North

COVID-19 is making the N.W.T.'s many problems more urgent, finance minister tells feds

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek says the social and economic vulnerability of the Northwest Territories is “stark” under COVID-19, and that the federal government must help.

Minister tells committee that assistance needed to fix housing, food security, infrastructure

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek says the social and economic vulnerability of the Northwest Territories is 'stark' under COVID-19, and that the federal government must help. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

N.W.T. Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek says the social and economic vulnerability of the territory is "stark" under the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the federal government must help.

At a federal finance committee meeting last week, Wawzonek said many of the territory's chronic issues with housing, food security, health care and the economy have been made more urgent due to the pandemic.

In an interview with CBC News, Wawzonek highlighted several ways in which existing deficits in the territory's infrastructure are worsening the territory's problems.

"It's the fact that we are really seeing, by COVID-19, the impacts of not having technological infrastructure," she said.

"The impacts of not having broadband access — what that's doing to schooling, to education, to people working from home."

Unequal internet access a barrier to N.W.T. education

Many school districts are still not fully staffed, and without proper internet access, some students are unable to continue their schooling online, said Wawzonek. 

The federal government should advance initiatives through the Broadband Fund, a five year, $750 million plan to supply all Canadians with an internet speed of 50 mbps, to fix the digital divide in Northern communities, she said. 

This is the time to really buckle down and say we need to move them forward.- Caroline Wawzonek, N.W.T. minister of finance

"These are already projects that are being kicked around," Wawzonek said. "This is the time to really buckle down and say we need to move them forward because we've seen the impacts of not having it."

The territory's chronic problem with housing is even more acute under COVID-19, she said. 

While public health orders instruct people to physically distance from others, overcrowded housing and housing insecurity bring people into close contact. Such conditions are favourable to the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, she said. 

"Housing is becoming a really urgent issue. Overcrowded housing, housing insecurity, they present risk factors for people who are trying to self-isolate," she said.

Airlines and the mining industry 

The N.W.T.'s infrastructure gap is one of the largest in the country, said Wawzonek.

The territory does not have a specific list of projects and dollar amounts it wants from the federal government because the response to COVID-19 is always evolving, she said.

The N.W.T. welcomed the recent $8.7-million in support for northern airlines, but she says more could be needed to sustain them. 

Airlines are a lifeline bringing food and medical supplies into communities, but they are in trouble, said Wawzonek

The diamond mining industry, a cornerstone of the N.W.T. economy, is vulnerable to market fluctuations. As the mining industry struggles through the pandemic, the territory is expected to see a decline in resource royalties, a source of revenue for the government, Wawzonek told the federal committee.

The mineral resource sector, especially large companies, have yet to benefit from federal relief programs announced so far. 

The mining industry will continue to play a role in the territory's economy and may need stimulus, she said.

N.W.T. government restricted by its debt limit

Wawzonek said there are projects in the territory that need federal investment or a higher debt ceiling to proceed.

The territory has been requesting that debt limit be raised since long before the pandemic, but Wawzonek argued COVID-19 made it more important to have borrowing flexibility.

She wants the federal government to make it easier for the N.W.T. to borrow for infrastructure, and to create opportunities to make Indigenous governments equity partners in those projects. 

She said the federal government should support projects including telecom expansion, the Taltson hydro expansion project, solar and wind projects and the exploration of the Slave Geological Province, where the government hopes to build an all-season road.

Wawzonek also wants federal assistance for projects laid out in the Arctic and Northern Policy Framework that can be funded immediately. 

In the meantime, the N.W.T. government is looking for projects that are "shovel-ready."

The government is considering which projects it can move ahead on while respecting physical distancing measures. 

"COVID-19 is giving us an opportunity to say, 'Where [do] we want to be in five years? And what can we do right now as we're going to be engaging in a very different way of approaching some of these problems in the coming months?" she said. 

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