N.W.T. finance minister, premier pleased with federal budget 

Northern leaders are looking at what the 700-page proposed budget has in store for Northwest Territories communities. The N.W.T. premier says so far, she likes what she sees. 

Budget sets aside $25 million for housing in the territory, $14 million for health care

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane says so far, she likes what she sees when it comes to the new 700-page federal budget. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Northwest Territories politicians are still looking at what the 700-page, proposed budget offers the territory's communities, and the premier says so far, she's glad to see federal money going toward social and economic pandemic recovery.

Premier Caroline Cochrane said this week there are "significant and specific" commitments to the N.W.T., such as $25 million for Arctic science and $8 million to transform Aurora College into a polytechnic university.

The budget also sets aside $25 million for housing in the territory, and $14 million for N.W.T. health care, which will come out of the Territorial Health Investment Fund.

On Monday, the federal government released its first budget in two years, which includes promises for major reforms to child care, and spending on recovery from COVID-19. This week, the N.W.T.'s premier and Finance minister weighed in on the federal Liberals' fiscal plan.

Cochrane said her government will look to get its own piece of the $500-million tourism relief fund, meant to help operators hit hard by the pandemic, while money spent on Arctic security and science will create job and training opportunities for Indigenous people and northerners.

Flexible spending needed for child care

Cochrane said historic investments in feminist economic policies like affordable child care are welcome, but in a conversation with federal officials on Monday, Cochrane said the money needs to be used to build physical daycare centres.

"We have 33 communities here in the Northwest Territories and not all of them even have a child care centre in them," said Cochrane.

The federal government plans to allocate $30 billion over the next five years to child care nation-wide. Over three years, starting in 2023, it plans to put $420 million into building and maintaining new child care centres that will benefit Indigenous early learning.

Housing money and more to come

The N.W.T. government asked for $100 million over four years for housing, and it got $25 million for the next year, on top of the $60-million co-investment fund, which was created to build affordable housing. 

The National Housing Co-Investment Fund has $750 million to create and repair units across the country. 

Under that same fund, there is $250 million to construct, repair and pay for the operating costs of an estimated 560 units of transitional housing and shelter spaces across Canada for women and children fleeing violence. 

The budget includes $300 million to convert vacant commercial property into housing. It also includes a $1.5-billion Rapid Housing Initiative, which is meant to go toward adequate, affordable housing. Of this, 25 per cent will be dedicated to women-focused housing projects.

"Every single community in the Northwest Territories is in dire need of housing," said Cochrane.

However, funding isn't the sole obstacle to building new housing units, she said, adding that some communities may be reluctant to allow workers in during COVID-19. 

The speed at which units can be built, and where they will be placed, also depends on how much building capacity exists inside the N.W.T., and how quickly the territory can bring in any needed construction labour.

Infrastructure budget 

The premier said she hopes the Mackenzie Valley Highway and the Slave Geological Province road will benefit from a $285-million injection into northern infrastructure. 

Infrastructure Minister Caroline Wawzonek said that while there are no specifics in the budget, she's eyeing improvements to the Frank Channel Bridge near Behchokǫ̀, through the National Trade Corridors Fund.

"Knowing that fund in particular has seen an increase, I think that's good news for us," she said. 

N.W.T. Infrastructure Minister Caroline Wawzonek said that while there are no specifics in the budget, she's eyeing improvements to the Frank Channel Bridge near Behchokǫ̀, through the National Trade Corridors Fund. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Wawzonek said she was pleased to see $44 million set aside to study the feasibility of expanding hydroelectricity. 

The territory has several potential hydro projects on the horizon, including the Taltson Hydroelectric Project, which would expand the existing generating station and connect the N.W.T.'s electrical grid to a mineral-rich area in the eastern N.W.T. where the territory's three operating diamond mines are located. 

Finance minister 'content' with budget

Speaking as Finance minister, Wawzonek said the Territorial Health Investment Fund saw a "modest" increase to funding that ended as of March 31. 

The transfer fund supports medical travel, oral health and cultural competency training for N.W.T. health care workers, she said.

Wawzonek said money coming out of the federal Gas Tax Fund could be used to create new transitional housing units and homelessness shelters. 

The federal government is using the Gas Tax Fund to build up infrastructure in municipalities and First Nations communities across the country.

Continued pressure on all federal parties

Cochrane said that while she's pleased with the budget, she would never wait until an election to communicate the N.W.T. 's priorities.

In response to the budget, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he has little interest in plunging Canada into election mode during a third wave of COVID-19.

Cochrane said she continues to pressure all federal parties, regardless of which one holds power. 

"The Liberal government has been in power for several years. They understand our needs. However, the NDP understands the social needs, the Conservative government understands the infrastructure needs," she said.

"You don't start the conversations about the needs of your jurisdiction after the election. You start them before. You're hopeful that when the election's called, that all of the parties would have a piece for the North."