N.W.T. Legislative Assembly resumes to pass the budget and play catch up

The N.W.T. Legislative Assembly resumes to pass a budget and start playing catch up on education, land claims and systemic racism in healthcare, all while moving closer and closer to its borrowing limit.

18 months to go; outstanding mandates on education, childcare, land claims

When Northwest Territories Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek tabled the government's 2021-22 budget in the Legislative Assembly, she described the territory's financial situation as unsustainable. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The Northwest Territories legislative assembly resumes this week to catch up on mandate items the former caucus chair says were held back by the pandemic. It also must approve a budget for all department operations that keeps the government under its debt limit.

In the last budget address, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said the territory was on an "unsustainable fiscal path."

MLAs are "eagerly awaiting whether the numbers have been adjusted or further increases in revenue or some cuts somewhere have got us back on a sustainable fiscal path. The big question is whether our budget's in line with the mandate," said former caucus chair Rylund Johnson. 

This sitting, Premier Caroline Cochrane will table an updated report on how far the government has come on its mandate.

Yellowknife North MLA and government operations chair Rylund Johnson says the territory has more mandate items to meet than it can get through in the next 18 months. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Johnson said it's likely the assembly will finish with a new royalty regime. The territory is also back on track with its procurement review and made initial changes people wanted, he said.

While the Industry Department made progress, including its increase to resource exploration incentive credits, the N.W.T. fell behind on land claims, education and healthcare reforms.

"There's going to be a few [mandate items] where it's clear the work has not been done and we just won't finish it," Johnson said. 

The N.W.T. has not met its goal of resolving two land claims nor has it progressed on healthcare mandates to root out systemic racism, which demands training for staff occupied by pandemic response.

"I think everyone knows and understands that the healthcare system has been scrambling so the Department of Health's mandate items are definitely further behind," he said.

Education 'disrupted' by pandemic

Johnson said the territory might need to shift its priorities from reforming the Education Act to responding to the effects of COVID-19 on education outcomes that were troubling long before the pandemic. 

Plus, the N.W.T. had to entirely shift its curriculum when it decided against using Alberta's controversial and widely criticized K-12 curriculum.

"COVID-19 has disrupted the school system, and we didn't know … that Alberta was going to, you know, essentially drop a nuclear bomb on their curriculum and we were going to have to switch curriculum," he said. 

Some jurisdictions are considering adding a whole extra year of school, increasing available summer school and adding tutors.

Putting a lid on personal conflict

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane will table her government's report on its mandate progress since 2019. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The assembly will kick off by swearing in Steve Norn's successor, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Richard Edjericon, on Monday. 

Johnson said the assembly has been defined by interpersonal conflict, including removing Katrina Nokleby as industry minister, the public scrutiny of former MLA Steve Norn and integrity complaints against his political rival, Tim Mercer, the clerk of the Legislative Assembly who was on leave for eight months before returning to his duties.

In December 2021, caucus chair Thebacha MLA Freida Martselos described the conflict over Mercer, Norn, and a leaked affidavit a "sideshow" that was "obstructing the work of the Legislative Assembly."

Martselos is sure to keep MLA's "in line," said Johnson, who now chairs the government operations committee. 

He said government operations will focus on increasing Indigenous recruitment and retention and establishing specific targets for each department.

Zero land claims settled

Premier Caroline Cochrane, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek, Municipal Affairs Minister Shane Thompson, Housing Minister Paulie Chinna, and Diane Archie, minister of infrastructure and the N.W.T.'s power corporation met last week with federal ministers. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The territorial government has a set goal of settling two land claims and self-government agreements by the end of the assembly, but COVID-19 has largely prevented in-person meetings.

"We have settled zero [land claims] to date and I'm not feeling optimistic that the Premier has a handle on getting two done, which was a pitifully low target in the first place," said Johnson.

There is a similar lack of progress on the "ambitious" goal of implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and accomplishing legislative change and reviewing policies and procedures across departments will be difficult with just 18 months left in the assembly, he said. 

Grappling with the debt ceiling

The N.W.T. often passes "status quo budgets that try to keep the lights on and keep us not going over the debt limit. Usually we get saved by some big federal program being rolled out," like infrastructure money for the Great Bear River Bridge, or to roll out $10 a day child care, he said.

"If the feds don't raise our debt ceiling, we're looking at big public service cuts probably in the next assembly, and we're setting the next assembly up for failure on day one."

One bad forest fire season could put the territorial government in a position of having to shut down the government, but that conversation is likely to be hoisted onto the next assembly, he said.

The territory spends $50 million annually servicing its debt — an amount that could end homelessness in the N.W.T., said Johnson.

"I don't think the minister of finance is excited about going to Ottawa to get more debt," he said.