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This is from the 20th Assembly, 1st 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 know.

Topics

Members Present

Hon. Caitlin Cleveland, Mr. Edjericon, Mr. Hawkins, Hon. Lucy Kuptana, Hon. Jay MacDonald, Hon. Vince McKay, Mr. McNeely, Ms. Morgan, Mr. Morse, Mr. Nerysoo, Ms. Reid, Mr. Rodgers, Hon. Lesa Semmler, Hon. R.J. Simpson, Mr. Testart, Mr. Thompson, Hon. Caroline Wawzonek, Mrs. Weyallon Armstrong

The House met at 1:32 p.m.

---Prayer

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Please be seated. I'd like to thank Jonas Sanquez for the opening words and blessing in Tlicho, and we'll move right into our business for the day, folks. Ministers' statements. Minister of Finance.

Caroline Wawzonek

Caroline Wawzonek Yellowknife South

Mr. Speaker, later today I will table the Interim Estimates, Operations Expenditures, 2024-2025 which presents an interim budget for the Government of the Northwest Territories. This interim budget will provide funding for programs and services over the first quarter of the upcoming fiscal year, giving the 20th Legislative Assembly appropriate time to complete its transition and to set its priorities. Mr. Speaker, it will come as no surprise that flooding, drought, wildfire events, and the global COVID-19 pandemic have all negatively impacted the government's financial capacity. Despite these challenges, Mr. Speaker, the GNWT has taken several significant actions to maintain the sustainability of public finances.

We have capped the budget for large capital projects at $260 million to better reflect what the GNWT can deliver in a year. This single action returned the government's medium-term outlook to a more sustainable path. In 2023, we also updated the GNWT's fiscal responsibility policy to reinforce our commitment to transparency and accountability, requiring that our budgeted consolidated debt be a minimum of $120 million below the federal borrowing limit. In addition to this, the government renewal initiative is building a culture within the public service to maximize efficiency and value for money, aiming to ensure that the GNWT does the right things at the right time in the right way.

Looking ahead, strengthening the Northwest Territories' economy must be top of mind when speaking of our fiscal reality. Maturing diamond mines, lack of economic diversity, and declining private sector investment are the main drivers of the territory's economic challenges. We are also mindful of global events influencing what happens within the territory, including ongoing supply chain challenges and labour market availability. I am pleased to say the Northwest Territories' employment rate remains strong and wages continue to grow. While this provides added resources to workers to deal with inflation, it can also create additional financial pressures for businesses.

Mr. Speaker, the significant challenges I just outlined mean the GNWT will need sufficient fiscal resources to respond to future needs, both anticipated and unforeseen. We will need a fiscal strategy that can address our financial challenges while delivering on the priorities of the 20th Legislative Assembly. A well-developed mandate and priorities will provide direction for the government to create not only its fiscal plan for the next budget year but also operational plans for the life of this government.

In preparation for the operating budget I will bring forward in May 2024, we are taking a careful look at the government's own-source revenues balanced against the implications for the costs of living and doing business and on the economy in general. The GNWT's reliance on federal transfers for almost 80 percent of our total revenues, coupled with a small tax base, leaves little room to grow revenues in the short-term. We are building on the work of government renewal initiative in order to find ways to get more value from our spending and to be focused on delivering programs and services that align with this Legislative Assembly's priorities.

Mr. Speaker, the upcoming budget conversations leading to the tabling of the 2024-2025 Main Estimates will be critical in improving the territory's financial position. I am pleased that this Legislative Assembly has chosen to take the time to do this right so that the priorities of the 20th Legislative Assembly can be reflected in financial plans going forward. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Thank you, Minister of Finance. Ministers' statements. Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald Thebacha

Mr. Speaker, the 2023 wildfire season was unlike anything we have ever seen in the Northwest Territories. More than four million hectares of forest burned over a six-month period, with fires reported all the way from the Beaufort Delta to the South Slave. Record temperatures, drought, and very high winds resulted in extreme fire behaviour that many of our most experienced firefighters have never experienced. At times, firefighting simply was not possible due to the life-threatening dangers crews would face.

On a personal note, I have often reflected on my experiences from past fire seasons. The thing that comes to mind every time is the effort, commitment, and sacrifice made not only by the direct firefighters but by all residents of the NWT. Especially for the 2023 season, the effort was truly great.

This was the first time that homes were lost to wildfire within te NWT communities and over 70 percent of the residents were called on to evacuate over the course of the season; in some cases, more than once.

