North

How the woman at the wheel of the N.W.T.'s economy sees the road ahead

Caroline Wawzonek, minister of finance and, now, industry, tourism and investment, is tasked with steering the economy through unprecedented challenges.

Caroline Wawzonek, minister of industry and finance, will lead the territory’s economic recovery

As the head of the departments of Finance and Industry, Tourism, and Investment, Wawzonek says she's now responsible for both the 'big picture' and the 'front lines' of the N.W.T. economy. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

Caroline Wawzonek just said goodbye to her dream job. 

Having spent a career working in human rights and criminal defence, chairing committees and working groups dedicated to bettering the justice system and addressing the chronic issues it creates, she was elected into office one year ago and immediately selected to become the N.W.T.'s new justice minister.

"To be there, frankly, at a pivotal time where I think there is this social movement for change — I absolutely loved it," she said.

"It really has been what I wanted it to be," she said. "That, you know, you can put your hand on something and start to see movement in a different direction."

Two weeks ago, Wawzonek left that job as the result of a cabinet shuffle in the wake of former industry and infrastructure minister Katrina Nokleby's stunning departure from cabinet.

But in the process, Wawzonek took on one of Nokleby's old departments — Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) — adding it to her ongoing role as finance minister.

Coming out of that meeting, Wawzonek had somehow gained an even greater responsibility than she had at justice: guiding the territory's economy through an unprecedented crisis.

Seal fur crafts at the Inuvialuit craft store in Inuvik, N.W.T. As minister of ITI, Wawzonek's mandate spans from responding to the needs of home crafters and small businesses to wooing billion-dollar mining conglomerates to the N.W.T. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

A 'broad, broad obligation'

To quote Wawzonek, ITI is an "interesting department." It's amorphous mandate spans from wooing billion-dollar mining conglomerates to placating gas station owners in communities of fewer than 100 people.

"It's not actually large in terms of its ...  number of staff, and it's not actually large in terms of its budget," she said. "What it is huge with is its complexity."

As minister of finance and, now, industry, Wawzonek will be tasked with not only announcing million-dollar relief funds and economic incentives, but ensuring they are implemented correctly.

That has not always been easy. ITI is sometimes the target of criticism from the territory's private sector, accused of creating unnecessary delays and red tape.

Some of those problems originate in other departments, Wawzonek stressed. But she acknowledged ITI is frequently the "interface" between government and the private sector.

"If we're not able to show that we're hearing those concerns and translating it into action at [the] cabinet table … that is when that relationship breaks down," she said.

Recently, that issue came to a head over how the government hands out contracts — in some cases, bypassing Indigenous companies that had been labouring to build capacity for decades in favour of southern-based corporations.

ITI has been criticized for handing lucrative contracts to southern corporations at the expense of Indigenous companies. Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie, pictured here at the 2019 Tlicho annual gathering in Gameti, N.W.T., called the territory's past approach an 'insult'. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Wawzonek said her first priority will be to see a promised procurement review through to completion, during which controversial tools like the N.W.T.'s Business Incentive Policy will be up for discussion.

"We want to be providing value," she said. "But we also want to ensure that to the best extent that we possibly can, the benefits of government procurement is staying in the North."

"So I think there's a very big picture discussion that needs to happen, and then there's the one-on-one with businesses who say … this was a difficult process to navigate."

But Wawzonek's mandate letter — the longest of any minister — also asks her to address long-standing challenges that have stumped previous governments: increasing employment, diversifying the N.W.T.'s economy, and attracting new mining investment.

On the latter, Wawzonek is a realist about the problems facing the mining industry in the territory: unsettled land claims, a lack of infrastructure, and regulatory complexity often said to discourage investment.

Haul trucks lined up for a safety check at the Gahcho Kué diamond mine in February. Wawzonek said the problems facing the northern mining industry are not going to be resolved overnight. (Submitted by De Beers Group)

"The reality is with all three of them, those are not easy problems to fix tomorrow," she said.

While mining will remain the cornerstone of the economy through her tenure, Wawzonek said she'll take her lead from regional diversification strategies when deciding which other sectors to target for growth.

"Keeping in mind always that our goal … isn't just to, you know, diversify for the sake of it," she said. "It's to grow an economy from the Northwest Territories."

Problems predating COVID-19

Her biggest challenge — and greatest limitation — is impossible to ignore: an unending pandemic that has kept the territory's borders closed and businesses hobbled.

COVID-19 received little mention in Wawzonek's mandate letter, but it is likely to dominate her immediate future in the role.

Wawzonek has previously spoken about how COVID-19 is making the territory's problems worse. But faced with the challenge of delivering a fair economic recovery on a tight budget, Wawzonek said not much has changed.

"Our economic challenges and our budgetary challenges started before COVID-19, right?" she said. "What COVID-19 has done is forced everyone to really … reckon with the reality."

That makes the issue of judging her success or failure in the role a difficult one. Wawzonek takes a moment when asked how she'd judge herself.

In the end, she opts for modest goals — better budgeting in finance that shows the "value for dollar" of government programs, and a procurement review that makes businesses feel heard.

"I think they have to say when things are better," she said.

"That to me would be success."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now