Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak in reply to the Minister of Finance’s budget address from last Thursday. Over the past two years my replies have been somewhat critical of the Minister’s budgets. This year I am pleased to say that, in general, the budget address gives me some optimism that we are heading in the right direction. Before we get too excited, let me say that it is also apparent that we still have plenty of work to do.
Earlier in the 18th Assembly we confronted what I called a “doomsday scenario,” where Cabinet was convinced that austerity measures with massive cuts and job reductions were needed to save us from the poorhouse. Mr. Speaker, it was creativity and compromise that got us past that approach, not entirely unscathed, but with a happier outlook and a belief that positive change in the direction of our mandate was possible.
Now today we are moving forward, but I am still feeling some reluctance toward taking truly bold steps. Bold steps are exactly what is required to move us ahead with some of our serious challenges.
So I want to take us back to a “principles first” approach rather than the “purse first” approach. Mr. Speaker, a society is not measured wholly by its GDP, by the latest oil prices, or by the rate in which innovation thrives. It is simply, quite frankly: a society is measured by its people. Mr. Speaker, it is measured by how our families are doing; how children and youth are doing in school; how our health and well-being is in our communities. Sadly, on many fronts, we continue to show that we are struggling as a society when measured by these means. The NWT continues to have some of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. Our unemployment rates in the communities still remain a constant concern. Many students are still not at the grade levels and graduation rates that we would expect in this day and age. Too many people continue to suffer from challenges surrounding mental health and addictions.
Mr. Speaker, the reason I raise these points is because the cost-benefit analysis of our investments, no matter if they are in infrastructure or programs and services, at the end of the day, they must show benefits to our children, our families, our elders, and our communities. How well our people are doing is the measure that matters most. That is the bottom line.
Mr. Speaker, there is one area that we will have to invest significantly in over the coming years, whether we care to or not, we simply don’t have a choice. The most important challenge facing us — in fact, the world — is climate change. Across the globe, it is affecting employment, health, migration, food security, world ecosystems, and world population. We are feeling it first and most drastically here in the North.
I believe the government recognizes the drastic nature of this challenge. I commend the government for that acknowledgement by signing on to the Pan Canadian Framework for Clean Growth and Climate Change. The $1.2 million allocated for climate change resilience and adaptation is important and very much welcomed. That said, only a few people in the public service and few resources are specifically assigned to the climate change file, Mr. Speaker. That is troubling because this critical global issue deserves much stronger resolve and much faster action than we have seen so far. I am hopeful that our Climate Change Framework will outline an aggressive approach to tackling this global challenge and that the government arms our departments with adequate resources to take on this daunting task.
Mr. Speaker, we know that mining is indeed the backbone of the economy. We have what the world needs in minerals and metals that will help sustain life on this earth. I say that with all seriousness. The world continues to move faster and faster into the realm of innovation and technology. The advancement of developing countries is at an all-time high. Our resources will be sought to support those advancements.
The government recognizes the importance of this and support for developing our own mineral exploration and development regime is important to attracting investment. I commend the government for moving forward with the Mineral Resources Act. To the same end, I do not take our environment lightly. We can look into any corner of our territory and see multiple scars with regard to contamination and past abuse of our lands and water. From those experiences, we have become much better at protecting our environment, and we are working with Indigenous governments, various regulatory bodies, and industry to put ourselves at the forefront of protecting our precious ecosystems.
It is with that proven ability to protect our environment that we must know when to apply common sense toward our regulatory requirements for exploration. Regulations should match the degree of impact. Exploration need not be treated with the same regulations as an operating mine. Let’s promote exploration while applying the appropriate measures to protect our environment.
Still on the resources front, Mr. Speaker, unfortunately, all indicators for the future of oil development in the North have signified that this prospect is bleak, but there are areas of potential that aren’t mentioned. Since oil is on its last years in the Sahtu, in particular, Norman Wells, there will be a major need for rehabilitation in that region. That opportunity could be a years-long project with a similar spending impact as the rehabilitation of Giant Mine. There will be opportunities for generational employment. We must be ready to accept the challenge, preserve the land, and reap the rewards.
Similarly, rather than bemoaning that Beaufort Oil “is stranded” in the Northern Sea, we should be seeking ways to exploit inland gas for the benefit of our own communities in that region. Using our own local resources to get off trucked fuels, lower our carbon footprint, and provide cheaper energy only makes sense.
Mr. Speaker, the South Slave region was once a thriving hub for agriculture in the NWT and fed many communities with fresh food up and down the valley. I believe we can get there once again, not only in the South Slave but throughout our entire territory. I appreciate that funding for the Agriculture Strategy was included in the Minister’s address. Access to land is an important step, but it should be emphasized that not only must land be made available, it must also be affordable if we are to see this sector truly grow and flourish.
I was somewhat discouraged to see limited mention of other economic areas that deserve the government’s active and deliberate support. A truly diversified economy will have to include increased support for the creative arts industry. Our outdated Arts Strategy needs work to become modernized with the times. Let’s make the commitment to engage our creative communities and seek to update the Arts Strategy.
Support for developing centres of excellence and the knowledge economy will be critical so we can take advantage of the creativity and the talents of our people, and create made-in-the-North innovations and technologies. We must remain strong on support for our traditional land- and water-based activities that enhance and celebrate our vibrant Indigenous cultures. Other diversification opportunities will require that we be flexible and responsive to changing times and take full advantage of new prospects, such as when cannabis is legalized later this year. People, businesses, and communities will be frustrated if only a few get to capitalize from this opportunity. We must waste no time in distributing the wealth when it comes to these new-found profits.
