Communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories need more money; minister says gov’t can’t give it to them

Shane Thompson, Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs, said it isn’t feasible for the N.W.T. government to close the municipal funding gap given ‘today’s economy … and our current fiscal situation.’ (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs says closing municipal funding gap is ‘not realistic’

The Northwest Territories’ minister of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) says it’s “not realistic” to expect the territorial government to give communities all the money they need to cover their basic costs.

Minister Shane Thompson acknowledged on Monday that N.W.T. communities are underfunded, but said it isn’t feasible for the territorial government to close the funding gap, given “today’s economy … and our current fiscal situation.”

Thompson made the concession in the legislature in response to questions from Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland. He said the government plans to increase funding to communities by $5 million over the four-year term of the 19th assembly.

A 2019 MACA report determined that the municipal funding gap — the amount communities need to pay for operations, infrastructure, and water and sewer costs, but don’t have — was about $40 million.

Citing that MACA report, Cleveland said that “communities’ cost to maintain and replace infrastructure grew faster than the GNWT’s funding, and that study showed that from 2014 to [20]19, community infrastructure costs increased by an average of $2.7 million per year.”

She said $5 million promised isn’t enough to address rising costs, or keep up with inflation.

“The persistence of the funding gap is disappointing and has real costs on people’s lives,” said Cleveland.

Behchokǫ̀ water situation ‘case in point’

“Aging water infrastructure in Behchokǫ̀ is a case in point,” she continued. “Residents have brown water and frozen water lines. Even the school has had to close.”

Behchokǫ̀ comprises Rae, Edzo and Frank Channel. This winter, Edzo residents went weeks with brown tap water or no water at all.

Thompson said in February that the water situation was a “municipal government issue,” and that the N.W.T. government had no extra money to help out with it.

“Communities have been so underfunded that this is exactly what happens,” chief executive officer of the Northwest Territories Association of Communities told CBC on Monday, referring to Behchokǫ̀’s water situation.

Sara Brown said $5 million over four years and spread across 33 communities, “is great, but it’s low, with all due respect.”

She added that the association of communities doesn’t know how much, exactly, each community will be getting.

Brown said her organization also wants to see a breakdown of the funding shortfall by community.

“We’ve been trying to get those numbers,” but MACA has not yet provided them, she said.

Cleveland pointed out that the government hasn’t offered a community breakdown to MLAs, either.

Thompson said calculating and reporting the funding deficit by community is “a process, and we are working on that.”

“Whatever information we have, we can share it with the committee. We could also table it moving forward,” he said.

Cleveland said closing the funding gap would generate economic activity and create jobs in construction, environmental services and other sectors.

She said now is the time for the government to “develop a costed plan to actually reduce the municipal funding gap, for the economic, health and social well-being of our communities and residents.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Finland: Finnish Lapland municipality estimated to have lowered emissions by 121 percent, Yle News

Sweden: Swedish municipalities to cooperate in fighting future wildfires, Radio Sweden

Sidney Cohen, CBC News

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