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The territorial government dropped a $13.2 million relief package on Friday, earmarked for business relief amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Described as a first step, the package aims to secure northern supply chains, ease access to low-interest loans and temporarily stave-off GNWT collections. The package largely focuses on business to cover gaps in federal supports released earlier this week, Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said on Friday.

“What we saw coming out of the federal government, (was) particularly … getting money into individual citizens’ pockets,” she said. “We’re looking at ways to fill in other areas of need. A lot of businesses are people who are trying to maintain their payrolls.”

Infrastructure minister Katrina Nokleby, left, looks on as Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek speaks to reporters on Friday afternoon at the legislative assembly.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Under the raft of measures, the government has waived supply chain costs, including the Deh Cho Bridge tolls, truck permits and airport landing fees. The NWT Business Development and Investment corporation will be offering low-interest loans to off-set the economic hit. Loan payments can also be deferred for up to three months between April 1 and Sept. 30.

Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission fees for employer assessment payments are being pushed back from April 1 to May 1.

Indigenous governments, community governments and non-government organizations will also be able to keep the money they received in contributions in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Indigenous governments that signed onto devolution will also get early benefits from resource revenues according to the plan. 

Payroll taxes and other territorial collections will be put on pause. Student financial assistance payments are being deferred to Sept. 30.  

Northwest Territories Power Corporation has also pulled its limiters on electrical usage. 

After assembly approved an initial step to keep government programs running on Monday, the package aimed for early relief. This past week, Health and Social Services received an extra 25 per cent in that appropriation, and Hay River received $115,000 to expand its dialysis services. Income assistance also got $2 million to support increased demand.

Nothing off the table, finance minister says

Infrastructure Minister Katrina Nokleby says maintaining supply chains was a priority on Friday afternoon at the legislative assembly. Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Moving forward, Wawzonek said income assistance and new sources of funding would also be prioritized.

Infrastructure minister Katrina Nokleby, meanwhile, said supply chains would play a key role in future discussions with the federal government. She also noted that the economic hit of sidelined diamond production would be big, but was currently unknown. 

The effect of the virus on mining will have a “significant impact” on the economy, she said, adding, though, a mine temporarily closing will limit the chance of the virus coming North via workers.

Overall, she said she was confident in the safety and public health of mining operations. 

“We are not going to tell private industry how to run their businesses,” she said.

Wawzonek, meanwhile, noted the crisis hit while the territory was budgeting a surplus, which offered it more resources to respond than other jurisdictions in Canada. That said, the territory will face the crisis with a somewhat limited toolbox. 

Asked if the government would support a basic universal income — as politicians like Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson voiced support for if it was federally-funded — Wawzonek said “nothing is off the table” but the situation still had to unfold.

She pointed to an economic advisory group the government established as a step that could inform future policy.

Responding to concerns raised over per capita funding that guided recent Ottawa health funding, Wawzonek pointed to federal money offered specifically to Indigenous communities.

She said the government was also responsive to the concerns raised for remote and northern communities more generally. In future talks, Wawzonek said the territory’s borrowing limit would be a key concern, in addition to transportation and health-care support. 

“There’s a host of things. All of those things are being raised by different ministries when we’re on our different phone calls,” she said, adding the federal government has been responsive so far. 

The spending and measures announced Friday just will not be the last package in the near future, according to Wawzonek. This first package was simply based off what the territorial government could quickly mobilize.

“We didn’t actually pick a number and work backwards,” she said.

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Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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