Cabinet's mandate, if fulfilled, could offer a lot for northerners

Residents across the North can find encouragement in Justin Trudeau’s acknowledgement of long-standing concerns — and his repeated commitment to find 'predictable and sufficient funding' to address them.

Long-held territorial concerns acknowledged in new mandate letters issued Friday

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters as Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services, looks on during a Liberal Party fundraising event in Montreal on Monday, June 17, 2019. (Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

Expect to cross paths with a few federal cabinet ministers at the airport in Iqaluit this year.

Mandate letters issued Friday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ministers of Northern Affairs, Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous Relations spelled out a number of specific commitments to Nunavut.

They include the construction of a treatment centre, the full implementation of land claims, and the development of an "Inuit Nunangat policy" — a broad framework for policy-making in Nunavut and other areas of the Inuit homeland, like Nunavik in northern Quebec, Nunatsiavut in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the N.W.T.

But Nunavut won't be the only territory to benefit if this cabinet's mandate is fulfilled. Residents across the North can find encouragement in Trudeau's acknowledgement of long-standing concerns — and his repeated commitment to find "predictable and sufficient funding" to address them.

In the details of the mandate and in a uniform introduction, the letters repeatedly emphasize a desire for closer relationships with Indigenous governments.

"There remains no more important relationship to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples," reads Trudeau's uniform introduction.

"I am directing every single minister to determine what they can do in their specific portfolio to accelerate and build on the progress we have made with First Nations, Inuit and Métis."

Travel benefit grabs headlines

Early headlines on the mandate letters singled out a commitment made in the letter to Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal to increase the Northern Residents Deduction for travel costs to at least $1,200.

Larry Bagnell, the Liberal MP for Yukon, said the program would also expand eligibility to include northern residents, like self-employed people, who do not receive a travel benefit from their employer.

This way, everyone will be eligible.- Larry Bagnell, Liberal MP for Yukon

"Why should one person get it in the North, just because their employer puts it on their T4 slip, and another one doesn't?" said Bagnell.

"This way, everyone will be eligible."

A bigger tax break will be nice for northerners struggling with airfares that regularly run into the thousands.

But many of the letters' other commitments are much wider-reaching.

Dams, diesel, roads, and mines

Outside of Nunavut, northern premiers are likely to be encouraged by a mandate to support infrastructure projects in the North.

The letter to Vandal asks him to expand the scope of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency's work to include funding "foundational economic infrastructure such as roads and visitor centres."

That opens up a new pot of funding for tourism development in the N.W.T., and for investment in the $700-million Mackenzie Valley Highway.

A file photo of the Taltson dam. The mandate letter to Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal asks him to 'support territorial planning for hydroelectricity projects,' which presumably includes the N.W.T.'s Taltson Hydroelectricity Expansion Project, with its estimated price tag of $1.2 billion. (Submitted)

The letter also asks the minister to "support territorial planning for hydroelectricity projects," which presumably includes the N.W.T.'s Taltson Hydroelectricity Expansion Project, with its estimated price tag of $1.2 billion.

The N.W.T. and Yukon will both benefit from commitments to finalize the Northern Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program, which provides funding — and creates jobs — to clean up toxic abandoned mines.

Remote communities in all three territories are also likely to benefit from an instruction to Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services, to help communities transition from diesel-fuelled power to clean energy alternatives by 2030.

And Indigenous leadership across the North will be curious about the mandate to establish "a new national benefits-sharing framework for major resource projects on Indigenous territory." 

Territorial governments will likely want a say in developing that framework, but it could be an opportunity to address widely-perceived shortcomings in existing impact benefit agreements.

Research and 'robust' post-secondary

Northern Affairs Minister Vandal will also have to support the development of new universities in the Yukon and N.W.T.

Both territories are in the process of transforming colleges into accredited polytechnic universities, and Trudeau's mandate letter commits the minister to ensuring "a robust system of post-secondary education" exists in the North at the end of it.

A file photo of a class in session at Yukon College. Vandal will also have to support the development of new universities in the Yukon and N.W.T. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Researchers in the North could benefit from Vandal's mandate also.

The minister is asked to accommodate growing demand at the Polar Continental Shelf Program, which helps manage research in the Arctic, and modernize the Eureka Weather Station some 400 kilometres north of Grise Fiord, Nunavut.

Handing over child welfare

Some more general items in the mandate letters will be of interest to territorial governments looking to devolve services to Indigenous governments.

Trudeau instructed Miller to implement Bill C-92, which would hand over control of child and family services to First Nations. Crucially, it also specifies ensuring "long-term predictable and sufficient funding" to fund those services, so First Nations are not left with an unpayable tab.

First Nations leadership council representatives hold up printed copies of the UN Declaration bill tabled in B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC )

The letter also briefly mentions working with Indigenous communities on the development of local housing policies, something that has been a point of conflict between Indigenous communities and the territorial government in the N.W.T.

The mandate for Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett reaffirms the government's commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — a move the N.W.T. government listed among its priorities.

Bennett will also oversee the creation of a new National Treaty Commissioner's Office that will help direct "the ongoing review, maintenance and enforcement of Canada's treaty obligations."

Support for Indigenous Languages Act

Lakeshore and coastal communities in Nunavut and the N.W.T. may also benefit from the mandate given to Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Bernadette Jordan.

It instructs Jordan to work with local and Indigenous partners on developing a "blue economy" strategy, including specific planning for "small craft" harbours.

That could be music to the ears of residents in Hay River, N.W.T. They have been waiting for years for federal funding to begin a $10 million dredging and revitalization project.

Last but not least, the mandate for Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault asks him to find "long-term predictable and sufficient funding to support" the Indigenous Languages Act.

That act came under fire for failing to protect Inuktut language rights in Nunavut.


John Last


John Last is a freelance reporter and producer currently based in Padua, Italy. He previously reported from Yellowknife, covering Northern Canada and the Arctic. His reporting work has taken him through Europe, the Middle East and the American South.