The most significant loss of the 2023 wildfire season was of one of our own, firefighter Adam Yeadon. He passed away working to protect his home community of Fort Liard, and his sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Mr. Speaker, as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, I am proud of the extraordinary work done by our wildfire management team, fire crews, wildfire experts, and other first responders in the face of extraordinary pressure and unpredictable conditions. While every wildfire season offers valuable lessons for adapting how we respond, one as extreme and challenging as 2023 is especially important to learn from.

As part of the Department of Environment and Climate Change's normal business, after-action reviews of individual fires are conducted every year. However, given the scope and severity of the 2023 season, we have engaged an external company to conduct an independent review of last summer's fires. A team of wildfire and program assessment experts will review several aspects of the 2023 season, including wildfire management decisions and operations in the field, as well as environment and climate change's wildfire program structure, budget, and administrative systems. The team will also outline lessons learned that can enhance our approach to wildfire management moving forward.

Mr. Speaker, this independent review will include deep dives into the most challenging fires of the year, including those that impacted K'atlodeeche First Nation, Hay River, Enterprise, Behchoko, and Yellowknife. It will also feed into, and where relevant, help inform an overarching after-action review of the 2023 wildfire emergency response being conducted by the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs.

Mr. Speaker, environment and climate change's independent enhanced review of the 2023 wildfire season has been underway since November, and the work is being done with urgency. The team is reviewing all relevant information and interviewing staff, contractors, and other individuals and organizations involved in the response. With the next wildfire season only a few months away, there are many improvements already being implemented in advance of receiving the final review. Once we have the review in hand, it will be a top priority of environment and climate change to apply additional lessons learned to future responses. The review is scheduled to be completed by the end of March, and the resulting report will be publicly released this spring prior to the wildfire season.

Mr. Speaker, based on early indications, the current drought is expected to persist into the spring of 2024. We need to be prepared, and I would like to assure the public that we are working with all of our partners to make sure that we are ready for the upcoming season. Additional fire crews and aircraft will be engaged to support our existing efforts, and we will be bringing our resources on earlier than normal.

Relationships with our community partners are essential when it comes to preparing for the season ahead. Environment and climate change wildfire staff are meeting with communities to reflect on the last season, assist with updating their community wildfire protection plans, and discuss local planning for the upcoming season. To help communities implement wildfire prevention and mitigation measures, we will be working closely with the NWT Association of Communities. This work is possible in large part thanks to $20 million in federal disaster mitigation and adaptation funding, and I want to thank the Government of Canada for this incredible contribution to public safety.

Mr. Speaker, the summer of 2023 was very challenging for residents in many communities across the NWT, but it also brought us all together. I am confident that we can build on the spirit of collaboration as we prepare for the next wildfire season. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Thank you, Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Ministers' statements. Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs.

Vince McKay

Vince McKay Hay River South

Mr. Speaker, I want to start by acknowledging that the Government of the Northwest Territories will ensure that a comprehensive and independent after-action review of last year's historic wildfire season is completed and shared publicly. This will be transparent and an open process, and it will involve feedback from community and Indigenous governments as well as emergency management partners. Additionally, public forums will be hosted in impacted communities to hear directly from residents who were evacuated during last year's devastating wildfire season.

This will be the largest after-action review undertaken by this government, and I want residents to know that this is a priority for this government. We already know that it will highlight gaps in last year's emergency response, but it will also inform how we collectively prepare for and manage and recover from emergencies in the future.

Mr. Speaker, this review will also consider the independent reviews being conducted by other organizations, including non-government organizations and community and Indigenous governments.

The Government of the Northwest Territories is deeply committed to learning from last year's devastating wildfire season, and I believe this extensive review, which all residents will be invited to participate in, will help guide emergency preparation and management efforts going forward.
I want to stress, however, that our government is not waiting for recommendations from this review to make improvements now. All departments have been working to implement lessons learned from the 2023 wildfire season, including reviewing and updating the NWT Emergency Plan, updating standard operating procedures and coordinating training for GNWT staff. The comprehensive review of our emergency plan will be complete in advance of the 2024 disaster season.

In preparation for another high-risk season, the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs is also rolling out its annual Be Ready and Emergency Preparedness Week campaign to promote the importance of personal and family preparedness. With that being said, Mr. Speaker, individuals and families should have household emergency plans, emergency kits, and emergency contact information available. Property owners and businesses should have insurance and plans to protect their property during emergencies. Residents should be familiar with their community emergency plans so that they understand the risk to their community and what to expect during an emergency, and businesses should have contingency plans in place and know how to activate them.