Tourism, this is perhaps the brightest light in our economic horizon, and it deserves our continued investment. In support of tourism, we need to ensure that there is no gap in the provision of visitors’ services in Yellowknife. It is also high time that we fast-track changes to the CTV Act to allow municipalities to implement a hotel levy, so they can develop their own destination marketing organizations and enjoy the gains that come from this thriving industry.
Mr. Speaker, another priority for fast-tracking is our land rights negotiations. While the Premier was able to offer an optimistic report on the progress of land rights negotiations last year, we have not heard anything new recently. I commend the $1 million in funding that the government has set aside for this high priority, but we must commit to progress. Mr. Speaker, I don’t need to emphasize, as I have before, that a vast majority of our other mandate priorities hinge on the certainty that will be created by the resolution of land rights.
There was so much hope at the beginning of the Assembly that land management would be a priority, but regrettably, land use plans are also taking far too long. The Yellowknife Periphery Recreational Land Use Plan was to be completed in the second year of the Assembly, but is still not done. Other important land use plans seem equally hung up. As one example: how do we promote agricultural development when land use and allocation remain undefined and unclear?
I have long supported our three major roadway projects, the Mackenzie Valley highway, the Whati all-season road, and the road into the Slave Geological Province. I support our road projects not only because they will help us develop our resource potential, but because they will lower the costs of living and create long-term generational opportunities for employment and small business. This is essential in so many ways to our small communities.
Another major contributor to the cost of living is the high cost of power across this territory. Power is not easy, Mr. Speaker, and we face more challenges than almost anywhere, but we need to continue to explore alternatives. Hydro is important to develop, and connecting to the southern grid is a strong long-term option, but it’s only one option. Let’s not put all our energy eggs in one basket. We have had success in developments of wind power at Diavik and solar power in Colville Lake. The City of Yellowknife’s district heating initiative will soon be paying off. Biomass silos have quickly become a common sight in many communities. Even electric cars can now be utilized in the North, and we should be providing charging stations along the highway. All of these areas have potential and need to be emphasized and supported. I want to see an energy strategy that significantly reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, commits us to protecting the environment, and, most importantly, lowers the cost of living for Northerners.
Mr. Speaker, we followed the lead of our electorate and entered the 18th Assembly with a commitment to creating a government of openness and transparency. I applaud the government for the steps that it has taken. Public hearings, better communication with the public, Cabinet meetings in the regions, and more recently the Minister of Finance’s commitment the public overview of the budget process; these are all important steps forward, and many in my riding have appreciated the steps that have been taken.
Again, Mr. Speaker, there is more that we should be doing. Specifically, I would argue that the business planning process needs to be open to public participation. As an MLA providing feedback to government, I would appreciate being able to gather valuable, informed input from my constituents. That would allow me to offer more constructive and valuable feedback to this government, improving the planning process overall. It is frustrating, to say the least, when MLAs have been pitched by departments as to what the government intends to do in the coming year, yet we are not at liberty to go out and consult with constituents and get their thoughts and feedback. This is a backward approach, and we need to make new and open and transparent ways to deliberate on the business plans.
We also need to improve our practices with regard to bureaucracy and red tape. I know that we are hearing encouraging signals from industry, but we still carry the dubious reputation as the most over-regulated jurisdiction in Canada. As we heard with some energy in this Chamber yesterday, our procurement policies have earned us an “F” grade from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. This kind of inefficiency discourages investment from outside and frustrates home-grown entrepreneurship. Let’s focus on streamlining services, reviewing our procurement policies, and working towards achieving at least a “D” grade next year.
The speed of the legislation to which the 18th Assembly committed itself is very discouraging. I could go on and on here, but simply: where is the long-promised legislation to establish the Office of the Ombudsman? In the name of transparency, get it done already.
Mr. Speaker, part of achieving any ambitious mandate must be to build and lead a great team. To that end, we have a strong workforce in our government, comprised of talented, capable public servants. As any management professional will tell you, what people want is the opportunity to do their best work, utilize their talents, and make a contribution, but we have been without a collective agreement for over two years. To move forward with our team, we must settle our difference without delay and provide certainty and a path forward.
Mr. Speaker, there are many positive things in this budget on which I commend the government. The commitment of additional funding to junior kindergarten is important. Inclusive schooling in JK is a very important investment in the future, as is the inclusion of mental health support in our schools.
Support for long-term and home care, emphasis on dealing with addictions, help for youth in crisis; these are all very important priority areas. I also commend the government, in partnership with the City of Yellowknife, for committing funding for a sobering centre in Yellowknife.
I will make two final points, Mr. Speaker. The first is that we know a carbon tax is in our future. We must not allow a new tax to be a burden on our future. We must ensure that a carbon regime in the Northwest Territories is northern friendly and revenue neutral. Where our residents need to pay more, we must find a way to return it to them. The achievements of this tax must be a cleaner planet, yes, but not a higher cost of living for our people.
The second point is that we must be prepared to meet our end of the federal infrastructure investment. Half a billion dollars in federal money will be coming to the NWT over the next 10 years. We must not miss out. We must be prepared to match those dollars with our own and see it as a crucial investment in our upcoming generations.
Mr. Speaker, it is hard to believe that we are more than halfway through our term, but I still come to work every day with the same optimism I started with. The challenges are daunting, but our achievements are significant. We should not be bound by the limitations of the past, but be inspired by the courage of possibility and the faith placed in us by our constituents to build a better future. Mr. Speaker, I am encouraged by what I heard in the Minister of Finance’s address, and notwithstanding that we have considerable debate before us, on the surface I am hopeful that, in the end, I can get up and support this budget.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.