You have it to hand it to these MLAs.
The past 47-year history of responsible government in the Northwest Territories is well-seeded with dashed dreams and missed milestones. A few come to mind just these past few years.
From the Northwest Territories getting a failing grade from the Auditor General for the second time in four years over the abysmal state of its child welfare services to its inability to break even barging supplies down the Mackenzie River, failing to hit the mark is a longstanding GNWT tradition.
That’s not to say the government never enjoys success. It just has trouble meeting targets and deadlines.
Which is why I can’t help but admire the sheer audacity of the regular MLAs’ motion on June 3, tabled by Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland and seconded by Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby, calling on the GNWT to put together a “strategy” that would increase the territory’s population and housing by 25 per cent by 2043.
That’s a tall order. Eight years ago, during his budget speech, former Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger proposed increasing the population by 2,000 people within five years. The Negative Nellies – myself included, I’m sure – were in full force, even at that modest number.
We’re still waiting to get there but at least Miltenberger could say it was close. The NWT’s population in 2014 was 43,884. We were at 45,640 during the first quarter of 2022, according to Statistics Canada.
Yet MLAs are swinging at the fences now and throwing the bat. To accomplish a 25 per cent increase by 2043, the territories’ population would have to climb by close to 3,000 people every five years for the next 20 years, and not only that, launch into the teeth of frightful headwinds blowing in economic pessimism as the territories’ diamond mines – representing a quarter of our economy – shut down one by one with few other options for revitalization on the table.
Over at NNSL, we’ve been preparing our first edition of Opportunities North since the start of the pandemic, due to be published in News/North, June 20. I’ll give you a sneak peek at some of the grim tidings uncovered by our dogged features writer Derek Neary.
• NWT’s graduation rate: 60 per cent; 45 per cent in smaller communities
• Aurora College: 20.7 per cent drop in number of graduates from 2018-19
• Mineral exploration: way behind the other two territories at $68.1 million
• NWT Power Corporation: 20 per cent power rate increases expected for Fort Smith, Fort Resolution and Norman Wells
• Employment rate: 72.8, the highest in the country
The last item sounds like a positive and it certainly is in most respects, except if you’re an employer fighting over the same dwindling number of workers in the territory and are having no luck attracting any to move here. There are barely enough healthcare staff to keep the lights on at Stanton Territorial Hospital or keep nurses and teachers in the smaller communities.
And it’s quite obvious we’re not producing enough homegrown graduates to fill these jobs, let alone a state-of-the-art polytechnic university overlooking Yellowknife Bay. So far, we’ve been good at growing government but that will only take us so far if we don’t have a strong private sector, such as with mining, to sustain that growth.
NNSL recently received a comment on a job ad for a reporter on our Facebook page, asking why we’re not doing more to hire Northern writers. In an ideal world, most of our editorial staff would be from the North, but for a variety of reasons, the majority come from down south. This is the case with all other media companies in the North.
The fact is, post-Covid, it’s been very difficult recruiting people. I’m hearing this from everybody, including the GNWT. In approving Cleveland’s motion, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly advised the territory must be ready for an influx of “climate refugees.” I’m sure his suggestion is sincere but I must admit my inclination is to avoid telling potential recruits down south how nice and cold it is outside.
The reality is, increasing the population by 11,250 people over 20 years is not a very realistic proposition given the circumstances. I agree with every word of the motion but it’s a mighty mountain to climb and risks being yet another unattainable benchmark.
MLAs can argue now is the time for a bold strategy but we’ve seen this movie before. There’s bold ambition, and then there’s just sinking into parody. Which one will it be?