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Budget 2021 brings a sense of optimism that the federal government understands the needs of the North amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Premier Caroline Cochrane on April 20 in a briefing with reporters. (GNWT image)

Budget 2021 shows the federal government understands the impact of COVID-19 on the North, Premier Caroline Cochrane said Tuesday.

READ HERE: BUDGET 2021

In a virtual briefing with reporters, Cochrane said the budget, unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Monday, gives her a sense of optimism and demonstrates the federal government is aware of the gaps the pandemic has exposed in the NWT.

Cochrane highlighted some specific commitments in the budget that will help support the NWT, such as a $25-million investment to address NWT housing issues in 2021-2022; $14.2 million for the Territorial Health Investment Fund; and $8 million for 2021-2022 to support the transformation of Aurora College into a polytechnic university.

The premier hailed the $30-billion, five-year investment in child care that is based on Quebec’s model, which provides care for $10 per day.

“Finance Minister (Freeland) called the historic investment in child care a feminist economic policy. I couldn’t agree more. I applaud the efforts to tackle the availability and cost of child care,” said Cochrane.

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She also pointed to the budget’s support for the “green economy” in the form of several investments in net-zero emissions initiatives, development of critical minerals like rare earths and developing renewable energy technologies.

“I hope these investments will help keep more money in Northerners’ pockets, reduce the cost of living and ensure we have more opportunities for success. We must continue to work towards resilient people and a resilient economy.”

While Cochrane said many of the mandate priorities of the 19th legislative assembly were reflected in the budget, she rebuffed any concern that the mining industry was left out of the budget.

“I beg to differ. There is money for (confronting) climate change, there is $5 billion over seven years for the green economy. We need things like batteries. We have rare earths and cobalt here that are precious to the green economy. I think (the federal government) hears how necessary mining is.”

Asked if those investments are enough to spur the NWT’s development of a green economy, Cochrane said, “You could say it’s not enough” but added that the combination of several investments, including for facing climate change and the NWT’s 15-per cent share of $1.9 billion for the National Trade Corridors Fund, can help meet the needs of the economy.

Child care

While Cochrane called the investment in child care a “dream” for parents, the circumstances of the NWT differ from the rest of Canada in that some communities lack child care centres.

In her discussions with federal officials, the Premier said she stressed the GNWT needs flexibility to be able to build the centres that communities require.

“As soon as the budget was announced, I called (Northern Affairs Minister) Dan Vandal (and) talked about how grateful we are but re-emphasized that we have communities that don’t even have centres. Hopefully (the funding) won’t all go to subsidizing centres, but I also hope some funding can go towards infrastructure to build centres. Vandal said he understood, even though he didn’t make a firm commitment.”

Housing

The budget pledges $25 million in 2021-22 to the GNWT to address housing needs and to support the construction of 30 new public housing units in the territory.

That allocation meets the $100 million over four years that the GNWT asked of the federal government, Cochrane said.

However, she said it’s too early to determine where those units would be built or if those projects would be multi-unit developments.

“All communities are in dire need of housing. It’s premature to say how we’ll divide it up,” she said.

Another issue is capacity, in terms of resources and building capabilities in the territory, to build those units.

“At some point we have to ask, ‘Do we have the capacity to build that many units?’” she said.

The $25 million could be used to apply for other housing needs and it would be in addition to $60 million the GNWT has in its co-investment fund, she added.

$18 billion for Indigenous communities

Among the largest allocations in the budget is $18 billion over five years to improve the quality of life for people living in Indigenous communities.

That includes investments in COVID-19 responses, health care, child and family services and education, among others.

Asked how the GNWT would leverage those funds for Indigenous peoples in the territory, Cochrane gave few specifics but said she’s “excited” the federal government recognizes the needs of Indigenous communities and Indigenous governments.

“We’ve spent the last year and a half building partnerships with the Canadian government and building strong partnerships with Indigneous governments. As we move forward I hope we can tailor our programs (and) work together to invest money and provide better services.”

Other budget highlights for NWT

A $2.3 billion investment over five years is aimed at conserving up to one million square kilometres of land and inland waters, including $200 million to build natural parks, green spaces, ravines, waterfronts, and wetlands and support Indigenous Guardians in Indigenous communities.

An additional $1 billion over six years for the Universal Broadband Fund to expand access to high-speed internet in remote and rural communities. The allocation will bring to $2.75 billion the total budgeted for the fund. The initiative aims to achieve 98-per cent coverage of high-speed internet by 2026 and all Canadians by 2030.

A National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence includes $601.3 million over five years. The plan would be formed in consultation with provinces, territories, Indigenous peoples, gender-based violence experts and survivors of gender-based violence to ensure that victims of violence have access to protection and services. Violent crime against women in the NWT was nine times higher than the national rate, second only to Nunavut, where the rate was 13 times higher, according to a 2013 report from Statistics Canada.

Nutrition North will be expanded over three years with the addition of $163.4 million. The expansion will enable the Northern Affairs minister to work directly with Indigenous partners, including in Inuit regions, to address food insecurity.

An investment in Clean Energy in Northern and Indigenous Communities comprises $40.4 million over three years to support feasibility and planning of hydroelectricity and grid interconnection projects in the North. Another $36 million over three years will target capacity building for local, economically sustainable clean energy projects in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities.

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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