N.W.T.’s 2024 operating budget gets mixed reviews from MLAs, advocates

The legislative assembly building in Yellowknife in 2023. On Friday, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek tabled the 2024-25 operating budget. (Laura Busch/CBC)

Some MLAs criticize lack of housing spending in proposed budget tabled on Friday

There were mixed reactions to the newly-proposed N.W.T. operating budget on Friday at the territorial legislature.

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek tabled the 2024-25 operating budget earlier that day. She characterized the $2.2-billion plan as one that includes “difficult choices” to ensure the territory is financially ready for whatever the future might bring.

Sahtu MLA Danny McNeely said he approved of focus on fiscal sustainability in the budget, which includes $48 million in spending cuts compared to last year.

“It’s sort of, in summary, to make sacrifices now for years of growth,” McNeely said.

But other MLAs and advocates were more critical.

Yellowknife North MLA Shauna Morgan said she thinks the proposed budget doesn’t do enough to advance the priorities of the 20th assembly, like improving housing and the economy.

Yellowknife North MLA Shauna Morgan said she was disappointed to see ‘nothing significantly new’ in housing investments. (Julie Plourde/Radio-Canada)

She said that she was disappointed to see “nothing significantly new” in housing investments. She also wanted to see more investment in health care and education.

“We need to go back to basics and look at how we’re allocating dollars to actually achieve the things we want,” she said.

“If we’re going to shift resources from one part of the government to another part of the government, we need to have a very clear vision of why, and what we’re trying to accomplish — and I’m not satisfied that we’ve done that.”

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon also said he would have wanted to see more money allocated to housing initiatives.

“What they announced today is just a drop in the bucket. They’re going to have problems achieving the priorities of this government,” he told CBC.

Concerns about cuts

Many representatives from the Union of Northern Workers also attended the budget address on Friday. In an interview with CBC, union vice president Melvin Laroque was extremely critical of the job cuts included in the proposed budget.

The budget would cut 91 public service positions, 58 of which are currently staffed. The remaining 33 are vacant positions the territory will be eliminating. Sixty-nine of the proposed job cuts are unionized jobs.

“This has a major impact on the communities. There’s no money spent in those towns so that brings the economy down,” Laroque told CBC.

“What are our members going to do about their mortgages, right? How can they afford to feed their families now… E.I. is not gonna feed a family of four or five, especially not in this economy.”

The Fort Smith Correctional Complex. The government is looking into repurposing the facility as a wellness centre. (Julie Beaver/CBC)

Another proposed budget item that drew criticism was the closure of the men’s unit at the Fort Smith Correctional Complex.

In her budget address on Friday, Wawzonek said the territory was hoping to re-purpose the facility into a wellness centre, which could create jobs down the road in Fort Smith.

But Chris Westwell, president of the Thebacha Chamber of Commerce in Fort Smith, called the plan “dubious.”

He is concerned that the government has not actively allocated any money for potential renovations to convert the jail to a wellness centre, or done any planning on how the transition would be made.

“It’s one of those, ‘maybe we can make this into a wellness centre but we don’t know what that means yet, we don’t know what it’s going to include,'” he said.

“That’s not reassuring for me.”

Praise for transitional housing funding

There were some new spending items in the proposed operating budget, including $1.6 million spread out over several departments for a new “transitional housing addictions recovery program” starting up in Yellowknife and Inuvik.

The proposed program, which will be run in partnership with non-profits, will provide housing units to N.W.T. residents returning from addictions treatment in the South.

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty told CBC she was excited about the new program.

“I’m happy to hear they’re looking at all the different resources and assets they have and seeing how they can be best used. ‘Cause we definitely need the focus on the addictions, the housing, to address the public safety concerns,” she said.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Lack of housing in Dawson City, Yukon putting some long-term residents in a tough spot, CBC News

Sarah Krymalowski, CBC News

Sarah Krymalowski is a reporter with CBC North in Iqaluit. You can reach her at sarah.krymalowski@cbc.ca.

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