Gov’t of Canada’s Northwest Territories tables economic recovery plan, offering little in new support for business

A view of Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories. On Monday, the territory released its economic recovery plan, dubbed Emerging Strongly. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

40-page ‘Emerging Stronger’ document mostly details past interventions and failures

The government of the Northwest Territories has unveiled its plan for economic recovery, dubbed “Emerging Stronger” — but the plan is light on details about new initiatives to help the economy recover.

“To date, we are fortunate to have avoided the severity of impact experienced elsewhere,” the introduction to the report reads.

“At the same time, we know that some areas of our economy have been particularly hard hit, and that many residents have been suffering.”

The 40-page document tabled in the legislature Monday says it “sets the direction for the N.W.T.’s social and economic recovery.”

“We have learned a lot in managing a public health crisis of this magnitude and our early actions are paying off,” the introduction reads.

But the bulk of the report is dedicated to past interventions and the dissection of “lessons learned” — a combination of self-congratulatory statements about the territory’s emergency response and acknowledgements of glaring gaps exposed by the pandemic.

In one section, the territorial government lauds its “efficient, coordinated and evidence-based” way of doing business — but immediately follows with recommendations to make spending more efficient, improve coordination with local governments, and gather better data on programs.

At various points, the report appears to take credit for community-led efforts, like an emergency shelter in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.,, that struggled for months without government investment.

The report also lauds the government’s potentially unconstitutional use of emergency legislation to create an emergency shelter in Yellowknife, when its own processes had bogged down discussion with the city for months.

Government pledges improvements

While Emerging Stronger is mostly concerned with the past, the report does commit the government to some limited actions.

It commits to reviewing housing corporation policies, establishing an external advisory table on the non-profit sector, and lobbying the CRTC for regulation on internet pricing.

In education, it commits to keeping aptitude tests and exams optional for the 2021 school year. It also pledges to introduce regional career counsellors by next year and create new apprenticeship opportunities through the housing corporation and department of Infrastructure.

It acknowledges the success of a managed alcohol program improvised for the pandemic, and pledges to studying data gathered from the pilot to guide the territory’s addiction strategy.

And it commits to developing an electronic medical records system that will make it easier for residents to access their own records.

Few details on economy

Most of the plan is firmly focused on the government’s own operations. For an economic recovery plan, it includes remarkably little discussion of the future of the economy.

It says only that it will “seek to assist” hard-hit sectors like tourism, hospitality and mining, “to position for survival and eventual rebound.”

On tourism, it announces a forthcoming public awareness strategy, “to be shared in 2021,” that would “reestablish positive public sentiment towards travellers entering communities.”

On mining, while repeating past refrains about encouraging development, it says only that the government will “assess” the idea of a so-called “remediation economy,” “while upholding the ‘polluter pays’ principle.”

Outside of those sectors, the report’s statements become even more vague.

Though it says the government will work to “better align,” “examine”, “accelerate” and “enhance” existing programs to support other businesses, it announces no new measures.

It says only that it will work to implement existing strategies for the tourism, film, arts and agriculture sectors developed pre-pandemic.

The plan contains a full page of previous financial commitments made by the government, but offers no new dollar amounts for programs aimed at economic recovery.

It does say it will work “to provide clear communication on public health criteria … that will drive changes in travel restrictions,” though those policies are currently dictated by the chief public health officer.

Data shows impact of pandemic minimal

Data compiled in the report shows that the N.W.T.’s faltering economy cannot be blamed on the pandemic alone.

While GDP fell by 6.6 per cent in 2020, it fell by more — eight per cent — in 2019, as diamond production plummeted more than 20 per cent.

But other sectors were insulated from the shock fo the pandemic. The retail sector saw sales rise above pre-pandemic levels, and average weekly earnings increased, even with nearly four per cent more people out of work.

“Nearly half of the N.W.T. labour force is employed by the public sector, which acted as an economic stabilizer during the pandemic,” the report reads, “but also emphasized the disparities between public and private sectors.”

Data in the report also shows the impact of the pandemic on mental health. Help line calls increased through much of 2020, and more people reported anxiety and mood symptoms during that time.

Alcohol sales were also up by as much as $1 million per month.

The report says it is a “living document that will be updated and reported on annually,” meaning many of its commitments are not set in stone.

The report says most commitments are already underway or will be implemented by the end of 2021.

The document is due to be debated in the legislature June 2.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Arctic Tourism & the Pandemic podcast, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Lapland Regional Council in Finland rejects Arctic railway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Amid pandemic, Murmansk gets new flights throughout Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Airline shutdown creates new challenges for rural Alaska, The Associated Press

John Last, CBC North

John Last is a reporter for CBC North. Have a story idea? Send an email to john.last@cbc.ca.

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