The GNWT on Wednesday unveiled a draft of its strategy for economic and social recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, and received a lukewarm response from MLAs, some of whom want the focus to be on aiding small business immediately.
During a PowerPoint presentation of The Emerge Stronger Plan, a “Three Phases of Planning” slide outlined some of the health, business and government sector response and recovery measures taken so far and the actions the GNWT could take in the future to guard against similar emergencies.
Some of response actions so far have included setting up isolation centres, supports for homelessness, income assistance and the expansion of tele-health and remote learning.
Within the health sector, the GNWT proposes a review of the legislative framework, new screenings and support for vaccination efforts.
For business, the proposals include strengthening essential supply chains, diversifying the economy and boosting local production.
For governance, the draft calls for acceleration of digital government, enhancing tele-work capacity and improving social care.
“If a house falls down because of a hurricane, we shouldn’t expect to build it the same way. We should be looking to make it stronger and more resilient,” said presenter Martin Goldney, secretary to Cabinet and deputy minister for the Department of Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs.
Cabinet ministers, including Premier Caroline Cochrane joined the virtual meeting and live-stream broadcast.
How the post-pandemic future will look varies across all parts of society, Goldney explained.
International tourist arrivals will take time to recover and it’s not yet known if NWT tourism can shift towards domestic tourism; some businesses will close or scale down and many will have more debt, while others will become more resilient; territorial airlines will change because their ridership is based on tourist and business travel; consumer behaviours might shift towards more online shopping; and workplaces could be open to more flexible hours and remote work.
Considering the significant contribution the GNWT makes to the NWT’s economy, it will play a large role in economic recovery by encouraging private sector activity, encouraging entrepreneurship and competition and seeking business partnerships to support the GNWT objectives of economic diversification and a low-carbon economy, according to Goldney.
“We need to also recognize that we should be preparing for social recovery and what we can do for social wellbeing. We’d like to do that in a collaborative way, in a way that’s research-based and data-driven and in collaboration with NGOs, communities, Indigenous governments and the federal government,” Goldney said. “(For the) proposed governance framework we’re proposing a broader discussion with advisory councils also from the business, health and social sectors and a council representing Indigenous communities as well” that would work with the government decision-making bodies, he said.
More solutions needed for businesses
In responding to the draft strategy, most MLAs lauded the effort but criticized the draft’s lack of concrete solutions for NWT businesses caught in the pandemic economic downturn.
Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, said the Three Phases of Planning are fine but the recovery plan is missing funding commitments.
“I’m concerned about the lack of detail in this presentation and (that) this push to start committees and engage stakeholders is really an excuse to not get money out the door to small businesses. We’ve seen that (the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment)’s position is that that money will be used for recovery, meaning not right now, and we’re relying largely on the feds through CanNor for funding,” said Johnson. “But if we’re going to rely on entrepreneurial spirit to build our recovery we can’t have businesses closing their doors right now. We need to be supporting them. I’m concerned that this presentation has zero dollars attached to it. I want to see some economic stimulus spending.”
In response to Johnson, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said “there’s billions of dollars in support coming from the federal government and it requires us to be involved with what they’re doing. The GNWT will start spending money but we want to be careful before we commit to too many things.”
ITI Minister Katrina Nokleby said she recognizes the frustration felt when business goes south and that her department is very busy with its capital projects and client lists.
“We have the complexity now of having to add additional health and safety requirements. We also have to deal with small communities that perhaps are fearful of southerners coming in. I know there’s concern around these contracts staying in the North, even if the business aren’t Northern-owned.”
Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson and Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos both asked what the GNWT would do to help regional airlines recover. The pandemic has caused a substantial drop in passenger numbers and corresponding reductions in flights to remote communities.
Nokleby said the GNWT anticipates a second round of funding from the federal government to help out smaller, regional airlines. Ottawa announced earlier in April that it would provide $15 million for struggling airlines in the territories.
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Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly expressed disappointment with the GNWT’s delay in setting up a Covid-19 business advisory council, after the Yukon government had already done that in late March.
While O’Reilly said he supports the joint special committee proposal, he went on to emphasize that the GNWT should focus its resources on areas it can control.
“We can’t control commodity prices or financing. I want to make sure our government is not going to spend too much time on trying to help the diamond mines recover. We don’t have deep enough pockets. We need to shift the focus to small business where we have some influence particularly when it comes to government spending,” said O’Reilly, who added that the government needs to look at addressing the unequal access to internet across the territory and food security.
The MLA for Frame Lake also took aim at what he said were Wawzonek’s comments to the federal finance committee and her focus on big infrastructure projects.
“These are not shovel ready. They have to go through extensive environmental assessments. They’re years away. There’s no business case for them. We need a new fiscal relationship with the federal government where we can keep our own revenues.”
In response, Cochrane said she’s “sorry to hear the MLAs are not satisfied with (the business advisory council). I know that everybody wants an answer today. Covid-19 hit about six weeks ago. We spent the first two or three weeks just focusing on the health and safety of our residents. And then we focused on preparing our systems to abide by the health orders. We haven’t forgot about the economy. The work is (ongoing).”
Wawzonek also responded to O’Reilly’s comments, saying the GNWT wants to focus on all development projects, ensuring it is working from a “position of vision.”
“We want to make sure we have dollars ready for these projects, but we need to be flexible with investment,” said Wawzonek.