Yellowknife MLAs represent a critical mass in the Legislative Assembly.
The lawmakers holding those seven local votes that can break or bend territory-wide legislation met with city councillors on Saturday morning to discuss where that weight should be thrown, and how the two levels of government should jointly approach issues in a fresh Assembly.
For MLAs deep in planning meetings, there was plenty to discuss: transferring land to the city, persistent homelessness downtown, and the shortfall in funding the territory transfers to municipalities, which has been estimated to be roughly $40 million.
“Twenty-three communities in the territory are underfunded,” Mayor Rebecca Alty told Yellowknifer. “We flagged that the GNWT has an anti-poverty strategy and an addictions recovery plan and reiterat(ed) the need to (provide) resources for them.”
Alty said the Saturday meeting covered alcohol management, detox, and the implementation of sobering shelter recommendations.
“When we talk about transferring government land to municipalities, this also affects Fort Smith, Hay River, Inuvik, and other communities.”
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said under-funding was a key election issue during the campaign. “There was some some urgency to close (the gap)” she said, noting only a quarter has been closed so far.
“The way things are right now, it’s obviously too slow for them to really make a go of it,” Green said, adding that as the largest community, Yellowknife faces the heftiest gap.
In August, Sara Brown of the NWT Association of Communities warned MLAs that the carbon tax would heap another financial burden on municipalities as they pay at the pump for public vehicle fleets.
While not every community has the gap, every MLA has a responsibility to address the issue, Green said. If all seven of the Yellowknife MLAs work together, that represents “a critical mass of lobbying to get this gap closed,” Green said, noting the members are currently hammering out priorities for the 19th Assembly.
If it’s not a priority, and thus doesn’t flow into the budget, the MLAs can continue to lobby the issue, Green said.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said he met with the NWT Association of Communities and cited his own history with the issue while other MLAs recently raised the issue again in meetings.
“I think it’s time that we have a more serious discussion about how we’re going to close that gap,” he said.
Green also acknowledged there’s a need for more security and programming to increase safety downtown. Attendees at the meeting discussed an increased police presence, and tackling open liquor consumption. Housing First may also see a bump in funding.
While there are more than 150 people on the Housing First wait list, a 2018 City of Yellowknife survey reported that there were about 338 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Of those, 95 per cent reported wanting permanent housing. On top of that 2,500 Yellowknifers cannot affordably secure market rental housing, according to a 2018 Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation report.
“We need to find a better way to address (homelessness),” O’Reilly told Yellowknifer.
While a report identified a target to address the issue in the city, the money never materialized, he said. There was a plan to tackle the challenge “and it never happened,” he said.
In September 2018, the GNWT put out a request for proposals to develop a strategic homelessness plan, but the news release issued at the time didn’t include any timelines or deadlines to submit.
Green wasn’t sure if efforts are coordinated at the political level. She suggested a joint working group of councillors and local MLAs to share a common approach between levels of government.
Regular meetings between the two groups before each session, three a year, would aim to make collaboration more practical.
“To talk to one another about what the issues and understand one another’s roles and responsibilities … while we’re working in the interest of everyone,” she said.
For Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland, it was an “open” opportunity to rebuild a relationship with local government.
“At the end of the day, we’re both trying to provide programs and services to the people of the Northwest Territories,” Cleveland said. “There’s lots of relationships that are getting off on a strong foot.”
Meanwhile, Alty said that although there was a lot of good talk at the outset, words need to be turned into action.
“We’re not forgetting that more and more will get added to their plate and at the end of the day we all want to do the same thing and that’s to improve lives here in the territory,” she said.
– with files from Brett McGarry