Contentious debate erupted in a GNWT meeting on Tuesday over funding appropriations for the Covid-19 Coordinating Secretariat, with Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty calling the new organization a “monument to the premier’s vanity.”
The discussion cooled off by the time they voted 13-4 to advance the bill to third reading Wednesday evening.
The $86 million, 150-employee Secretariat was formed in September as a way to coordinate the GNWT’s response to Covid. It is led by Department of Municipal and Community Affairs associate deputy minister Russell Neudorf, who reports directly to Premier Caroline Cochrane.
In a Committee of the Whole meeting in the Legislative Assembly, MLAs and members of cabinet discussed allocations not yet authorized of $88,671,000 across most government departments.
Just more than $31.6 million in supplementary funding is slated for the Secretariat, under the Department of Health and Social Services although the actual amount is around $8 million since federal assistance would cover $23 million.
The added Secretariat funding would allow the GNWT to respond to impacts from the pandemic and ensure public services are maintained, according to the supplementary estimates document.
Commenting on the supplementary funding for the Secretariat, Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty asked how many Indigenous governments and mayors across the territory support the Secretariat.
The lack of public engagement over the new organization was like “putting the cart before the horse,” he said Tuesday.
“I’d like to know why the premier and cabinet are ignoring the public continue to push this Secretariat. The public doesn’t want it. We don’t want it. We want more housing. We want to deal with addictions and homelessness. People I’ve talked to are shaking their heads (about this). This is very frustrating to listen to without any engagement from the public.”
Steve Norn, MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh said there isn’t much support for the Secretariat and he believes it’s a mistake to be allocating funds in the way proposed.
Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge explained that he has had concerns with the Secretariat since it was first announced, namely that “we’re taking it from other programs and services.”
“Let’s find a way to keep our costs down. The federal government gave us $23 million, let’s make it work within that budget. I would prefer to see it go that way than spend an astronomical amount of money on something that’s not going to fix everything.”
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said creating more bureaucracy isn’t a solution.
“I would like to see the $8 million spent on other things than” a senior bureaucrat’s salary and some office space, Nokleby said. “I think it could be better spend on the myriad issues we’ve been raising for the last three weeks.”
In response to the criticisms of the Secretariat, Premier Caroline Cochrane said most of the Indigenous governments she had spoken to supported it.
“Nine out of 10 Indigenous governments that I connected with gave me overwhelming support for the Secretariat. One, I don’t know, because she just said, ‘Communicate better.’ Then the other ones, it’s not that they didn’t reply back. It’s that I hadn’t had the chance to get back to them because the Secretariat has only been operating for less than a month. I’ve been in session, so my time has been really tight, too.”
Cochrane pointed out that even though the supplementary appropriation is for around $9 million, the GNWT is still looking at ways of saving money on the isolation centres.
“We’ll bring down the costs but you have to remember that this is for the people.”
However, other members voiced their support for the Secretariat, including Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson and Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland.
Jacobson said the first priority during the pandemic should be protecting the residents of the territory, especially vulnerable ones.
“Our small communities are relying on the Covid Secretariat for the safety of our people,” he said.
“I also agree with Nunakput MLA in that over a quarter of people from the NWT are considered high risk,” said Cleveland. “If Covid reaches the communities it would be devastating. We need to support the chief public health officer’s orders.”
Lafferty later put forward a motion calling for the $8.2 million for the Secretariat to be deleted from the supplementary budget request.
“The money (should go) towards Covid-19, not necessarily towards the Secretariat,” he said. “It should go towards coordinating all of the response to Covid. No other Canadian jurisdiction dared to make this Secretariat. We decided to reinvent the wheel. We’re building a monument to the premier’s vanity.
“We should redirect the $8 million to the (housing) co-investment fund or to health care. Today I will vote for housing, which is in a state of emergency.”
The Monfwi MLA’s motion was defeated, with 12 opposed and four in favour.
Johnson then called a motion that $5 million be deleted from HSS expenditures and that other ways be found of saving costs on the isolation centres.
“Im a bit frustrated that there’s one line item here for $31 million,” he said. “But if I could add something about removing $5 million I would. I believe this money could be better used for vulnerable populations.”
Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said one possibility for cost savings would be opening a Request For Proposals process on aspects of isolation centre services.
Following a vote, Johnson’s motion was defeated.
The tabled document on funding appropriations will be further considered by the Assembly through an appropriations bill.
Opposition from MLAs to the Secretariat has been expressed several times since it was first announced in September, and just weeks later all members of a committee meeting except O’Reilly said they didn’t support the agency’s formation.
In committee Tuesday, O’Reilly was vocal in his support of the secretariat.
“This is not about creating some new institution or department or something. This is about carrying on a number of functions that have actually been going on since March and April,” he said. “This is about the ProtectNWT function. It’s about the border control functions. It’s about the isolation centres.”
He also chastised Lafferty for “attacking” Premier Cochrane.
“This is not about the Premier’s vanity, and I do not accept those kinds of remarks being made in the House. I just don’t think that they are appropriate.”
Lafferty responded that he wasn’t attacking anyone and said it’s the premier’s job to defend the government.
“That’s our job as MLAs, holding the government accountable,” he said.
Lafferty, among the most vocal opponents of the Secretariat recently blasted it as a “Taj Mahal bureaucracy” in the Assembly, and said it is his job as an MLA to be critical of what the premier is doing.