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COVID-19: MLAs brace for economic impact

The financial assistance from the federal government reflects a mutual understanding of the NWT's unique needs during the pandemic, said Premier Caroline Cochrane on Friday. NNSL photo

NWT will get just under $600,000 of the $1 billion the federal government has earmarked for the COVID-19 response fund, Premier Caroline Cochrane told MLAs Monday.

She said so as some MLAs on Monday predicted hard economic times for Northern businesses as local consumers stay home and tourism dwindles. In response to their questions, Cochrane acknowledged that the federal money was inadequate. 

The health crisis would be dealt with first, followed by the economic impact, she said. 

“When the economy comes, my instinct is telling me my first words will be: That is not enough," she told MLAs.

Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek was set to discuss possible support with the federal government on Monday afternoon, she said.

Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo
Caroline Cochrane, Premier of the Northwest Territories addresses the media to update the public on the COVID 19 at the Great Hall of the NWT Legislative Assembly, March 13.

Much of the potential economic stimulus for the territory depends on Ottawa, Cochrane said. Adding that the current priority was on resident health and groceries, she also acknowledged NWT will take an economic hit.

“We do know there will be a downturn in our economy. We know that there’s a downturn in our economy across Canada,” she said. “We are trying to plan not only about the financial restitution of business, we’re also trying to plan about keeping our supply chain open.”

Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said business owners and their workers are “stressed.” Facing a lack of generous sick leaves and contingency plans, she urged a recovery plan funded through federal money.

“What I’m concerned about is we will have the health crisis, and then we will go into an economic crisis (as a result),” she said.

Cochrane agreed all sectors will see an impact, not only tourism operators struggling with cancelled reservations and lost international customers. More businesses will see the economic realities of COVID-19 as the situation unfolds, she said.  

“At this point, it would be irresponsible for us to just start bailing out one or two businesses,” Cochrane said, noting there will likely be more facing tough times.

MLAs set sights on evictions, utility limiters

Outside of federal support, Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson pressed Cochrane on GNWT support for small business, outside of federal efforts. She said the government was looking at procurements, bill payments and easing loan access, but didn’t promise anything yet.

Simpson was also one of the MLAs, alongside Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson, that demanded the NWT Power Corporation scrap utility limiters. 

Simpson said he was “dismayed” at power corp. Minister Shane Thompson’s response, which didn’t commit to scrapping limiters.

“Nitpicking” on limiters would lead to the same response on evictions and housing, Simpson said.  “Both those things have to be put aside at least for the next few months,” he added. 

Cochrane said her cabinet would discuss evictions and power rates, but wouldn’t commit to any specific solutions. “We can’t just shut down every collection, every business happening, or every bill out of speculation. But we will be having those discussions,” she said. 

Those meetings will be happening daily, she said, in a planning environment that Cochrane has described as an hourly battle to keep on top of the rapidly evolving situation in a territory with limited health resources. 

“The federal government does know our needs, and we’re working as best we can with our limited resources,” she said.