What do leaders across the N.W.T hope to see in the next federal budget?

Leaders across the N.W.T. told CBC what they hope to see included in the first federal budget since the pandemic started.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

Canada's Liberal government is set to release a highly anticipated federal budget on Monday, leaving leaders across the N.W.T. wondering how Ottawa plans to support the North as it emerges from the pandemic. 

Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formed a minority government in the fall of 2019, the government has only released one federal budget. 

So far, the NDP have backed the Liberal minority government, managing to steer clear of an election, which NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pledged to continue to avoid regardless of what's announced on Monday. 

It's still high stakes for the Liberal minority government, which could be toppled if three main opposition parties do decide to vote against the soon-to-be released budget.

Ottawa is expected to deliver on top ticket items, such as childcare, the climate crisis, and reducing inequality amid the pandemic. 

Here are a few top priorities for leaders across the N.W.T. that they hope to see in the country's first pandemic budget. 

Reducing inequality 

The first federal budget since the start of the pandemic is expected to tackle inequality. 

For N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, the pandemic has "really brought housing to the forefront." So, she hopes to see a "huge amount" of funding geared toward housing initiatives. 

Yellowknives Dene Chief Ernest Betsina is shown in Ndilo, N.W.T., in June 2020. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation also hopes to see housing brought to the forefront, but says he also wants increased funding in core funding for Indigenous governments. 

Indigenous governments are often saddled by the administrative work required to secure additional funding for essential services and programs. Betsina says the "bureaucracy is getting cumbersome" and calls for direct transfer payments, instead of having to go through various departments, organizations, and governments. 

MLA Kevin O'Reilly will be looking to see if a universal basic income (UBI) is advanced in this budget. He believes N.W.T. is well positioned to pilot UBI either at the community, regional, or territorial level, given the size of the population and existing programs which could be built upon. 

Income support currently is "not terribly well coordinated," said O'Reilly, who called the existing approach "punitive."

He said programs should be adapted to actually help provide stability to families, especially amid housing and food insecurity issues. 

MLA Kevin O'Reilly says the N.W.T. would make an ideal place to test out a universal basic income. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

UBI has some "misconceptions around it," O'Reilly said. 

"At the end of the day, governments usually end up saving money because they've avoided costs in the judicial system, the correctional system, emergency interventions ... and so on." 

Climate crisis

For some communities in the North, leaders are looking onto Monday's budget announcement in the hopes that it will help them continue their way of life.

Erwin Elias is the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, a community where the impacts of climate change are in plain sight. 

"We're witnessing it first hand. We're watching the permafrost melt right in front of our eyes. We're getting to a stage where things are getting really serious with climate change," he said. 

The coastal community is experiencing erosion at a rapid pace which will require many homes to be relocated. The community is looking at options to buy more time before that is required, but it comes with a heavy price tag. Based on current estimates, the community needs between $30-60 million to control coastal erosion exacerbated by climate change.

Elias hopes the federal budget announcement will help the community adapt, but he also wants the government to include strong measures geared toward mitigation. 

The impact of climate change on Inuit relationships with the environment has been huge, Elias told CBC, and has impacted traditional hunting grounds among other sacred practices.

"Not only right on our shoreline, but it goes all the way … up North," he said.

Coastal erosion in Tuktoyaktuk is a major threat for the community. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

O'Reilly reiterated a sense of urgency when it comes to adapting and mitigating climate change as well. 

"The national carbon tax program, I think is helpful, but we also need to have a greater level of investment in renewable and alternative energy, and it needs to be into the right kinds of projects," he said. 

For example, the N.W.T,'s Taltson Hydroelectric Expansion Project is estimated to cost around $1.2 billion, but it will be a while before it's built. 

O'Reilly said the project "is not going to be built in time to help us reach the 2030 target of [reducing] greenhouse gas emissions."

He said investments in district energy systems, like biomass, are more affordable and build energy self-sufficiency in communities. 

Child care

Another expected budget item is child care. During a press conference last Friday, Trudeau said that "child care is something we need to do as a country." 

"[It] is not simply a social argument, or a social program, it's fundamentally an economic program," he said. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been pushing the Liberal government to take concrete steps toward a national child-care plan, which is something that has been considered by previous Liberal governments, with a renewed push under former prime minister Paul Martin from 2004-2006. 

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also gestured to the possibility of a national child-care plan.

"I really believe COVID[-19] has created a window of political opportunity and maybe an epiphany on the importance of early learning and child care," she said. 

As of 2019, eleven communities in the N.W.T. did not have access to licensed early childhood programs for children up to the age of three. That has to change, according to O'Reilly. 

The territory has already conducted a feasibility study looking at universal child-care in the North. 

"Until women and families have support for child care, they can't really get into the workforce. So that needs to be something that we do some more work on and really make sure that it's a priority," said O'Reilly.