Just over a year after NWT residents went to the polls and elected the current legislative assembly, the government is losing sight of its original mandate, said NWT Chamber of Commerce President Jenni Bruce.
In an open letter, Bruce and the Chamber’s executive director Renee Comeau cite some government initiatives, such as the Covid-19 Coordinating Secretariat as a diversion of resources from a business community that is suffering from pandemic disruptions.
The letter also mentions a recent tweet from Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, who said that all Yellowknife MLAs should be reminded of their pledges made last year on how they would grow the economy.
The pledges were in response to the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce’s Vote Growth platform and numerous MLAs, along with Premier Caroline Cochrane, provided input on economic growth.
Summarizing the feedback from MLAs, Bruce and Comeau said, “Nowhere does anyone recommend that the opportunity to grow the economy is to grow the GNWT further. In fact, there were several very innovative ideas put forth… that would provide very easy wins for the GNWT and stimulate our economy without much money, such as reducing red tape; removing unnecessary barriers to growth, or staying open; not raising our cost of doing business that is already the highest in the country.”
Bruce understands that the pandemic has affected the assembly’s momentum, but she feels the government hasn’t stuck to its pledges to the extent the business community had hoped for.
“On behalf of the chamber, we don’t feel like there’s been a lot of attention paid to the business community and its challenges,” she said. “We haven’t seen any real movement on any of the infrastructure projects like the Slave Geological Province or the Taltson Hydroelectric Project. We haven’t seen anything or heard anything on them moving forward, whereas (there was) so much conversation on them during the election.”
In her letter, Bruce took aim at the Secretariat as a government level that “will further increase their expenses” and lead to rises in costs of living and in the small business tax rate.
Cochrane responded in a letter on Monday that while plans are moving forward for the Secretariat, her government has no intention of increasing that tax rate.
Still, Bruce feels the formation of the Secretariat leaves more questions than answers.
“I’d like to see a very specific budget and very specific business plan on what they’re going to do,” she said. “We heard it was $86 million, then we heard it was $31 million, then we heard it was only $2 million new dollars, then it’s back to $31 million. We heard that these were new positions, then we heard these are not new positions.
“I believe the current (message) is that these are not new positions. But we are still lacking clarification on if they’re backfilling the old positions.”
Business Advisory Council
Bruce has her finger on the territory’s business pulse with another initiative: the Business Advisory Council (BAC), which is fine-tuning its guiding mission and on Tuesday launched its own website on the GNWT portal.
The BAC held its first meeting on June 5, and was established to offer guidance to the GNWT through the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) as the territory grapples with the economic difficulties of the pandemic.
Its “Key Challenges Summary” has been its roadmap so far and outlines some of the areas it feels need the most attention: GNWT procurement policies; problems caused by too many government employees working from home; disruptions of border restrictions and self-isolation periods; and Indigenous communities and businesses affected by the pandemic.
“We have a much fuller version that we anticipate (will be) out in the next two weeks,” said Bruce, who co-chairs the BAC with Paul Gruner of Det’on Cho Management.
The biggest challenge the BAC has faced in its work is communicating with the government. It reports to the GNWT through ITI, so if it wants to speak with someone from the Health department, the ITI minister has to coordinate that and then go back to the council.
“It is improving every week, but it has definitely been a bit of a roadblock for us,” Bruce said.
The BAC was scheduled to speak virtually with the chief public health officer (CPHO) on Thursday afternoon, and with Health Minister Julie Green on Thursday night.
Another ongoing issue is that the GNWT hasn’t yet set up the BAC’s “sister” councils of the Indigenous Council and the Health and Social Sector Council. NNSL Media has inquired with the GNWT on those groups and is awaiting a response.
A looming challenge the council anticipates as flu season approaches is the effect on businesses and working parents if an entire family has to self-isolate while another member waits at home for Covid test results.
The BAC recently formed a sub-committee, informally called the “second wave sub-committee” to address problems such as those that could arise in a second wave and to learn from failures and successes in the first wave, Bruce explained.
But the council can tout some achievements in its five months of operations.
One of the first issues it pursued was pushing to have GNWT staff return to their downtown offices instead of working from home. In July, the government said 60 per cent of its staff had already returned to work.
“We felt it was vital that government get back into its offices, because it would bring them back into the downtown core and help stimulate business in the downtown, as well as send a strong message of a safe return to work. We do feel like we were vital in expediting that process,” Bruce said.
She also holds up the BAC’s success in showing the CPHO how limits on indoor business capacity were applied too strictly across the board. That left some businesses with large capacities operating at a fraction of their limit, while smaller spaces were crowded and struggled to implement physical distancing.
“The CPHO was able to respond in a matter of weeks and come back and say that was an oversight, and they started granting exemptions to allow them to go to a much more reasonable capacity that still followed safety guidelines,” said Bruce.