The Conservative Party of Canada’s Northern Affairs critic said this week that the federal government’s plan to eliminate heating fuel rebates has to be stopped or at least put on pause as NWT residents endure ever-increasing prices.
Bob Zimmer, the official opposition critic for the North, told NNSL Media in an interview on Feb. 6 that Ottawa’s direction to force the provinces and territories to strengthen its carbon pricing schemes — which would include the removal of the GNWT’s ability to fully offset home heating fuel to meet — will just add to the pain Northerners are already facing.
Since the federal government implemented carbon pricing in 2018, the GNWT could offset carbon pricing increase rebates every year with a ‘made in the North’ policy.
Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek told a chorus of frustrated NWT MLAs during a Standing Committee of Government Operations meeting that the federal government is not willing to budge on its plan to stop the GNWT from being able to offer the rebates.
“In addition to annual increases in carbon tax rates, the GNWT must eliminate all carbon tax rebates that negate the carbon price signal, with the exception of the tax rebate for fuel use to generate electricity for community distribution,” Wawzonek stated, adding that the GNWT has tried to present options that would lessen the burden on homeowners and businesses. “The federal government has provided no indication of a willingness to provide flexibility on applying the carbon tax to heating fuels. Therefore, Bill 60 represents a stark choice. We either amend the carbon tax legislation to increase carbon tax rates on April 1, 2023, or the federal government will do it for us and our current flexibility to influence carbon pricing and the Northwest Territories will disappear.”
Wawzonek’s presentation came the same week as an NWT Bureau of Statistics report that showed that residents saw a 45.6 percent increase in “fuel oil and other fuels” between December 2021 and December 2022. The same CPI report showed a sharp, year-over-year increase in costs for major items like transportation, food and shelter. The December 2022 CPI report showed a 49.7 per cent increase in home heating fuel over the past year.
Zimmer says the federal direction is just not realistic for the NWT.
“It was always understood that the territorial government could decide what they wanted to do in regards to the carbon tax and it just highlights that the carbon tax itself was a failure,” Zimmer said. “Not only that, but the Ottawa-knows-best approach is a failure as well and is just not great for the folks of the Northwest Territories, for sure.”
NWT MP Michael McLeod said this week that plans to move ahead with stricter increases to carbon pricing and changes to the GNWT home heating fuel rebate are needed, given climate challenges faced in the North.
Although the federal carbon pricing efforts began in 2019 under the GNWT’s own policy, Ottawa set new benchmarks that the provinces and territories had to create in 2021.
Bill 60, An Act to Amend the Petroleum Products and Carbon Tax Act, was introduced last fall and is expected to receive a final vote this session for implementation on April 1. The amended bill includes a controversial revision that will remove the home heating fuel rebate.
’Can’t sit on our hands’
“We want people to reduce emissions and that is the whole intent behind it while at the same time keeping their lives affordable,” said McLeod. “There will be some rebating behind (the new bill), but it just can’t be dollar for dollar (like in the past).
“I’ve seen the resistance with some of the elected leaders who were raising concerns,” he said. “The challenge in dealing with climate change is a lot of people think it is to construct turbines and introduce geothermal plants or biofuel.
“But the biggest challenge that I’m seeing is to convince people to give up the most convenient source of energy, which is oil. I think this is going to be a difficult one for us to accept, however it is the right thing to do. There is a new green age that is now upon us and we are seeing the impacts of climate change first hand and it is costing a lot of money.”
Asked specifically about the pressures coming from the High Arctic and Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson regarding cost of living increases to fly-in communities in that electoral district, McLeod said that he shares Jacobson’s concern.
“There is no doubt he is concerned and I think we are all concerned, but there is also a responsibility for us to look at options. What works best? What can work?”
Cleaner options for energy sources have been long planned in the NWT stretching back to when McLeod was MLA 20 years ago but there’s been relatively little headway. He pointed to the extension of the Taltson hydro line to Fort Providence, geothermal work in Fort Liard, natural gas compression work with the Inuvialuit, the Taltson hydro dam expansion.
“We need to move past that and need an incentive,” he said. “We have to get territories off diesel.”
Asked if this was a tough political item to convince the public, McLeod said he does find it challenging to explain it to the public, however in most cases people know the North is in a ‘climate crisis.’ He believes he has support from the growing voices of young people and many Indigenous governments and First Nations council leaders who are looking to maximize technologies for cleaner fuel sources, especially for biofuels, biomass, wind, solar and geothermal.
“I’m totally convinced that we can’t sit on our hands anymore,” he said. “I am totally convinced there are huge concerns coming. We are starting to see a lot of effects of climate change and we are really going to be challenged in the next while.”
‘Almost impossible to survive’
Zimmer, who sits on the Indigenous and Northern Affairs House of Commons committee with McLeod, said that there needs to be more Northern political leadership to address the situation, especially as the cost of living situation continues to grow.
“The bottom line is, the costs were already expensive to heat homes in the North and this (added carbon tax) is just adding a lot more,” Zimmer said. On April 1, NWT residents will see the carbon tax rise by $15 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, instead of the usual $10 per tonne. The price starts at $65 a tonne this year and rises to $170 a tonne by 2030.
“It’s making it almost impossible to survive in the North.”
Jacobson said this week that he opposes the carbon tax altogether and aims to lead the charge to “kill” Bill 60 because it amounts to the “GNWT doing the federal government’s dirty work.”
He points out that his electoral district has easily been hit the hardest by carbon pricing among those in the NWT because of the fly-in/fly-out nature of communities like Paulatuk and Sachs Harbour. He echoes the need for stronger northern opposition to the prime minister from both McLeod and Premier Caroline Cochrane.
“I don’t care what (Ottawa) thinks,” he said. “The people are suffering. Single mothers are having to make hard decisions and single fathers are too. Food bills every two weeks are $600 to $1000 and that is living on the bare minimum with subsistence of fish and caribou. It is really, really tough.”