Nunavut tables $2.2 billion budget focused on crime prevention and health care initiatives

Nunavut’s 5th Legislative Assembly, which was elected in October, put out the 1st budget of its mandate on Monday.

Finance Minister David Akeeagok says elder care is a priority for the new government

David Akeeagok said he is pleased with the hard work the new government has put into developing a direction and planning for that direction with this budget. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Nunavut's Fifth Legislative Assembly, which was elected in October, put out the first budget of its mandate on Monday.

The budget focuses on funding prevention initiatives over crisis response with new money for addictions and mental health treatment in the lead up to cannabis legalization, tuberculosis prevention and control and community justice crime prevention programs.

The largest allocation though is $22.7 million for an adjustment to the income support program to help decrease the gap in what is given as a food allowance and what it actually costs to buy that food.

Right now, the food allowance falls an average of 32 per cent short of covering what it costs to buy groceries in each of the communities, according to Sol Vardy, the assistant deputy minister for the Department of Family Services

The new money will bump income assistance payments an average of 23 per cent within the next three years, which is between $203 and $470 per person depending on the community. This will reduce the gap in grocery costs to 17 per cent down from 32 per cent. 

David Akeeagok delivered his first budget wearing 44-year-old kamiit (traditional Inuit boots) his mother made and gave to an elder. It's tradition for finance ministers to wear a new pair of shoes on budget day. (Travis Burke/CBC)

The territory's Finance Minister, David Akeeagok, said elder care is a priority for this government and backed up the statement with a funding increase to the existing elders homes of $855,000 annually for the next three years.

In his budget address, Akeeagok said the goal is to keep elders in the territory—closer to their families, language and culture.

Akeeagok delivered his first budget wearing 44-year-old kamiit (traditional Inuit boots) his mother made and gave to an elder. The man gave them back to Akeeagok to wear, as it's tradition for finance ministers to wear a new pair of shoes on budget day. 

Akeeagok said the old boots represented his commitment to honouring elders. 

Projected deficit

He tabled a $2.2 billion budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which includes a $28 million projected deficit.

The budget includes a $30 million contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses, which if left unused will effectively balance the budget.

Akeeagok said the government decided to set out the numbers this way, to acknowledge the realities of expenses in the territory and not to "project a surplus for sake of projecting a surplus."

Last year, then Finance Minister Keith Peterson, projected a $2 million surplus for 2017-2018, but the final tally is closer to a $39 million deficit.

The overspend was attributed to overtime pay in the Department of Justice and an unexpectedly high volume of client needs in the Departments of Health and Family Services.

A deficit was last projected for 2016-2017, but that year ended in a surplus.

Nunavut is limited to carrying a debt of $650 million by the government of Canada and its current borrowing stands at $421 million.

Most of the money allocated in the budget comes from federal transfer payments to the territory, approximately $1.7 billion, while around $230 million is revenue collected from within the territory from taxes, staff housing rentals, services fees and other sources.

The rest of the funding comes from third-party agreements, where organizations have committed to funding a particular program or a time-limited initiative.

New money for Family Services, Health

The Department of Family Services will receive $1.1 million over three years to provide training and other resources to foster parents. This money will go to creating positions for three foster care coordinators, who will focus on attracting and retaining more foster parents.

The department said this move is the start of a larger overhaul of the system. Training for foster parents was recommended as part of a coroner's inquest last month into the death of a four-month-old in the department's care in 2015.

The Qikiqtani General Hospital's operating rooms will get an influx of money to help reduce wait times for surgeries performed within the territory. (Travis Burke/CBC)

In healthcare, $1.6 million will be invested in enhancing hearing assessment to prevent high cost treatments by focusing on early intervention.

To help reduce surgery wait times, the Department of Health will also receive $1.5 million over three years to upgrade the two operating rooms at Qikiqtani General Hospital so they can be used at the same time and extend their hours.

In preparation for the higher bandwidth coming to Nunavut via new satellite technology and possibly a fibre connection, the Department of Community and Government Services will receive $13.5 million to increase the government's technology infrastructure.

Other budget highlights include (all numbers are for the next three years):

  • $1.1 million for counselling and crisis support in schools and communities;
  • $1.6 million to the NunaFam program, which brings residents from Memorial University in Newfoundland to Nunavut to work for six months;
  • $945,000 to the Department of Economic Development and Transportation to provide tourism job training,
  • $12 million to fund 40.5 teacher positions to improve the student-educator ratio. Most of the positions already exist, but were previously funded by other non-school Department of Education vacancies and funds re-allocated within the department's budget. This year, the schools will get 3.5 new positions;
  • $1.4 million to staff the new school opening in Igloolik; and
  • the RCMP will receive funds for local Inuktut-speaking civilian hires in six communities. The new staff will assist with administrative tasks and connecting the RCMP and the community. 

Not included in this year's budget projections are the expected revenues from cannabis legalization and the government of Canada's introduction of a carbon tax.

The Department of Finance says it does not expect the carbon tax to be implemented until 2019, and it does not expect to actually see the revenues until the government is into its next fiscal year.