MLAs breaking from session Tuesday to return home will now face worried constituents and businesses preparing for COVID-19.
As they return to their constituencies to offer support, such as grocery runs for the elderly, members will have to reckon with community health and the economic fallout stemming from the crisis. All of that is on top of only $600,000 in federal government assistance money that Premier Caroline Cochrane said was insufficient on Monday.
Residents are “nervous” and taking precautions for COVID-19, NWT MP Michael McLeod said, while insisting money announced last week was simply initial support. There is more to come, he said.
Out of the $1 billion Ottawa earmarked for COVID-19 last week, $500 million is dedicated to health care, he said, which was then divided up on a per capita basis.
“This is because they had to get the money out as fast as they can,” he said. “Right now this is a way that each province and territory can get some money that they can put toward health-care needs. More than likely we’re going to need more.”
He added the federal government hadn’t seen what the territorial government was requesting. While the premier said it wasn’t enough, he said, “it isn’t enough to do what? We haven’t seen their plan.”
He said the priority was to keep the economy “afloat” and ensure “that people can afford to survive.”
Unemployment insurance will need more flexibility, he said and other businesses will need support, adding that he recognizes tourism will take a hit. To co-ordinate response, McLeod said he’d been advising Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal.
“We recognize that we’ve got a short window and we got to make sure we’ve covered all our bases,” he said. “We announced some money. These are early steps. These aren’t final steps.”
Cochrane told MLAs Monday that NWT Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek was set to discuss possible support with the federal government that afternoon.
“We do know there will be a downturn in our economy. We know that there’s a downturn in our economy across Canada,” she said. “We are trying to plan not only about the financial restitution of business, we’re also trying to plan about keeping our supply chain open.”
She told MLAs the federal government knows the NWT’s needs and the territory is doing its best with limited resources.
MLAs run community supports, push for more resources
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said on Tuesday that he’d heard from tourism operators crunched under halted international travel, all while other businesses in Yellowknife decided to close operations.
Johnson, who campaigned on a universal basic income, said the federal government should aim to provide that support as an emergency measure while the economy faces a possible recession.
Other MLAs, such as Rocky Simpson of Hay River South, are suggesting additional crisis measures like scrapping utility limiters and evictions to meet the circumstances. (NWT Power Corporation announced it was pulling limiters on Tuesday).
For his part, Johnson said the territorial government doesn’t have the resources to fully respond to the crisis.
The initial $600,000 from Ottawa isn’t nearly enough, he added, saying it was “going to be eaten up in overtime over the next month by our nurses,” he said.
Health care and emergency response planning, in addition to support for vulnerable community members should be a priority, he said.
Johnson, like Yellowknife Centre’s Julie Green, has also offered grocery and medication runs should constituents self-isolate.
“But at this point I’ve been finding most people have support networks around them. I think that just speaks to the strength of Yellowknife,” he said.
Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn agreed that $600,000 isn’t enough to meet the NWT’s needs.
He also repeated his call for care packages to be given to Elders in small communities with limited health resources.
“We have to understand a lot of our small communities are close knit. We’re always in close proximity with each other,” he said. “It’s going to take some discipline to really look after our Elders.”
As a freshman assembly readies itself and the territory’s response system, he encouraged residents to follow the guidance of NWT chief public health officer Kami Kandola.
“A lot of us did not anticipate this coming in as an MLA. But a lot of this is unprecedented terrain we’re going into right now,” he said.
Another first term member, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler, said the Beaufort Delta “was already in an economic crunch” but will now take another hit. Small business owners and their employees, she explained, needed help “to pay their bills to keep their roofs over their heads.”
Beyond calling for support, Semmler will be meeting with Beaufort Delta leaders to address the issue over the coming days, she said.
Semmler, a former nurse in Inuvik, said there isn’t capacity in the health-care system for a spike in cases. Keeping mutual distance and staying informed on best practices is the way forward, she said.
“If we take this serious for the next month, we should hopefully be able to keep that curve flat,” she said.