At the request of Northern airlines, the Government of Nunavut will provide $22.2 million in financial assistance for the period of January through March to help the aviation companies avoid losses.
That topic stirred some debate in the Legislative Assembly on March 21 and 22, with the prospect of the territorial government perhaps taking an ownership position in the airlines arising again.
Finance Minister Adam Lightstone was put on the spot with Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA and former Finance minister George Hickes reminding Lightstone that he endorsed the GN seeking an equity stake in the airlines when financial aid was being doled out to them earlier in the pandemic. Hickes asked the minister whether he’s actually pursuing that possibility.
Lightstone replied. “At this time we have not had those discussions. If we were to consider looking into buying ownership of the airline, it would cost a significant investment, something that $22 million would not cover… the amount is so significant that we have not even considered looking into it at this time.”
The minister noted that Covid-19 is still having a significant impact on the aviation industry and the government funds are meant to ensure the airlines can break even, not turn a profit — any leftover funds must be returned to the GN.
The territorial government provided $109 million to the airlines between April 2020 and September 2021 as the pandemic took its toll. The airlines eventually returned $53 million of that assistance while the federal government chipped in $36 million, meaning that the GN’s actual contribution over that 18-month period was closer to $20 million.
The territorial government helped out with another $12.8 million from October to December 2021.
This “significant amount” of financial aid is a “necessity at this time,” and it ensures that the airlines continue to provide a minimum number of flights to Nunavut communities, Lightstone told his colleagues.
“Our government has found ourselves in a position where we are equally reliant on the airlines in providing those essential services to our communities as the airlines are reliant on us to provide those airline subsidies,” he said.
He later added, “With that being said, ensuring that all decisions are truly informed, I think it is important to note that nothing is ever off the table before such significant decisions are made.”
On March 22, Arviat South MLA Joe Savikataaq confronted Lightstone about a media interview he did. Savikataaq said he as “quite surprised and taken aback” that the minister apparently stated that he believes that the money given to the airlines could have been utilized in a better way. Savikataaq asked for confirmation that the report was accurate.
Lightstone said he had a great deal to say and couldn’t recall all of his words, but added that there are “countless ways” that the funds could have been used otherwise.
Savikataaq moved to a different line of questioning by asking why the minister has “flip-flopped” on the government taking an ownership position in the airlines.
Lightstone responded, “I am flattered that the member continues to look back at our historical Hansard (the official transcript of the Legislative Assembly) and continues to quote excerpts which I had stated for his inspiration of comments, questions, and concerns.
“Mr. Speaker, the time to make a decision as to utilize these funds to potentially buy an equity ownership in the airline has long passed,” he said. “Mr. Speaker, as of today, as we are approaching the end of the pandemic, we don’t find ourselves in a position where we could substantiate such a significant capital investment.”