Members of the local Liberal Party were in a celebratory mood Tuesday night as Michael McLeod, Member of Parliament for the NWT hosted Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Carolyn Bennett for a post-budget get-together.
The two politicians attended a small gathering hosted by the Northwest Territories Federal Liberal Riding Association at Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀ to mingle with about 20 local members.
McLeod and Bennett, whose role oversees Northern Affairs, met with a series of community leaders and organizations during the day before the minister was to fly out early Wednesday. The day was mainly to promote aspects of the federal budget which was announced to the country on March 19. Last week’s budget will be the final one before the federal election on Oct. 21.
The two visited Dettah and attended the Arctic Wellness Foundation and met with representatives of the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning. Dechinta received $13 million over five years for on-the-land programming that will assist students studying and provide for Elder employment, among other goals.
McLeod and Bennett said in an interview that both see the budget as being successful for the North, especially for Indigenous people.
“There are a number of things that were pretty exciting for the communities,” said Bennett. “The communities in the NWT have been some of the real pioneers on land-claims and self-government and self-determination agreements.”
In particular, Bennett said the federal government’s announcement of loan forgiveness and repaying communities who have paid off loans for treaty negotiations as well as new, direct funding formulas for self-governing/self-determining/ modern treaty-holding Indigenous nations were the main highlights.
“If you’re going to work nation to nation and government to government, then the fiscal relationship which now (is) determined collaboratively will actually fund what it will take to run their own laws and to look after their own people,” said Bennett.
McLeod said the budget was a positive one for people in the NWT.
“This was a very good budget for us in the North,” he said. “We had a section dedicated to us and we haven’t seen that in the past.
“We have been getting very good responses from people across the North.”
McLeod in particular pointed to “groundwork … being laid” on “big ticket items” due to funding including money for an environmental assessment for the whole Mackenzie Valley Highway, which is expected to be done in a year, funding for the road to Whati that is set to begin construction this fall, engineering and planning money for the Slave Geological Province Corridor and funding support for the GNWT’s plans with the Taltson Hydroelectricity expansion project.
Local Liberals react
Much of the event was shrouded by the SNC-Lavalin scandal involving Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation as Attorney General and Justice minister. In February, Wilson-Raybould testified before a House Commons justice committee that she was pressured by the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in a fraud and bribery case. The resignation was followed not long after by Jane Philpott who quit her position as Treasury Board Secretary in support of Wilson-Raybould.
Local member Terry Testart said the controversy was raised during the evening, but that most support the party and the government.
“There were comments about the ongoing SNC Lavalin case and I think people were 100 per cent in solidarity behind the prime minister,” said Testart.
Testart said as a Liberal he isn’t comfortable going into the federal election with the scandal ongoing.
“I believe the Liberals are doing the right thing and I believe in the PM,” he said.
“I don’t understand the end game of the two Liberal members (Wilson-Raybould and Philpott) speaking out. I’m not even sure what they are speaking out about.
“As long as a party isn’t breaking the law or doing (anything) unethical. I haven’t seen that in any analyses.”
Caroline Wawzonek, party member and local lawyer said there was “chatter” about the issue but added that it is healthy that the the political role of Attorney General and Justice Minister is being reviewed, including critically.
“It has come up in circles that I’m in from the perspective that it is nice that a lawyer stands up and tries to maintain her integrity,” Wawzonek said of Wilson-Raybould. “That is a positive for the profession. But there people are also saying that being a politician comes with different obligations and it is a complicated role. That is what comes out for me.
“For me, what is coming out a lot of this is the (Attorney General and Justice minister role) is a complicated role we need to take a careful look at in terms of getting it to be the most effective.”
Wawzonek said she felt the budget is positive and she feels good as a Liberal leading into the election.
“I was pleased as a northerner that Dechinta will be getting steady funding and that Talston got a bit of attention, even if not a lot in terms of a dollar value. While Mackenzie Valley Highway didn’t get earmarked, there is a lot of attention for infrastructure generally.”
David Monroe, vice-chair of the riding association, said it is always a positive when a federal minister like Bennett is personally in touch with people on issues. He feels good going into the next election with investments in the Canada Skills program for the northern work force, infrastructure projects, and various reconciliation efforts.
For the SNC-Lavalin case, he said it amounts to politicians being political.
“We’re in the North, so it feels a world away and not,” he said of the issue. “It concerns folks within the party. From a personal perspective, I see it as politicians being political.”