As the lead for emergency management, community governments should have local emergency management organizations and community emergency plans that are reviewed and practiced annually. The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs has contacted all community governments to offer assistance with planning activities and has scheduled workshops over the coming months. The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs also provides tailored support, including presentations, meetings, and exercises to practice their community emergency plans.

Mr. Speaker, the NWT communities have faced many challenges over the past few years due to the impacts of wildfires and floods. As a firefighter from Hay River, I was personally involved in some of these events and I know firsthand how devastating they can be. I offer my sympathy and support to all those who have experienced loss and my thanks to all residents for their continued resilience.

Unfortunately, due to climate change we can likely expect more frequent and severe wildfires and floods in the future. While we cannot predict what this year's wildfire and breakup season will look like, we can take steps to prepare ourselves. I know it can be difficult to hear that disasters will happen again. But it is critical that all of us as individuals, businesses, communities, and this government, take action to prepare for and respond to disasters should they occur.

As Northerners, we know all too well that emergency events can be stressful, disruptive, costly, and devastating. We also know that with better preparation, we can mitigate some of the damage, stress, and financial impact. I urge all residents to consider this as the 2024 high-risk season approaches.

In closing, Mr. Speaker, I would like to extend my appreciation to all our emergency responders who continue to keep our communities and our residents safe. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Thank you, Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs. Member from Range Lake.

Kieron Testart

Kieron Testart Range Lake

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I move, seconded by the honourable Member for Mackenzie Delta, that the Honourable Minister of Environment and Climate Change Minister's statement 2023 Wildfire Season Review and Planning for the 2024 Season be referred to Committee of the Whole for consideration. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

The motion is in order. To the motion.

Some Hon. Members

Question.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Question has been called. All those in favour? All those opposed? Abstain? The motion is carried. The Minister's statement is referred to the Committee of the Whole.

---Carried

Member from Yellowknife Centre.

Robert Hawkins

Robert Hawkins Yellowknife Centre

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I move, seconded by the honourable Member for Great Slave, that the Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs, the Minister's statement Emergency Management Preparedness be referred to the Committee of the Whole for consideration. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Thank you. The motion is in order. To the motion.

Some Hon. Members

Question.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Question has been called. All in favour? Opposed? Abstained? The motion is carried. The Minister's statement is referred to the Committee of the Whole. Thank you.

---Carried

Ministers' statements. Members' statements. Yellowknife Centre.

Robert Hawkins

Robert Hawkins Yellowknife Centre

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, I'm rising today because I want to talk about Northerners living healthier, longer, and retiring in the North.

Mr. Speaker, it is a shifting demographics and makeup like the seasons in nature, people's lives similarly follow their own course. People travel from their spring to their summer to the fall and even to the winter cycle of our days. Each journey is different, and each journey certainly has its own supports and needs. We need supports through independence, care, but always through respect as we go through these stages.

Mr. Speaker, seniors are certainly one of the fastest growing demographics we have in the Northwest Territories. Between 2003 and 2021, that section of our population grew by 250 percent. It went from 6.5 percent of our population up to 15.2 of Northerners, Mr. Speaker.

Seniors are living longer. Some are working because they want to. Many work because they need to, Mr. Speaker. Our economy does need them in the workforce, but the reality is some of them are working because they absolutely are struggling, and they need help. While the median income in the Northwest Territories may appear high in respects to what it is in Canada, it has considerably dropped for seniors over the age of 65.

Now everywhere I travel throughout the North, all I hear about how important are our elders and our seniors, and I couldn't agree more. They are a reveered piece of our population that deserves our greatest respect and dignity, Mr. Speaker. But to do that, many even question why we don't have a Minister responsible for seniors. It almost seems like a shame they've been forgotten. Often, I hear about how the government and our people had stole the great virtues of seniors and why we need them, but where is that Minister?

Mr. Speaker, I also want to point out how do we define and demonstrate our continued respect for this community? Seniors' benefits only go so far. They are also mapped all over the government. It's difficult to follow even for someone like myself who's familiar on how to find these types of things. We could, as a government, create a hallmark piece of legislation and policy that could codify seniors' benefits by calling it a seniors' bill of rights for our elders. Why? Because they matter that much. We put pen to paper, and we demonstrate it through our commitment here every single day. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Thank you, Member for Yellowknife Centre. Members' statements. Member from Frame Lake.

