It was nearly 10 years ago, in June 2013, that the devolution agreement with Canada was signed in Inuvik, our own territorial self-government agreement with Canada for all Northerners, decades in the making.

A historic resource revenue sharing agreement between the NWT and Northern Indigenous governments was also signed. It was a time of optimism, excitement and hope as we looked to the future where we would finally be in charge of our own destiny. The NWT was committed to a policy of decentralization to ensure a strong territory comprised of vibrant communities and regions, as well as the capital. The commitment was to set up an expedited process and get land claim and self-government agreements settled so there was finally political peace, land tenure was clear and we would all be focused on building a strong, healthy and sustainable territory. The job of governments was to collaboratively create the conditions for these good things to happen, wisely redistributing tax dollars, passing good laws, policies and regulations along with building strong social institutions and infrastructure to ensure sustainability.

Currently, all is not well in the NWT and the world. It is a time of uncertainty, pessimism and frustration in the NWT and with a territorial election in October 2023, the questions of where we are going as a territory and how do we get there deserve serious attention. Our future as a territory will depend on the answers. The current legislative assembly is gearing down into election mode and it has been acknowledged to me that this assembly has kicked down the road to the next assembly the tough fiscal and political decisions that should have been made.

As I have watched the actions of the GNWT during the last two assemblies, I have seen a significant return to the centralization of authority and decision-making into Yellowknife and the development of a stovepipe model of top-down departmental governance that gives enormous power to deputy ministers, and promotes lack of communication, coordination and collaboration within the GNWT. Ministers often seem to be the mere spokespersons for the department. Nearly all the community and regional mechanisms to promote involvement and decision-making by Northerners in the government services in the communities and regions where they live have been disbanded or diminished. The college is still under a public trustee. The NWT Power Corporation and the Arctic Energy Alliance both have boards of deputy ministers rather than qualified Northerners from across the NWT. No one seems to be in charge and our consensus-based system of government has taken a beating as a result.

In Fort Smith, there is job loss and we are no longer a regional centre. There are closed health and social service facilities, few doctors, and midwifery services are suspended; the new mine training building sits empty and the college is on its knees; businesses are struggling to keep their doors open; there are few, if any, apprentices being trained and public housing stock is in disrepair, to name some of the indicators. Fort Smith is not alone. If you go to any community or region across the NWT, you will see the same sad story.

The GNWT has a $1.8 billion borrowing limit. It currently has borrowed $1.696 billion, leaving barely $100 million for emergencies, which is minuscule on a budget of $2.2 billion. In effect, the running of the government is being debt financed. Part of the reason is that the number of GNWT employees has ballooned up to 6,249, plus casuals, which has resulted in a top heavy, oversized bureaucracy which is unsustainable.

Canada raised the GNWT’s borrowing limit in 2020 and knows our government has a very limited capacity to carry debt, plus Canada has serious debt issues of its own to deal with. This gets us to the unmade difficult decisions about how we start living within our means that will now have to be made by the 20th Assembly. In 1995, the 13th Assembly, because of federal budget reductions, had to cut more than $100 million from its first budget. It was a necessary but very painful exercise that has been burned into my memory.

MLAs running for re-election will have a lot of explaining to do to their constituents because in politics as in life the bill always comes due. Our faces are pressed against the debt ceiling — there is no new money to promise. Who of those that want to lead can tell us where is the NWT going and how are we going to get there, because no one I know likes where we are.

Michael Miltenberger is a former longtime MLA and cabinet minister residing in Fort Smith.

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  1. Mr. Miltenberger, you will probably always be my fave and most respected Minister ever. Your clear concern that we have a baseline economy was always held in balance by your very real respect for and care for our land, water, wildlife and air. I miss you in the House.
    But. I think your assessment is unfair. The current cabinet had Pandemic (at some point we can no longer reference that as a reason, but that time is not yet) plus shutting down of mines, plus public service retirement waves to deal with plus a seachange in Federal – :Indigenous relations. That’s a lot!!!
    As a northerner, I’m grateful to the current government for getting us through covid relatively safely and recalibrating its role in in governing this territory.
    Still. I hope you come back.

  2. I have said it before and will say it again, the reason we are not functioning properly is because of the poor leadership that comes from the DIRECTORS of the various departments of the GNWT. MLA’s , Ministers are just a face of the Departments for us, they are not the “Professionals” that are running the show day to day. CLEAN HOUSE get rid of these individuals that have been around for too long and are ineffective. This ineffective direction you can see all over the NWT.
    Been here in the NWT since 1969 never have I seen the Government in such disarray.

  3. Well said, Michael. Wake up and smell the coffee, folks. Read again: 6300 GNWT employees, plus casuals, PLUS many minuscule to small to medium-sized businesses (including mine, most months) who depend on the GNWT’s spending for their very survival? Yikes. All “debt-financed?” As you say, the bill will come due.
    And when it does, our children are not going to thank us for it.