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Advocacy or lobbying? Yellowknife MLA questions privileged access to N.W.T. government

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly says government meetings with the chamber of mines designed to discuss the response to the COVID-19 pandemic evolved into lobbying efforts with limited public accountability.

Frame Lake MLA alleges mining lobby group has privileged access to industry department

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly says government meetings with the N.W.T. & Nunavut Chamber of Mines designed to discuss the response to the COVID-19 pandemic turned into lobbying efforts. (Walter Strong/CBC)

An N.W.T. MLA alleges government meetings with the N.W.T. & Nunavut Chamber of Mines designed to discuss the response to the COVID-19 pandemic evolved into lobbying efforts with limited public accountability.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the N.W.T. Department of Industry Tourism and Investment and the Chamber of Mines held biweekly meetings to discuss pandemic recovery strategies.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly made an Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act request regarding those meetings. He received meeting minutes and tabled them in the Legislative Assembly last month.

Despite being heavily redacted, O'Reilly says the documents show those meetings went "way beyond" a COVID-19 recovery mandate.

"[They] include assistance with letters written to regulatory boards to seek relief from environmental monitoring, [and] to get mining as a permitted use in areas [set aside] for land rights negotiations," he told CBC.

The documents show government and mining representatives met to discuss what the industry describes as challenges to opening new mines.

O'Reilly acknowledged this is not unusual in itself, but what troubles him is the apparent absence of any possibly affected parties.

"There are other parties that have an interest in these issues that are not at the table," O'Reilly told the CBC. "This is an exclusive relationship between departmental staff and one sector of the economy."

Work as usual

N.W.T. & Nunavut Chamber of Mines executive director Tom Hoefer said in an email  that "this is not unusual work, nor is it imbalanced." He said the chamber posted its presentations to government officials online.

Hoefer says the meetings are necessary to "rejuvenate the minerals industry, and importantly, all the benefits it creates for the North."

Tom Hoefer is the executive director of the N.W.T. & Nunavut Chamber of Mines. He compares biweekly meetings with the industry department as similar to ones with the territory's business advisory council — which was created to help government respond to the economic pressures of the pandemic. (Hilary Bird/CBC )

He compares the biweekly meetings between the mine industry lobby and officials at the N.W.T.'s industry department as similar to those with the N.W.T. Business Advisory Council, created to respond to COVID-19's economic pressures. 

He says the chamber makes no effort to hide its advocacy on behalf of mining with the territorial government. 

"Like other industry associations across the country, [the chamber] works with governments to help them understand the needs of our industry to be successful [and] generate benefits and products from public resources," said Hoefer.

Lands set aside for land claim negotiations a line in the sand

But O'Reilly said the chamber and government crossed a line when they discussed interim land withdrawals — lands set aside and excluded from development during active land claim negotiations with First Nations.

Those withdrawn areas are to prevent a staking rush, for example, in the middle of decades-long negotiations. 

O'Reilly said allowing mining on withdrawn land would be "inconsistent with other commitments that [the territorial government] has made." 

But some of the redacted documents suggest government staff were willing to reconsider interim land claim withdrawals.

In redacted documents, there is discussion about discussing interim land withdrawals to facilitate mining activity. (Screenshot)

On July 15, the meeting notes read, "GNWT [Government of the Northwest Territories] will discuss interim land withdrawals and how they can be addressed to facilitate mining activities."

CBC News asked Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Caroline Wawzonek whether impacted Indigenous governments were invited to these meetings. Wawzonek said meetings with Indigenous governments are part of a government-to-government relationship and land claims are a wider territorial policy. 

Wawzonek described the level of engagement between the N.W.T. and Indigenous governments as "really not even comparable" to meetings with the chamber. The premier's office meets biweekly with Indigenous governments and relevant ministers. 

Wawzonek said territorial ministers are required to log all meetings with outside parties. 

If any changes to legislation are to be considered, "that's a bigger discussion to be had with all the members of the Legislative Assembly," she said. 

Wawzonek said the purpose of meeting with the chamber is to pursue mutual economic development goals, and she does "not agree with the characterization they've taken on some sort of scope that is entirely beyond" the original plan.

Industry Minister Caroline Wawzonek says meetings between industry and government are part of the job. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

'Meetings like this need to happen'

Wawzonek said if the government wasn't meeting with industry representatives, that itself would be a concern.

The territorial government regularly meets with representatives from the aviation sector, the chamber of commerce and the business advisory council.

"Meetings like this need to happen," Wawzonek said. 

"And it should be a good news story for the government and a good news story for all areas of interest in the Northwest Territories, that we have a government that is able to sit down and have this kind of engagement with any and all sectors."

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