Julian Morse

Julian Morse Frame Lake

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, today I am speaking about the knowledge economy and what development of this sector could mean for our territory. First, I want to dispel the idea that growing this sector is only about skill development. That is a key aspect of it. But people can obtain skills elsewhere so we need to be thinking about what we can offer to the world, what would extract and keep people here to study, and help us build institutions communities can build their economies around.

It has been suggested that the university project is simply about centralizing things in Yellowknife. To the contrary. Doing so would fail to capture the value this territory has to offer on the global stage. Each region of the NWT has unique things to offer, and I truly believe that growth of this sector will benefit many communities if done right.

Inuvik is the epicentre of climate change and permafrost research and could grow to be an international polar research hub. Fort Smith has excellent infrastructure for existing programs and the on-land skills taught in the environment and natural resources technology program are unmatched. With an academic renewal, I think that program could attract many more students. Hay River could be home to a high latitude agricultural program. Yellowknife is the seat of governance. And the NWT is one of the few places in the world where Indigenous governments are achieving self-government agreements. Imagine a governance program which has students not only coming to Yellowknife and the Akaitcho region but also doing residencies and training in the Sahtu, Tlicho, Deh Cho, and Inuvialuit regions where self-government is being implemented and negotiated. We have so much value to offer and capture if we can come together and build an expansive vision and have the courage to invest in bringing this vision to fruition.

So when I think about where we could be in 50 years, Mr. Speaker, part of that vision for me is having a fully developed and thriving economy built around the people of this territory and the unique perspectives we can offer the world. In my opinion, it is our greatest untapped resource. Thank you.

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Thank you, Member from Frame Lake. Members' statements. Member from Inuvik Boot Lake.

Denny Rodgers

Denny Rodgers Inuvik Boot Lake

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, in April of 2023, the NWT Early Childhood Association held an event called waiting. They invited families from across the NWT who are waiting for spaces to participate. They heard from a variety of families that were either leaving the territory, going on income support, or not able to go back to work due to lack of spaces. This did not take into consideration the families that are choosing not to move to the Northwest Territories and the negative economic impact on the NWT that comes with our inability to attract professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers, and many more.

Mr. Speaker, the bilateral agreement signed with the Employment and Social Development Canada has had a negative effect on daycare in the Northwest Territories. The subsidy provided will not be enough to offset the cap on what the daycares are able to charge for spaces. The shortfall will either have to come from additional funding from Canada or be additionally subsidized by the GNWT.

Mr. Speaker, daycares are facing funding shortfalls due to issues like employee wage freezes, limits and/or freezes on daycare fee increases, and many daycares are considering closing entirely due to the uncertainty and accumulating more debt.

Mr. Speaker, operating costs such as utilities, food, and increased inflation are outpacing subsidy funds provided by the $10-a-day child care program. Further context to this issue can be ascertained by looking at the other jurisdictions. Multiple other provinces are also dealing with issues like we are. Both Ontario and Alberta governments are pushing the federal government to commit more federal money for the successful rollout of this child care program.

Mr. Speaker, wait lists for child care spaces are getting longer each year while demand for child care is only expected to increase as this $10-a-day program rolls out. Some daycares across the country are pulling out of the program altogether.

Mr. Speaker, we must ensure that daycares are able to survive. We must support the workers who go to work each day, so others are able to go to work each day. This affects the entire territory, Mr. Speaker. If we are unable to provide adequate daycare, it will have a major impact on our current workforce and our ability to attract professional people to our territory. They need clear programs, specific numbers on the new funding so appropriate decisions can be made well before the beginning of each new fiscal year. They need a clearer communication process with our government, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker, the bottom line, the GNWT must provide a guarantee that it will provide the necessary funds to allow child care operators like the Children's First Society in Inuvik to continue, otherwise it essentially...

The Speaker

The Speaker Shane Thompson

Member from Inuvik Boot Lake, your time is up.

Denny Rodgers

Denny Rodgers Inuvik Boot Lake

Sorry, I would ask for unanimous consent.

---Unanimous consent granted

Denny Rodgers

Denny Rodgers Inuvik Boot Lake

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My apologies. I'm just about done.

Now, finally, Mr. Speaker, if child care centres are no longer able to operate and we face even more limited spaces or closures, make no mistake it will affect us all. Thank you.