Bob McLeod: ‘Jobs don’t fall out of the sky’

Premier talks Arctic sovereignty, the economy

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Premier Bob McLeod addresses the NWT Economic Partner’s Collaboration Symposium in the Nova Hotel in Yellowknife this June.
Nick Pearce / NNSL Photo

A looming October territorial election is currently missing a key player — its Premier.

Premier Bob McLeod — who’s spent the summer knocking against federal environmental legislation, meeting with fellow premiers, and calling for increased investment in resource development — remains undecided about his plans to run, he told News/North. 

He does, however, have advice for voters: Keep an eye on “where the jobs are going to come from.

“Jobs don’t fall out of the sky,” he said.

It’s a consistent theme for McLeod, who was first elected to the NWT legislative assembly in 2007,  on the eve of the 2008 economic downturn — a recession from which he said the territory has yet to fully recover.

“(NWT is) the only jurisdiction in Canada that hasn’t recovered,” he said.

NWT’s gross domestic product hasn’t bounced back to the all-time high of roughly $5.6 billion in 2007, but instead hovers at $4.9 billion as of 2018, according to the NWT Bureau of Statistics. That includes a significant drop in natural resource development, which McLeod said lost 800 jobs.

To compound the economic sluggishness, add low commodity prices, dropping investment in mineral exploration, and oil and gas exploration dollars draining to zero.

Concerns around natural resource development — including a federal 2016 moratorium on off-shore NWT oil and gas activity — led him to join five other conservative premiers to slam Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a pair environmental bills earlier this year that recently passed Senate.

A key point of that contention, C – 69, overhauls federal assessment of major development projects

“You look at what happened in the NWT, where the moratorium pretty much shut down our oil and gas industry. If the same thing happens in Alberta and Saskatchewan as a result of Bill C-69, then nothing’s going to happen in the Northwest Territories,” McLeod said.

He added that C – 69 affects the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, the onshore part of which is regulated by the National Energy Board, a federal body.

The similarly affected mining sector is the territory’s highest producer of emissions, contributed to NWT’s 33.7 tonnes of emissions per person per year for 2013 — and handily beat out the national average of 20.7 that year. 

However, McLeod said the Territory’s total greenhouse gas emissions are “minimal.” Compared to southern Canada and other countries, “we don’t see ourselves as being the problem for climate change,” he said.

On that front, McLeod sees the North as among the first affected. Melting ice has opened northern waterways for longer periods, and encircling international powers are making moves to stake a claim.

“The large superpowers, like the Russians, the Chinese, are very interested in the Arctic,” McLeod.

McLeod has concerns. Russia has deployed 20 icebreakers, and built seven sea ports and two deep-sea ports. China has also developed an Arctic policy, has built nuclear icebreakers, and has sent ships through the Northwest Passage.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that his country considers the Northwest Passage an international waterway, and not internal waters as recognized by Canada.

“We’re realizing that we always count on the United States to act in our best interests,” he said, noting Pompeo contradicted a 1998 agreement on Arctic cooperation, where the US would seek permission from Canada before using the Northwest Passage.

It’s one of the reasons McLeod’s been a vocal Arctic sovereignty advocate.

“We think there’s an opportunity for the Arctic to become an international marine and air transportation hub,” McLeod said. “We think that Northwest Territories should be declared an economic free zone.”

There’s plenty of steps involved: an increased military presence, a “University of the Arctic,” more academic research, northern medical, business and law schools, and immigration plan to grow the population of the Northern Arctic.

All of this will take time, however, and as candidates announce their intentions to run, McLeod has a short answer when asked if he will enter another race:

“I haven’t decided yet,” he said.