N.W.T. has no extra money to assist Behchokǫ̀ with failing water infrastructure

The N.W.T. government says the Behchokǫ̀ community government, which includes Rae, Edzo and Frank Channel, is responsible for budgeting major repairs to its deteriorating water infrastructure.

Monfwi MLA, Behchokǫ̀ chief say territorial funding not enough for community needs

“This is a municipal government issue,” said Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The N.W.T. government says the Behchokǫ̀ community government, which includes Rae, Edzo and Frank Channel, is responsible for budgeting major repairs to its deteriorating water infrastructure.

That's after residents in Edzo went weeks with brown water coming from their taps, or none at all.

"This is a municipal government issue," said Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson.

Last year, the community government received $704,000 in gas tax, $1.15 million for community public infrastructure funding, and $1.27 million for water and sewer. 

"Communities have to make the decision on where they're going to spend the money," Thompson said.

But Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels and Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong say the community can't meet the needs of 2,000 residents with a $3.1-million budget.

"Behchokǫ̀ would like to do more but MACA [Department of Municipal and Community Affairs] is not providing enough money to run our community government affairs. The community is struggling," Weyallon Armstrong told CBC.

The CBC requested budgetary information from Behchokǫ̀'s senior administrative officer. He deferred to the municipal affairs department. The CBC also requested information about water and sewer services following an interview with Thompson but neither the senior administrative officer nor the chief were available for an interview.

Tlicho Grand Chief Jackson Lafferty did not return calls before press time. 

Seeking help from the minister

On Jan. 27, Weyallon Armstrong emailed Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Shane Thompson asking the department to perform a cost analysis of replacing the water infrastructure or shifting homes to tanks and trucked water delivery.

Some residents told CBC they are considering this option, but said it could be too costly for many homeowners. 

In an interview with CBC, Thompson said if residents want assistance transitioning to trucked water, that would require reaching out to the housing minister because his department does not have funding for special projects. 

Daniels previously estimated it would cost between $6 and $14 million to replace aging water and sewer infrastructure. 

Thompson said the money for water and sewer must be allocated to 33 communities based on a formula, and that coming up with $6 million for Behchokǫ̀ would upset other communities.

"Giving more money is not feasible [in the] future unless we take the $6 million from the pot of money and then other communities are not going to have projects done," he said. 

No 'slush fund'

Asked whether funding would be found in time for construction season, Thompson said that would be putting the "cart before the horse." 

"We don't have any money, a slush fund anywhere," said Thompson, noting that the territorial government is $1.5 billion in debt. 

Thompson said the department can't tell communities what to do with their funding, but can make recommendations. 

"That's what we tried to do," he said, referencing a letter from the municipal affairs department to Behchokǫ̀ council in 2007, which offered advice on spending.

Thompson said at the time that "people were aware of the water issue … the piping issue." 

"That was up to the council to make it a priority and when you do other projects than projects that should have been done, and don't get fixed, then that becomes a bigger problem later on."

Seeking federal funding

Thompson said he is open to helping the community get the money it needs. 

"We're more than willing to try to work with the federal government to help them and see if there's a way that they can get more money from the bank," Thompson said. 

Thompson said Behchokǫ̀ can save up its budget over two to four years ahead of a big project, or can raise rates on residents.

Thompson said his department is looking into federal programs and is banking on the upcoming federal budget for pots of money that could be used for Behchokǫ̀'s water problems. 

"Every time there's new federal funding and new programs out there, we're right at the door and we try to help the municipality apply for funding."