Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal isn’t new at his job, neither is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Both veteran federal politicians met with Northern leaders earlier this week after the federal government delivered Economic and Fiscal Update 2021. They said they wanted to talk about priorities.
NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane travelled to Ottawa to commune with Trudeau, Vandal and other federal ministers. She said she would discuss infrastructure, roads, broadband, cleaner sources of energy and affordable housing.
What is new about any of that? Those are longstanding issues, affordable housing central among them.
In May, Ottawa announced $18.8 million to help fund 19 affordable housing units that the Yellowknives Dene First Nation will build. That money came from the infamous $60-million NWT “carve out” from the National Housing Co-Investment Fund. That NWT-specific pot of money sat untouched for a few years because, well, it depends who you ask. Some place the blame squarely on Housing Minister Paulie Chinna, who still holds the portfolio.
Anyway, it isn’t that no money whatsoever from that co-investment fund had ever trickled into the NWT, just none from the money earmarked for the territory, as odd or inept as that may sound, at least until the Yellowknives Dene got a portion of it.
Even so, the housing money has been a relative drop in the bucket.
On Tuesday, our territorial legislators approved $502 million in capital spending estimates for 2022-23. That money will be poured into building and fixing housing, schools, airport infrastructure and roads. The feds contributed $216 million, or 43 per cent.
Again, it’s not that the federal government isn’t doing anything, but the needs in the NWT are great. In April, the NWT Housing Corporation estimated that $500-600 million is required to make improvements to 3,000 households across the territory.
Last September then-Governor General Julie Payette (remember her?) spoke of Ottawa’s intentions to address inadequate housing in the North and among Indigenous people.
Cochrane was relieved to hear it, but sounded like she knew it wasn’t going to quickly fall into place.
“When it comes to housing, we need money,” the premier said at the time. “We can’t build houses without money. The cost of housing compared to southern jurisdictions is at least double. As we move forward, I’ll be bringing that forward to the federal government as many occasions as I need to. If our costs are double we should perhaps be getting double the funding.”
Less than a month later, Trudeau led a roundtable discussion on housing needs in the North, but he made no promises.
“I’m optimistic we’ll see a real commitment from the federal government to address housing after the budget speech in February,” Cochrane said.
Along came Budget 2021 — it took until April rather than February — and the Government of Canada came up with a paltry $50 million in 2021-22 to “fund the immediate construction and repair of housing units in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.”
That’s it, $50 million split between two territories with desperate housing needs.
How about Economic and Fiscal Update 2021 on Tuesday? That had to contain some developments on housing, right?
“Addressing housing affordability remains a priority for our government. Our work is ongoing. We will take further action in the upcoming budget,” reads a line in the 96-page document.
Do you get the sense that this can is being kicked down the road?
Sure, we’ll just sit tight for another several months with our fingers crossed.
Let’s give credit where credit is due: the federal government came through with tens of millions of dollars in support for the NWT during the Covid-19 pandemic. While many didn’t agree with the government’s approach to dealing with the health crisis, there was ample aid on many fronts.
In addition, the NWT signing on to the federal $10-a-day childcare arrangement and creating 300 new spaces over the next four years is outstanding.
But we implore our federal politicians to stop pretending that they’re just learning of the NWT’s priorities and then not delivering on those needs year after year.
We appreciated heavily-subsidized daycare. Now do housing.