Michael McLeod, Member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories, may have started the year aiming to have a federal budget for Northerners that would address their most pressing concerns.
Housing inadequacy. Infrastructure deficits. Climate change challenges. Early childhood education shortages. The list of needs in the NWT have been endless since last fall’s federal and territorial elections.
Many of those earlier priorities are up in the air now with federal budget 2020 postponed to a yet unknown date and as all levels of government attempt to manage the immediate and growing risk of coronavirus entering the North.
Like many other MPs across the country, McLeod was working from his home community of Fort Providence this week where he has been with his family since the House of Commons suspended its session on March 13. He returned home on March 16 where he has been doing work by phone and email.
As member representing a vast territory, he is no longer using airplane flights to travel and is no longer attending public gatherings.
Most of his days are now tied up with phone calls and other communications with constituents, mining industry professionals and other members of the NWT private sector, as well as political leaders in Ottawa.
“We are working non-stop. We have briefings and caucus calls after caucus calls and also I get daily briefings from national caucus and we have an all-parliamentarian briefing everyday,” said McLeod during an interview March 27.
Canada Response Benefit
On Wednesday, the federal government passed C-13, a $107-billion economic aid package that is set to roll out in the coming weeks to assist businesses and workers. Among the items it will include are a Canada Response Benefit which will provide $2,000 a month in income support for up to four months for Canadian workers who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. The benefit will also help people who “lost their job, are sick, quarantined, or taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19” and who may be forced to stay at home to look after their children due to a lack of day care.
Other increases include $2 billion in extra child care benefits and employment insurance.
“We need to be able to roll out the emergency response benefit and make sure that it is in in place and make sure that people can access it and know how to get it,” McLeod said.
“We have to recognize this pandemic is a once in a generation challenge and the greatest health-care risk in our history. It has many people nervous, scared and confused as to what is happening. There are many things we have to ensure that are happening. We need to make sure that supports are there that focus on ensuring that Northerners and Canadians can pay for their rent, groceries. We have to ensure that we help businesses pay their employees and their bills in this time of uncertainty.
“It looks like we are just at the starting end of the curve and there may be more need.”
McLeod said he is fully on board with Premier Caroline Cochrane and her government’s position that more money needs to be coming from the federal government to support a territory of sparse and isolated communities lacking roads and other infrastructure as well as accessible health care as compared to most jurisdictions in southern Canada.
“The GNWT has made it pretty clear what they need in terms of resources and it is pretty comprehensive and they did a really good job,” he said. “The premiers’s office has been in contact with me and we all agree we need more money and that is what we are working on.
McLeod sits on the House of Commons finance committee that will be overseeing the federal aid that will go to Canadians. The committee’s role will be to regularly examine how monies are spent and to ensure they are accountable to Parliament.
“I will be part of the oversight on the bill that was passed,” he said. “It is hard to tell (the full impact it will have on Northerners) because we are thinking – how long is this pandemic going to last? There are a lot of things that are just so grey at this point.”
McLeod said he is hearing from constituents that they are concerned about whether there will be cuts in other areas as the federal government diverts its attention to the ongoing crisis.
“For the most part it is business as usual,” he said of those concerns. “But we have to make sure things keep going because we are at the year-end and people are nervous.
“The other thing I’m hearing is that a number of people not taking the pandemic serious enough and that there is too much socializing and I think a lot of the community leaders are taking it upon themselves to get the message out. At least that is what I’m hearing.
“I think you will see that stepped up a lot. As time goes on, it is going to start sinking in.”
Asked about the the lack of protective medical gear and how that might impact health-care workers in the North, McLeod said it is one concern among many that he aiming to address with this week’s stimulus funding.
“That is part of what we want as part of funding and the carve out of money that we want,” he said. “Protective medical equipment is one but there is so many things than protective medical gear for resources to what government needs and supports.”
Asked what he would say to Northern workers who are home self-isolating with children, he said it is a necessary health and safety precaution and that it may be an opportunity for northern families to better connect.
“I think we have a lot of people in the different fields including in education that are trying to reach out to people at home and home is the safest place to be with limited contact with anybody from the outside,” he said. “It may be a good time for families to go out on the land or do projects together in their home.
“For the most part we have to keep people safe and we’re really nervous about this pandemic spiking where too many are sick at the same time and we know it is going to happen. We know it is going to get worse before it gets better and we want to spread it out so it is at least manageable.”