Federal Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal got his first taste of the NWT since being named to the cabinet position in November.
Vandal travelled to Yellowknife this week as part of a Northern tour to meet elected officials in the North, including Premier Caroline Cochrane, the leadership of the Tlicho government in Behchoko, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya and representatives of the Northwest Territories Association of Communities.
A late connecting flight meant that Vandal was unable to meet with representatives of the City of Yellowknife as planned.
According to at least one source, Cochrane met with the minister and raised four priorities for the territorial government that included climate change, support for early childhood education, planning for the polytechnic university and housing – particularly in supporting the construction of new units in Northern communities and promoting the growth of trades.
As far as two major infrastructure projects in the Northwest Territories – the development of the Slave Geological Province corridor and the Taltson Hydroelectricity expansion- both were provided funding last year for early studies, consultation and engineering work for their feasibility. Because that work is still on-going and have not produced reports for the federal government, additional funding has not been requested.
Cochrane said there are priorities that the NWT is working on with the federal government, however she said those are yet to be solidified and are not yet public.
“The GNWT is working with the federal government and we have been talking with Minister Vandal for the needs in the NWT,” she said. “At this point, I can’t talk of the priorities being put forward because they have not been solidified yet.
“We spent a great deal of time reinforcing needs of the North.”
Vandal said in an interview this week that there is “a lot of work to do” when it comes to serving the North and meeting needs, noting infrastructure investment is hugely needed.
“Even our ride back from Behchoko, it was very bumpy and it is something we will need to look at. There are huge infrastructures challenges that have to be addressed.”
Vandal said among the common demands he heard over his two days in the NWT are the effects of climate change in the North, noting that increasing temperatures impact other areas of the Northern economy including infrastructure and transportation.
Vandal said that the Northern Affairs ministry, which is for the first time a standalone ministry, shows that the Government of Canada takes northern issues more seriously and is willing to look at them in a more “focused” way.
At the same time, the minister’s role is to collaborate with other ministries to solve problems most important in the North.
“Northern issues touch on many ministries and that is perhaps unique,” he said. “It is going to take a whole government approach to solve issues. It is not the case that one ministry will solve and make progress on things like transportation.”
When asked what he thinks it means to have a separate ministry for the first time, he said that the federal government’s focus on the North is a big part of it.
“It means that government has an acknowledgement for the North and its issues,” he said. “We’re willing to give it a full time minister and that shows a responsibility to go out there and really research what the issues are and give some added weight at the cabinet table.”
Michael McLeod, MP for the Northwest Territories has advocated since the October election for a Northern committee to be created within cabinet in order to gain more attention by the federal government for Northern issues. Specifically, he has said that he has wanted both a minister from the North as well as the cabinet committee that would include ministers of Northern Affairs (Vandal), Indigenous Services (Marc Miller), Crown-Indigenous Relations (Carolyn Bennett), and Intergovernmental Affairs (Chrystia Freeland).
Vandal said he was aware of McLeod’s advocacy and is considering it.
“He has mentioned that to me and I am heading off to a cabinet retreat (in Winnipeg) and I am giving serious consideration to advance that,” he said. “We need a whole government approach (to Northern issues) and whether a cabinet committee is the way to go to develop a close relationship with other ministries and cabinet and the prime minister is something we should think about.”
Vandal, who is the Member of Parliament for Winnipeg riding Saint Boniface-Saint Vital and a former Winnipeg city councillor, said based on his experience and the expertise among his staff, it shouldn’t matter that he is not a Northerner in the position of Northern Affairs.
“Not at all,” he said when asked if it should make a difference. “I have been an elected official for 20 years including at the municipal and at the federal level.
“I’m leading a process between citizens trying to serve and the government and several levels of government. I have all sorts of technical advice and a great team behind me and administration.
“My job is to lead the process and negotiate with other levels of governments and Indigenous governments and do what is best for citizens. I don’t have to be an expert (on different issues).”
McLeod said in a separate interview Thursday that Vandal’s trip was more of a “meet and greet” for the minister and that there were several issues discussed which ranged from telecommunications policy to band council funding, mental health and addictions, land claim and self-government negotiations, mining remediation, procurement and the fiscal situation of the GNWT.