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EDITORIAL: In the North, decentralized government is good government

Election Day looms on the horizon. As of this time next week we will have a new GNWT legislative body.
Comments and Views from the Inuvik Drum and Letters to the Editor

Election Day looms on the horizon. As of this time next week we will have a new GNWT legislative body.

It will still take some time for the new legislature to settle into a government, a byproduct of no political parties. So it remains to be seen who will wear the crown of premiership.

As part of our election coverage, we are including editorials pushing what I believe sums up to a coherent strategy to grow the territory economically and culturally. To date, we have made the call for a reliable road network connecting the far reaches of the NWT and to embrace the energy transition currently underway in our global markets.

My apologies in advance for the cliché, but today we’re going to take a look at the great big yellow elephant in the room. Or since we’re in the Arctic, let’s call it our “mammoth” problem.

It is no secret inside or outside our capital that the NWT has a serious Yellowknife bias. Want a career in something other than education? Gotta go to Yellowknife. Want to see a dentist? Yellowknife. Got a business idea and need a viable customer base? The majority of your customers are likely going to be in Yellowknife. Want to work for the government? You know where you’re going.

This is the result of decades of Yellowknife-only thought by planners, which probably accounts for why connecting the other communities the GNWT is responsible for by roads hasn’t been a priority. One major example of this is the Aboriginal Sports Centre, which according to its mission statement “empowers and builds capacity within NWT communities” … from Yellowknife. So hopefully the rest of us can fund-raise to send our athletes there…?

It’s gotten bad enough that the next two largest communities, Inuvik and Hay River, can barely even compete for new developments or expertise. The latter’s case has been further complicated by the wildfire evacuations.

Decentralization of GNWT offices needs to be a major priority for the next cabinet. To do otherwise will simply suck our non-Yellowknife communities completely dry. If the GNWT wants to improve living conditions in non-Yellowknife communities, it needs to stop removing incentives for people to live there.

Aside from exposing the fragile fault lines of western civilization and revealing the most essential workers among us are often the least paid, the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that running organizations remotely is completely feasible. Government communications continue to use the model established during lockdowns largely because it’s far more effective to explain something from your office where you can access your files than a big expensive press gallery.

So it’s not as if holding a meeting between officials stationed in Inuvik, Hay River, Ulukhaktok and Fort Good Hope isn’t possible.

Spreading government offices around the territory would come with many side benefits. Another well-known secret is the GNWT’s Affirmative Action efforts have largely failed, by its own admission. A new policy is in the works, but what exactly it will look like remains to be seen. However, outgoing Yellowknife North MLA Ryland Johnson noted in the dying days of the legislature that moving GNWT jobs to where Indigenous people are would dramatically increase the number of Indigenous hires.

It would also help attract investment. Town of Inuvik Mayor Clarence Wood has been doing as promised and beating his shoe on whatever desk in Ottawa he can reach to get more attention on this part of the North, calling for the International Arctic Centre to be stationed here and asking for more federal involvement in housing. But federal officials and outside investors are following the GNWT’s lead on who, where and what are priorities for funding. If everything’s in Yellowknife, that’s where any further funding, infrastructure announcements and investors are going to go. Case in point — following the devastating wildfires down south Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saw the desolation first hand, then returned to Yellowknife to announce funding for a 50-unit apartment building — sorely needed by Yellowknife to be sure, but it’s not as if we aren’t desperate for housing here, or in Ulukhaktok or anywhere in the territory. The majority of buildings here would likely be condemned if people actually had somewhere else to go.

Having GNWT offices spread throughout the territory would give incentive for federal offices to follow. And following those would be other services, which would lead to economic development of local private sectors.

Like it or not, government is an essential part of economic development in the North and is going to be for some time. But we need to use it properly to get good results. The current situation has created a GNWT so focused on itself there’s increasingly little room for anything else. We need to reverse this to be successful.

About the Author: Eric Bowling

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