North

N.W.T. budget doesn't include new money to recruit more residents

N.W.T. MLAs will begin debating the new operations budget this morning but people watching it say the government needs a better plan if it hopes to increase the population. Last year the population declined by 200 people.

Finance Minister says they're working on it but last year the population dropped by 200 people

Tom Hoefer, the executive director of the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, chats with Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger after the budget speech. (CBC)

N.W.T. MLAs will begin debating the new operations budget this morning but people watching it say the government needs a better plan if it hopes to increase the population.

The territorial government is sticking to its plan to attract 2,000 new residents by 2019. That would increase the transfer payments the government still relies on for about 70 per cent of its revenues.

But according to the government, the population declined by 218 people between 2013 and 2014.

Miltenberger says the government is working to improve the immigration process and encourage young people to return home to work. Another key point in the territory's plan is reducing the number of people who fly in to work at mines.

A committee is tasked with working with industry and local businesses. But Miltenberger said there was no specific money tied to the plans, something many noted after the budget speech..

Mike Bradshaw, executive director of the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce, says with a fall election looming progress to recruit new residents may be slow. (CBC)

"It was very lax. It was just some words on a page. That's not helpful. Unless the government is going to do something tangible with the plan to attract these individuals, it is going to fall short" said Todd Parsons, presidents of the Union of Northern Workers.

Mike Bradshaw of the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce has been working with officials. He says words only go so far.

"It's been slow-going. Now that this is an election year, I'm not sure anything is going to happen before the fall," he said.

"But God knows we need a strong strategy to attract people to the Northwest Territories. It's in everyone's interest."

The $1.8 billion budget doesn't offer many new, big-ticket items. The Finance Minister says the territory is squeezing to ensure existing programs and services are not cut amid declining revenues.

God knows we need a strong strategy to attract people to the Northwest Territories. It's in everyone's interest.- Mike Bradshaw, N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce

"When revenues are flat, spending everything we make presents its own unique challenges," Michael Miltenberger told reporters prior to his budget address.

But he said given the small population in relation to the size of budget, the territory has "challenges other jurisdictions would kill for."

There were some bright spots for people who watched Thursday's budget address.

Tom Hoefer of the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines says he's glad the government is setting up a new division devoted to the securities that mining companies pay to cover the cost of cleaning up their mines. He says another year of funding for exploration projects was also needed. He says programs that give industry certainty about the regulatory environment are positive.

Julie Green, of Alternatives North, says the budget could always include more money for initiatives such as early childhood education and housing. (CBC)

"It's a tough global market place right now for funding. And so people are happy if there's any funding out there. So you're going to get an over subscription," Hoefer said.

Julie Green of Alternatives North was pleased to see a new pilot project in Inuvik and Yellowknife that will put close to half a million dollars into trying to making it easier for people who are struggling to access government services.  

Some new housing options

Front-line workers have said for a long time that there needs to be more coordination between agencies and departments. Green says it will help people who may be homeless and using food banks and income support.

"So the left hand knows what the right hand is doing in terms of providing housing, medical care, food and other kinds of supports. It's more likely the other person will be successful with holistic or wraparound care," she said. "The chances of that individual succeeding I think will go up."

The budget includes plans to lease 55 new public housing units in Yellowknife and 10 in both Hay River and Inuvik.

Green says that will relieve some pressure on people currently on waiting lists to get into social housing, but it doesn't solve the problem.

"This is only leasing houses, it's not building houses. It's a temporary solution," she said.

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