As the Northwest Territories emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, the GNWT will need to improve the ways it promotes economic development among Indigenous communities, according to the grand chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC).

Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik made the comments to the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Economic Development and Environment on Feb. 24. His presentation to the committee pertained to the GNWT’s Emerging Stronger Plan, which outlines the territory’s approach for emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kyikavichik said any plan aimed at emerging successfully from the pandemic has to include a strong addictions and wellness program, especially for non-Yellowknife residents and for those whose mother tongue is an Indigenous language.

“The focus must be the transition of these people into wellness, and then hopefully into the workforce, even if it is part-time and/or seasonal” he said.

Although he said the GNWT had made positive first steps in this direction, “Having an Indigenous person come into a hospital room and say hello is a start, but it is certainly not a solution.”

He suggested formalizing ties with Yukon to relieve the burden on medical services in Yellowknife, saying some community members are already travelling to the neighbouring territory at their own expense to receive treatment.

When it comes to infrastructure projects, Kyikavichik said there is a need to foster local expertise on Arctic development, rather than having to outsource. To this end, he said the GTC is working on establishing a partnership with an engineering firm to establish their own local expertise “rather than depending on the GNWT or the federal government to provide it for us.”

“Yes, we inherit the economic cycles we live in, but it should not distract us from our real goal: setting up the North for success in the future,” he said.

For the North to truly prosper, Kyikavichik said commerce will need to be given the same priority as the resource industry.

“Why is it that we continue to see development of the big-box stores or major franchises in the Yukon prior to seeing it here in the NWT?” he asked.

With the economic challenges posed by the decline of the mining industry, Kyikavichik blamed the territory’s “laborious and complex” regulatory scheme for discouraging future economic opportunities.

“We all know we must do better in this system at separating the small-scale, low-impact exploration that creates immediate jobs and economic opportunities at a local level, from the major project development, which should require a broad environmental application and detailed assessment,” he said.

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby, who sits on the Standing Committee on Economic Development and Environment, asked what the GNWT could do to improve its support of engineering projects in the North. Kyikavichik replied that homes designed by those from outside of the community often fail to take into account the needs of those in the community: they may be built for nuclear families, while Indigenous families often live in multi-generational homes, or they may not have rooms dedicated to the preparation of wild game, he cited as examples.

“I think these are all things that we can bring to the table to raise the unique circumstances of the North,” he said.

Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, who also sits on the committee, asked about the GTC’s challenges with regards to housing, saying it’s an issue his own community has often struggled with.

“When we’re spending a million dollars for a single-detached home in the territories, I think that’s wrong,” said Simpson.

Kyikavichik responded that his community needs “direct funding” to improve its housing stock.

“A duplex here and a duplex there just isn’t going to cut it,” he said.

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