A territorial election campaign in the Northwest Territories produced dozens of grand visions for the North — but it’s a future federal government that could decide which ones go ahead.
Solutions on offer were just as sweeping: universal daycare, universal basic income, and billion-dollar infrastructure projects like the Taltson Hydro Expansion.
But the territory isn’t even close to having enough money to fund those initiatives. Already, it’s just $200 million off its federally-mandated debt limit.
Its operating costs, meanwhile, are almost entirely paid for by federal transfer payments — worth $30,000 per person in 2019-2020.
Major capital projects are no different — the federal government regularly matches territorial funding for roads and bridges at a rate of two to one or more.
Tom Beaulieu, outgoing MLA for Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh, held several of the government’s biggest portfolios between 2011 and 2015.
“Just about everything has got some support from the feds,” he said.
That reliance on the federal government can have real costs for residents.
Accepting federal money for infrastructure projects usually means following their bidding process, Beaulieu said.
Under federal rules, companies across the country need to be given the same shot, “opening the door for larger businesses from the south to compete against our northern businesses,” he said.
Shane Thompson, MLA-elect for Nahendeh, said that’s had painful consequences for his riding.
“I look at Highway 1. That was a $14.5 million project that went to a southern company,” he said.
“I’m not saying they do bad work, but I’ve drove that road a million times, and how many northerners are working there?”
Dependency on federal funding can also mean the territory’s pet projects are subject to the fleeting interest of federal governments.
“Everything is geared toward the voters,” said Beaulieu.
Incumbent MP Michael McLeod touts his record of bringing “a historic amount” of ministers to the Northwest Territories, and several current and former MLAs credited him with repeatedly making the case for investment.
But when they visit, spending commitments often extend into the mandate of the next government, introducing a level of uncertainty and conditionality to important investments.
That spending can also be a long time in coming.
“Money that is announced four or five years ago is just starting to trickle in now,” Beaulieu said.
Five years is actually speedy by federal standards — the Mackenzie Valley Highway has been waiting for federal funding for 60 years.
“Instead of using that money to improve the situation for the people of Canada, they’re using it as a tool to get more votes,” said Beaulieu.
North doesn’t make a splash in campaign
With only one seat in parliament, and with Arctic sovereignty no longer the talking point it was in the Harper years, the N.W.T.’s votes have not attracted much attention in party platforms.
“I haven’t heard a lot of conversation in the platforms yet about the North generally, or the Northwest Territories specifically,” said Caroline Wawzonek, MLA-elect for Yellowknife South, “which is maybe not surprising.”
The Liberal and NDP platforms do mention improved telecommunications in the North, and Green, Liberal, and NDP platforms say they will assist communities in reducing diesel use.
The NDP also commits to improve Nutrition North, invest in search and rescue, and create a Northern Infrastructure Fund “to fast-track investment.” The Conservatives are still yet to release a full platform.
But some new MLAs suggest the territory has more to offer federal politicians on the campaign trail — a place to test policy ideas on a grand scale.
Rylund Johnson, MLA-elect for Yellowknife North, put forward some of the bigger visions of the territorial campaign. His platform called for universal daycare and a universal basic income.
“I recognize that universal basic income is probably not possible for every citizen in the N.W.T. in four years without federal buy-in,” he acknowledged, “but a pilot project we can do without the feds.”
And “you could almost call universal basic income… for the entire N.W.T. a pilot project,” he said. “It’s only 40,000 people, and that’s probably a good dataset.”
New MLAs want new relationship
Johnson said the last territorial government often didn’t make the best case for federal investment.
When the auditor general issued scathing reports about the state of social services in the territory, Johnson said, the government “got defensive.”
“I think sometimes us getting defensive… was a missed opportunity,” he said, “to use some of the harsh realities we’re facing as a political tool to leverage federal funding.”
For Wawzonek, the territory should lower its sights and set more achievable goals.
“We can’t just wait on the federal government to be our handout,” said Wawzonek. “We also have to be acting ourselves.”
“What are the ultimate results we want to achieve in four years? You can then work backwards and say what critical items do we need.”
R.J. Simpson, acclaimed MLA for Hay River North and a candidate for premier, said the next assembly needs to focus its requests.
“I’ve heard the complaint from some people that we ask for too much from the federal government, and they don’t know what’s a priority,” he said.
But Simpson also said there are more areas for federal partnership than were explored by the last government. Policy on climate change, immigration, and fisheries all fall under federal authority.
That means a future without the federal government — and federal investment — is not on the table.
“I would love to not have to worry about getting a transfer payment every year from the federal government, but the fact is we don’t have the tax base to support ourselves” — and that future, he said, “is a long way off.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Canada’s new Arctic policy doesn’t stick the landing, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot
Norway: Norway to focus on civil society, press freedom as chair of Barents Euro-Arctic Council, The Independent Barents Observer
Russia: Andrey Chibis wins governor’s elections in Murmansk, Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer
Sweden: Sweden’s FM calls for more EU involvement in Arctic as country hosts EU Arctic Forum, Radio Sweden
United States: Finnish and US Presidents agree on Arctic security policies, Eye on the Arctic