N.W.T. government passes budget with opposition from 6 MLAs

Six MLAs voiced their opposition to the 2022 budget, while the premier, cabinet and several MLAs say concessions made during negotiations were enough to secure their approval.

Premier, cabinet defend budget against criticism that it favours Yellowknife

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, right, and Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek speak to reporters in September 2020. During budget discussions last Thursday, Cochrane said cabinet members and Yellowknife MLAs advocate in the interests of smaller communities and said she was offended by the suggestion that cabinet cares more about Yellowknife than the rest of the N.W.T. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The N.W.T. Legislative Assembly passed a $2.1-billion operating budget last week, despite opposition from six MLAs who say Yellowknife gets the lion's share of spending, while smaller communities are shortchanged.

"We see time and time again that the capital region gets most of the funds and everyone else is left to fight over the crumbs," said Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos.

Small communities are "routinely undercut and forced to fight to get funding," she said, arguing Salt River First Nation's $500,000 tiny home pilot project did not make the budget while Yellowknife-based projects are approved with relative ease.

During a debate in the assembly on Thursday, Premier Caroline Cochrane said she was "heartbroken" and "took offence" to the suggestion that cabinet cares more about Yellowknife than the 32 other communities.

Through consensus government, the budget undergoes weeks of negotiations. Concessions are made, like an additional $4 million for housing, one-time funding of $2.2 million for emergency shelters and commitments to multi-year inflation-based funding for non-government organizations.

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos said if the N.W.T. wants to truly have consensus, regional MLAs need a greater say in the budget. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Those negotiations didn't go far enough for Martselos, Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong, Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon and Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby, who cast her vote against the budget in solidarity.

The budget got support from Cochrane, Yellowknife South MLA Caroline Wawzonek, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler, Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson, Sahtu MLA Paulie Chinna, Inuvik Boot Lake MLA Diane Archie, Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly and Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland.

Budget not split along community lines, says finance minister

In an interview with The Trailbreaker, Wawzonek, who is the finance minister, said the budget is not split up by community lines nor by how many people live in a region. 

Wawzonek said despite opposition to the budget, she's willing to have tough discussions about spending.

Budget areas like land claim negotiations, advancing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and work on gender equity and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls do not exclusively benefit Yellowknife, she said.

Caroline Wawzonek, the N.W.T.'s minister of Finance, initially presented the budget on Tuesday, Feb. 22. On Thursday, as the Legislative Assembly debated the budget, she said despite opposition from six MLAs she's willing to have tough discussions about spending. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong said while the work on these initiatives should go ahead, it is "unfair" to consider work like legislative reviews of education to be targeted spending for her region, which faces dire housing conditions, social and economic issues.

"How do you expect these children to have good attendance and to focus on their education when they are worried about basics like food and shelter?" she asked.

Weyallon Armstrong said if the budget were to be broken down by population, the Tłı̨chǫ region should have an operating budget of $135 million annually, but it sees about half that in spending.

Weyallon Armstrong criticized how territorial funding is made available, and said restrictions on how it can be used are "a tool that colonial governments use to control Indigenous governments." 

All eyes on federal budget 

Wawzonek said the territorial budget included items that are unlikely to get federal funding, and that her department is watching closely for the contents of the federal budget when it drops this Thursday.

The territory's cabinet recently sat down with federal ministers to discuss core needs including housing, she said.

"We have some good asks in there," she said.

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon said his constituency, which includes Ndilǫ, Dettah, Łutselk'e and Fort Resolution, gets only one per cent of the overall territorial capital budget. 

He said the finance minister's commitment to meet with him without any concrete increases to the housing budget does not address the "many outstanding housing needs for the people in my constituency." 

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA voted against the budget, saying “small communities in the Northwest Territories matter and their voices need to be heard.” (Submitted by Richard Edjericon)

Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson said all 33 N.W.T. communities are "not being treated fairly when it comes to financial support from this government" and face issues like homelessness, lack of housing, and access to health care and education. 

Simpson said qualified Indigenous people are being overlooked for advancement in jobs and the territory needs to spend more supporting training for Northerners.

Simpson said housing units in the territory are bought from down south, and that Hay River should be looked at more seriously as a hub for manufacturing. 

Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson said the budget came out of consensus government — "none of us gets everything we want," he said.

R.J. Simpson said he would support the budget, noting that the assembly made it through the pandemic without making significant cuts and that some items in the budget are dedicated to decentralizing positions within his education department.

He also raised concern that failing to pass the budget would ultimately mean government workers and bills will not be paid.