Trudeau says COVID-19 pandemic amplified housing, connectivity gaps in territories

In an interview with CBC North's The Trailbreaker, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to supporting the North's mining sector and working to settle outstanding land claims in the region.

Trudeau says the pandemic has exposed 'the depths' of issues faced by northerners

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference on Oct. 5 in Ottawa. In an exclusive interview with CBC North's The Trailbreaker on Thursday, Trudeau committed to supporting the North's mining sector and working to settle outstanding land claims in the region. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In an interview with CBC North's The Trailbreaker, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to supporting the North's mining sector and working to settle outstanding land claims in the region.

Trudeau spoke with host Loren McGinnis on Thursday morning, as part of a "virtual tour" across the country to connect with Canadians.

Acknowledging the challenges of living in the North, Trudeau said that many of them were amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We know that the best sort of economic path forward, in the strongest way out of this, is going to be to support the health of people during this difficult time," he said.

"We're going to need to do a better job of delivering on housing, on things like broadband Internet access, which is no longer a luxury, but now a necessity. That's what this pandemic has really emphasized."

Trudeau says the pandemic has exposed "the depths" of the gaps faced by northerners.

Here's a breakdown of the interview.

Affordable housing

From 2016 to 2019, statistics show the Northern housing crisis has been getting worse. Those issues include the state of people's homes, maintenance and a lack of affordability.

That's despite the Liberal government's promises to put money into Northern housing as part of its national housing strategy in 2017.

While the government has brought in funds to the North to address mounting problems in housing, Trudeau says it's about finding the right approach as much as it is about the funding.

He says the federal government has already made $300 million available to the territories for affordable homes, set $100 million for the North in the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, and pledged millions more in other financial supports.

"You could always do more in terms of money, but there's hundreds of millions of dollars there for building homes," he said. "We just have to make sure that we're delivering that, we're working with partners. Nobody wants Ottawa to tell you where you should build a home, and how you should build a home. We need to work with local partners on that."

N.W.T. premier 'optimistic' on housing

Later Thursday morning, Trudeau sat down with housing experts, along with N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, in a roundtable meeting on northern housing.

Cochrane told reporters that there wasn't a solid commitment for housing from the federal government. But she says she was told the "will is absolutely there." 

"I'm very optimistic that this first meeting was the first of many to come and I'm optimistic that we will see a real commitment from our federal government to actually address housing," Cochrane said.

Cochrane says the pandemic highlighted the "opportunities gap" to the territory and the federal government.

"Without proper housing, we couldn't even self-isolate in our smaller communities," she said.

Cochrane says she's hopeful a "huge financial allocation to the Northwest Territories" from the federal government will be announced with the next federal budget.

She added that having funding from year to year doesn't give the territory security to do long term planning. She also stressed that getting funded per capita won't work for the North.

"We only have 45,000 [people in the N.W.T.] but there's three territories ... we're more than half of Canada," she said. "If we fund per capita that will not suffice."

Health care and racism in the system

In the North and across Canada, Indigenous people have expressed for years they do not feel safe or that they're assured respectful care in the system.

Trudeau says the federal government has committed to move forward on Indigenous health legislation that will shift "many of the ways done to be much more Indigenous-centred, much more Indigenous-led."

He added that the government recognizes that the delivery of healthcare "needs to be anchored in community and in language in leadership by the community itself and not brought in from outside."

"That's something that … we've been working very hard on. But obviously, COVID needs to accelerate that," Trudeau said.

"We need to make sure that there is better health care that is not just better on a on a pure objective level, but better on a subjective level as well … without the systemic discrimination that unfortunately continues to exist throughout all our institutions across the country."

Mining in the North

Trudeau says the mining sector is a "key part" of building Canada's future.

A range of minerals found across the North are going to be essential for creating batteries, wiring or other material for the "technological future," he said. 

He added the mining sector, which has been in a 14 year decline, is "transforming in positive ways."

"Now, COVID has hit hard and that's why we were pleased to see the mining sector be one of the largest take ups of the wage subsidy across the country," Trudeau said. "But Canada's mining sector is going to be important for many years to come.

"We're going to keep supporting it and investing in it as it is done in a better and better way, both for communities and for the environment. That takes real investments.

"You can't build a better future for everyone if there are not better jobs as well for everyone. And that's part of what we're investing in."

Land settlements

There are 10 land claim and self-government agreements under negotiation in the N.W.T., some of which have been in the works for decades.

The Prime Minister says his government has accelerated the processes in all those land claims in a "significant way.

"Instead of trying to delay and obfuscate, we're like 'OK, we want to do it, let's do it, let's figure it out. Let's get this settled, let's move forward, let's build a strong stable future."

"We are there at the table. We are funding things. There's still challenges to get it done. I mean, it can be a very complex situation, but we have the will and we have the means to get it done," Trudeau said.

"And that's what we're focused on."

Written by Amy Tucker, based on an interview by Loren McGinnis