While Indigenous people are over-represented in the justice system, they are vastly under-represented in the department staff. In fact, statistics from the public service annual report show that Indigenous representation has dropped significantly at the department. In 2013, there were 155 Indigenous employees making up 30 percent. In 2021, there were only 132 Indigenous employees making up 24 percent. In eight years, Mr. Speaker, Indigenous employment dropped by 23 while non-Indigenous employment increased by 61.

There are a lot of things that should be done but aren't and aren't being done but should.

One big issue I keep seeing is that entry level positions are posted while programs to train and provide Indigenous applications are not being used. For example, in the job ads today, court worker 1 position posted currently for -- meanwhile, Indigenous applications just sitting in casual pools and in the Indigenous career gateway pool with the department failing to reach out with opportunities for training that could lead to a career at the Justice department. Mr. Speaker, I request consent for unanimous consent.

---Unanimous consent granted

Thank you, colleagues. Mr. Speaker, it is time we quit talking about it and start doing something.

As my colleague from Nunakput likes to say, the Minister should use his power and write down in his little notepad for ministerial directive so that hiring managers have to use these programs before advertising. There must be clear direction for hiring managers if we are going to achieve the vision of a public service that is truly representative of the population it services. Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will have questions for the Minister of Justice.

Member's Statement 917-19(2): Indigenous Hiring
Members' Statements

Page 3415

The Speaker Frederick Blake Jr.

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

Member's Statement 918-19(2): Alberta Tar Sands Tailings
Members' Statements

Page 3415

Kevin O'Reilly Frame Lake

Merci, Monsieur le Président. I raised the issue of discharges from the Alberta tar sands tailings in our last sitting. I was very pleased to hear the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources say in the House, on December 7th, "we're not supportive of this presently or even in the future." By the way, I am still waiting for the research on the impacts of potential discharges that the Minister promised back then.

It is hard to get a sense of the scale of these tailings ponds. They cover 220 square kilometres and the volume would be the equivalent of Olympic swimming pools that would stretch from Edmonton to Melbourne, Australia. These tailings are a mix of sand, salt, clay, and residual oils and solvents and toxic compounds known to cause cancer and other health effects. If released untreated, the tailings would kill fish and other aquatic life, and probably people too.

The federal government has announced it is going to develop regulations under the Fisheries Act to allow discharges from these tailings ponds. Discharges, whether controlled or not, are inevitable so I am not opposed in-principle but these wastes must be treated first to an acceptable standard. However, there are no known cost-effective treatment options that are commercially available or that have even been field tested yet. Even if technology was available, there are also the issues of cost, what to do with any sludge or by-products, and the impact on water, aquatic life, and people. We are downstream of this mess, Mr. Speaker.

GNWT has been strangely quiet about all of this until I raised it in the House. I have no idea what resources have been dedicated to this effort, whether we have the necessary expertise and what work has been done to engage Indigenous peoples and the public. This government owes it to our residents and the environment to tell us what it is doing with regard to the development of tar sands discharge regulations. I will have questions later today for the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources about GNWT's involvement and position on discharges from the tar sands. Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.