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N.W.T. MLAs release priorities for 19th Assembly

The priorities, which include implementing United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and settling outstanding treaties, will form the basis of the next government’s mandate.

Priorities include implementing UNDRIP, settling treaties; but climate targets not on list

MLAs set forward the priorities that will frame the mandate of the new premier and cabinet Friday after a week-long planning session. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Settling treaties, founding a university, and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) — all are now on the N.W.T. government's to-do list.

The MLAs of the 19th Legislative Assembly released their priorities for the incoming government Friday after a week-long drafting process.

"We are ready to hit the ground running. Now the real work begins," said Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, in a news release. As caucus chair, he oversaw the priority drafting process.

The list includes specific goals alongside ambitious, if general, targets that will form the basis of the incoming premier and cabinet's mandate.

"We didn't want generalizations and platitudes," Johnson said in an interview.

Included on the list is to "settle and implement treaty, land, resources, and self-government agreements" — some of which have been stalled for a decade or more.

Concluding the agreements became a major issue in the campaign and was the theme of a charged meeting with Indigenous leadership before MLAs selected premier and cabinet.

Johnson, as caucus chair, oversaw the priority drafting process. His own platform promise of universal daycare didn't make it in. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Also on the list is to implement UNDRIP, 46 articles drafted by the United Nations meant to recognize the basic human rights of Indigenous people along with their rights to self-determination.

The declaration includes articles affirming the right of Indigenous people to create their own education systems, receive services in their language, and participate in decision-making that affects their interests.

Improvements to social services

The list also commits the assembly to a general improvement to social services.

It includes commitments to reduce core housing need, "enable seniors to age in place with dignity," and "increase the number and variety" of mental health and addictions programs.

The document is more specific on commitments to improve health care and education.

It commits the government to increasing the number of health-care workers by 20 per cent, and to ensuring student education outcomes are the same in the territory as "the rest of Canada."

MLAs also said the 19th Assembly should "increase regional decision-making authority" and employment in small communities — but it did not commit the government to fully closing a municipal funding gap estimated at nearly $40 million.

Lower power rates, new university

On the economy, the priorities say the government should reduce the cost of power, boost local food production, and increase resource exploration and development — though how to do these things will be up to cabinet.

It asks the government to set regional "diversification targets" for the economy and invest in alternative and renewable energy.

The priorities chart the same course forward on infrastructure as the 18th Assembly, identifying the Mackenzie Valley Highway, the Slave Geological Corridor, and the Taltson Hydro Project as the main initiatives for the next government.

"All three are not going to be built in the next four years, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't advance them," said Johnson.

They open the door to reviewing the derided business incentive policy (BIP), which gives an advantage to local contractors in bidding for government contracts. The priorities say they'll "ensure government procurement … maximizes benefits to residents."

The new assembly will also follow the old on the creation of a polytechnic university in the territory — though it does not commit to any details about the location, or locations, of its main campus.

Photos of toddlers at the Inuvik Children First Centre in October 2019. Establishing universal daycare was not on the list of priorities for the incoming government, though "increasing availability and affordability" was. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

Promises unfulfilled on child care

Despite being a feature promise in the campaign, universal daycare is not on the list of priorities.

MLAs opted for a vague effort to "advance universal child care" instead.

"Anyone would recognize that universal daycare itself has different interpretations," said Johnson. "There's a lot of work to be done. If it goes beyond four years, that's OK."

There are also no clear commitments to climate targets in the list of priorities.

The document says the 19th Assembly should "strengthen the government's leadership and authority on climate change" and consider climate impacts when drafting policy, but offers no further details.

Some of the priorities will pose a significant challenge to the government, especially given the territory's tight fiscal situation — it's $200 million away from its debt ceiling.

In response, Johnson acknowledged some of the objectives can't be accomplished in the four-year mandate of the 19th Assembly, but fulfil a symbolic role.

"Priorities are direction to cabinet of what we want them … to work on," he said, "and they're also a symbol and a direction to the federal government and Indigenous governments of what we're working on."

The list, he added, is not exhaustive.

"These are priorities we … all agreed on," said Johnson. "Because something is not on that list doesn't mean it won't get done."

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With files from Richard Gleeson

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