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NWT to get at least $32 million in federal Covid-19 assistance

1701danvandal41.jpg Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo Dan Vandal, northern affairs minister, centre ....... from left are Matthew Spence, regional director general with Crown-., ........ Vandal, Norman Yakeleya, Phil Moon Son, NWT Michael McLeod, and ......

Close to $32 million in federal funding is on its way to the NWT for health and economic supports during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The funds are part of a $130-million contribution to the three territories, according to a news release from the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday morning. 

"These supports will ensure that northern residents have the supports they need to prepare for and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic," says Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal.
NNSL file photo

The share earmarked specifically for the NWT breaks down to $23.4 million for health and social services preparations and response, and up to $8.7 million for air carriers to aid remote communities. 

“We must all work together to take care of Canadians during this challenging time," Transport Canada Minister Marc Garneau said in a press release. "Our Northern and remote communities rely on air service to bring them food, medical supplies, mail, and other essential goods and services. Our government remains committed to maintaining a focused, safe, and reliable air transport network for these communities.”

In addition, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor) will provide $15 million in support for Northern businesses. 

Another $25 million will be given to Nutrition North Canada to boost subsidies so families in the territories can afford nutritious food and personal hygiene products. 

In a statement following the news release, Dan Vandal, minister of Northern Affairs, said the funding to Nutrition North will help take financial pressures off families and they "should not be worried about how to pay for nutritious food or essential household supplies."

“No Canadian should ever have to worry about where to get their food or how to receive essential health care services," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "That is why we are working with the territories and Indigenous partners to address the unique needs of Northern communities as they respond to Covid-19. Together, we will make sure that Northerners can access the food, supplies, health care, and services they need during this challenging time." 

Support for business

While details of the $15 million allocated for CanNor were not yet available, local businesses are receptive to Covid-related assistance.

Tim Syer, president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said the CanNor funding is a "good start" but he wants to see how it will be allocated to the territories.

"Fifteen-million is not a lot between three territories and it will go pretty quickly. I'm looking at this as a good 'phase one.' At the same time, I'm very interested in the details of a 'phase two.' (The funding) won't be enough to see businesses through this," Syer said. 

The Yellowknife Chamber's Business Resilience Working Group (BRWG) last week issued a list of 14 recommendations for helping out enterprises negatively affected by the pandemic.

One of the recommendations calls for a top-up to the federal wage subsidy program to reflect "the higher costs of doing business and costs of living that Northerners face," the BRWG said.

Many businesses support the subsidy but some have said its details remain vague and that it isn't a cure-all after business activity plummeted since March.

“The wage subsidy helps for sure, but if we make little money and we pay for the rent we can't even pay the 25 per cent for the wages," Rami Kassem, co-owner of Javaroma cafe, told NNSL Media. "So, we still keep laying off people. If they find a solution with the federal government and help out small businesses, that would be a big relief.”

A lift for airlines

The $8.7 million announced for NWT airlines -- coupled with up to $5 million for carriers in Nunavut -- comes just a week after NWT and Nunavut leaders decried the fall in revenue and passenger numbers among Northern carriers because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green tabled a motion in the legislative assembly on March 27 that sought to come up with a solution for airlines so they can continue supplying communities.

Green said the costs of propping up struggling airlines would be higher than what the GNWT can afford.

“If you multiply that by all the regional airlines – North-Wright, Northwestern, Aklak – suddenly, you’ve got a big, fat problem. (Canada has) the deep pockets and the territorial government doesn’t.”

Trevor Wever, vice-president of business services with Air Tindi, said the airline supported the motion and was prepared to join more discussions on the issue.

The economic downturn spurred Air Tindi to lay off 35 per cent of its staff, reduce its fleet by 40 per cent and cut its flight schedule by more than half, Air Tindi president Chris Reynolds said in a statement on March 20.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed urged that flights to fly-in communities be deemed essential services and Premier Caroline Cochrane told NNSL Media that she had asked Trudeau for relief for small regional airlines.

However, the NWT Chamber of Commerce is critical of the funding. 

While executive director Renée Comeau said in an email to NNSL that the Chamber appreciates the federal government’s efforts to help out the North, $8.7 million “will not help” and “will only assist maybe one airline.” 

“All of our locally owned and operated airlines need a focus on recovery/economic stimulus of at least $15 million for the NWT,” she said. 

“We need the federal government to realize that SME businesses in the NWT need better support, with the cost of doing business in the north, a majority of our businesses are operating with such thin margins that even a 10 per cent decrease of revenue is crossing a line to having to close doors, a reduction of 30 per cent means that chances are the business has already closed and any form of relief is of no assistance.”