What lies ahead for northern politics in 2020
Health care, environment, and final agreements on a long to-do list for governments
Another year is done, and it was a big one for northern politics — a new government in the N.W.T., duelling rebukes in the Yukon legislature, and a 25-year-old elected MP in Nunavut were just a few of the stories making headlines this year.
Now, with a new government in Ottawa and no territorial elections on the horizon, it's time for northern politicians to get down to governing.
Here are just a few of the stories we're watching this year.
Nunavut's fifth assembly is over halfway through its term, and residents are expecting to see progress from their politicians in the coming year.
When the legislature sits again in February, Health Minister George Hickes is expected to bring forward new legislation to update Nunavut's Mental Health Act.
Bill 36 asks for government-provided addictions treatment, reporting of suicide and traumatic events, and a clear outline of the rights of a person accessing mental health services.
The new bill comes from community consultations four years ago that found residents wanted to see elder involvement, support for families, minimization of trauma and Inuktut terminology included in the act.
This year should also see an investigations officer hired to give independent oversight to Nunavut Corrections. That officer will focus on the care of inmates, but will also have final say on cases related to segregation.
Last year, the government passed a new Corrections Act in Nunavut. But that legislation won't come fully into force until an oversight officer is hired and policy is written to reflect the new act.
Nunavut residents will also be waiting for the Standing Committee on Legislation to give their feedback on amendments to the Education Act and the Inuit Language Protection Act. That's following public hearings held in late November.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Nunavut Teachers' Association and the Coalition of Nunavut District Education Authorities all oppose the bill. A bill by the previous government, also meant to amend the education and language protection acts, died on the order table.
Finally, the government plans to take action this summer on long called-for improvements to in-territory elder care. Plans are to break ground on a 24-bed elder care facility in Rankin Inlet that would serve the Kivalliq region.
The plan caused concern among regular MLAs, who thought it could lead to the closure of existing care facilities.
"It's essential that we get moving on constructing an elder care facility in Rankin Inlet," Health Minister Hickes said at the time. "Too many of our people are sent out of Nunavut for treatment."
It's hard to predict exactly what 2020 will bring in the N.W.T., as the territorial government still hasn't produced its mandate.
Elected in early October, the territory's 19 MLAs — including 12 newcomers — spent only three days in session in 2019.
That means one of the first orders of business will be to draft the mandate based on a list of wildly ambitious priorities drafted in the fall.
That should contain more specifics on how the government will carry out some of its commitments — like negotiating new modern treaties, or ensuring the territory's educational outcomes are the same as "the rest of Canada."
But when it comes to signing final agreements, briefing notes issued to ministers in the previous government suggest the territory expects some feet-dragging from both federal and Indigenous partners.
The mandate letter to the federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett suggests even if a much-maligned framework for the recognition of Indigenous rights no longer complicates negotiations, the federal government still plans to develop consistent, national policies on resource sharing, self-government, and inherent rights.
Not much progress can be made on major outstanding agreements, like those in the Akaitcho and Dehcho regions, or on renegotiating old ones, if the feds are actively reworking their position.
One briefing also suggests the territory believes Indigenous leadership could hold up agreements in the hopes the federal government unveils new, direct funding for First Nations — something it notes would be bad news for the territory's diminishing coffers.
On education, the way forward for the government isn't much clearer. But it will have some help determining its priorities.
As it did with child and family services in 2018, the federal Office of the Auditor General will air the dirty laundry of the territory's schools in a system-wide audit in the spring.
And while the Education Department isn't reportedly losing children or exposing them to mistreatment, its findings could still be damning. The territory's new premier, Caroline Cochrane, said the system was failing children as she exited her former role as education minister, and a similar audit in Yukon last year was excoriating.
So be it in negotiations, education, or anything else, 2020 is sure to be a year when the federal government looms large in the lives of N.W.T. residents.
For the Yukon Liberal government, declaring a climate change emergency and issuing a strategy to convert the economy to greener energy were relatively easy.
Putting the plan in motion will be the tricky part.
The territory is squeezed between a growing need for electricity, courtesy of an uptick in the mining sector and a booming population. At the same time, the Yukon Energy Corporation finds itself constrained by the political imperative of increasing supply without also increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
The vast majority of Yukon's power comes from three hydroelectric plants at Whitehorse, Mayo and Aishihik. But it isn't enough to power the whole territory (Old Crow, one of a handful of off-grid communities, is powered mostly by diesel but is in the process of building a nearly one-megawatt solar array).
Meanwhile, the government's draft Our Clean Future strategy aims to slash emissions by 30 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030. To do that, the government wants to cut the use of diesel for power generation in off-grid communities by 30 per cent, generate 40 per cent of heat via renewables (much of that will come from electricity, but some will also come from biomass), and cut transportation emissions by getting up to 6,000 electric vehicles on Yukon roads, all in 10 years.
Compounding the problem, Yukon has faced two dry years in a row that undercut the productivity of Yukon Energy's hydro grid. In 2018, Yukon produced 92 per cent of its electricity with hydro. Through the end of 2019, that figure is below 82 per cent.
The situation has Yukon Energy casting about for both short- and long-term answers. For one, it's attempting to squeeze out as much power it can from the existing hydro system.
Yukon Energy President Andrew Hall said the utility is replacing turbines and generators at the Whitehorse dam over the next couple of years. That will provide up to four megawatts of new capacity. By comparison, hourly demand during a mid-November day topped out at nearly 76 megawatts.
A panel of experts toured the territory this fall to hear from residents about electricity issues.
Yukon Energy said it plans to release a draft renewable energy strategy later this month. And the government is still taking the public's feedback on its climate change strategy, with a finalized version promised some time early this year.