Sessional Statement

Dec 7 2011

Mr. Speaker, I would like to welcome all Members back to the continuation of the first Session of the 17th Assembly. In this sitting, we will review the Capital Estimates for next fiscal year and began to debate some important issues.  I believe all Members of this House have a shared interest in creating an environmentally sustainable and prosperous territory for all the people we serve.  Despite some significant challenges, our Territory is strong, and we are even stronger when we work together. 

We are still a relatively new government, but we have taken our first steps toward a shared vision: a unified, sustainable and prosperous Northwest Territories.  In establishing the priorities of the 17th Assembly, all Members have recognized that it is best to take a common-sense approach to developing our plans for the territory.  This means we must continue to responsibly manage our existing programs and services to maximize positive benefits at the community level.  We must be responsible stewards of our environment, so our land and water can continue to sustain future generations.  We must seek ways to find the flexibility to pay for our plans, by pressing the federal government on our borrowing limit and looking for new revenues, such as the royalties that would flow following the signing of a devolution agreement.

These are challenging times, Mr. Speaker, for the government and the people we serve. The global economic crisis continues to have an impact on our economy, and the costs of living remains high.  This will place limits on what we can do, but we can weather this storm together.  In doing so, we must seek to understand the aspirations of our residents maintain an ongoing dialogue with our stakeholders and ensure that core programs and services are sustained.

Relationships will be key to our success as an Assembly.  Our territory is diverse, but we are united by common interests and a shared desire to overcome our challenges. The Government of the Northwest Territories represents all residents and is committed to strengthening the partnerships that are needed to benefit the entire territory.  We are renewing relationship with Aboriginal governments, communities and people across the Northwest Territories.

We are also looking forward to strengthening our relationship with the federal government.  Last month I spoke to Prime Minister Harper about Canada’s Northern Strategy and the federal vision for the North.  There is good alignment between the priorities of this Assembly and the goals and objectives of the Northern Strategy.  I was particularly encouraged to hear of Canada’s commitment to the principle of northern governments taking on greater authority for their affairs.  Devolution is an essential element in the political evolution of the Northwest Territories and a priority of this Assembly and for Canada.

This Assembly has also committed to an open and respectful dialogue with Aboriginal governments.  Without this dialogue and a shared commitment to the people we serve, the promise of our future may not be realized.  One of our first actions as Members of the 17th Legislative Assembly was to meet with regional Aboriginal leaders from across the Northwest Territories in Dettah.   We agreed that we need to find ways to work together on issues that concern all of us.  I have continued to meet with Chiefs and Leaders and have been given very positive signals that they are willing to work with the Government of the Northwest Territories.  I have also met with community leaders, representatives from the NGO sector and industry to hear their views on how we can better work together.

Mr. Speaker, the decisions we make together in this Assembly have direct and long-lasting effects on our people and our territory.  The choices we make determine what programs and services we provide to our residents, how much we invest in public infrastructure, how we protect our environment and how we grow our economy.  The people of the Northwest Territories rely on us to make the right choices on their behalf, choices that will help to build a unified, environmentally sustainable and prosperous Northwest Territories providing opportunities for all of us.

Creating the kind of future we want for our people is a long-term project, Mr. Speaker.  Many of the issues we face are the same ones that past governments faced:  the need for infrastructure investment, a strong economy, and employment opportunities for Northerners, a balanced approach to development, environmental stewardship, the need to address the cost of living in all communities; housing and, our most critical governance issue, devolution.  These are long-term challenges that require long-term plans.

Northerners are familiar with long-term challenges and because of that, we are a patient people.  We waited for six years for the Mackenzie Gas Project to work its way through the environmental and regulatory review process and it has now been approved by the federal government.  In those six years there were investments made by this government, businesses owners and individuals to prepare for the pipeline.  I believe those investments will see a significant return.  We are closer now than we have ever been to finalizing this basin opening project.  In its recent report on Canada’s Energy Future, the National Energy Board stated that by 2020 the price of natural gas will be high enough to make the project economically feasible.  With the cooperation of the proponents and the federal government we expect to see construction of the pipeline start in 2015.

Strengthening and diversifying our economy is a priority of this Assembly.  One of the ways that we can do that is by securing funding for strategic infrastructure investments, including:

  • Investments in the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway to help to support sustainable development in the region, including oil and gas, and mining projects and work towards completion of a Mackenzie Valley Highway.
  • P3 private sector investments for the Mackenzie Valley Fiber-optic link to improve communications infrastructure in communities along the route, support the operation of the Inuvik Satellite Station and position our communities to become players in the expanding international digital.
  • Investments in hydro initiatives to provide lower-cost, and environmentally friendly, power to our residents and our businesses, lowering the cost of living for our residents and making investment in the Northwest Territories more feasible and more attractive.

These infrastructure projects represent the economic future of this territory and are critical to achieving our vision, goals and priorities.  Without them we will continue to struggle.  But the limited fiscal flexibility we face will make it difficult for us to invest in projects like these that will create positive benefits for northerners.  We are working with the federal government to address our borrowing limit and to seek a devolution agreement that will bring much needed resources to the Northwest Territories and allow us the flexibility we need.

Mr. Speaker, investing in infrastructure that will help grow our economy is one of the ways that we can create jobs in our communities.  The Conference Board of Canada recently determined that employment in the Northwest Territories is expected to rise by 3.4 percent this year.  This is good news, however we will continue to work to increase employment opportunities where they are most needed.  At the same time, we need to make sure that our people have the personal resources to take advantage of new opportunities.  That means supporting them through education and training, including a review of the Student Financial Assistance Program, as well as helping them address issues like addictions and mental wellness.

Addressing housing needs is another priority of our government that links to our economic and social agendas.  We know that housing is a major determinant of health and that lack of housing makes economic development difficult, especially in our communities.  Completing and implementing the Shelter Policy Review will provide a long-term strategic framework for delivering housing in the Northwest Territories and give us a basis for undertaking specific actions on this priority, including actions to help public housing tenants deal with arrears.

Affording our plans will be a challenge.  Minister Miltenberger will be providing Members with a fiscal and economic update tomorrow and we know our fiscal situation will be tight.  This will limit our flexibility to make needed investments, negotiating four collective agreements  or deal with unknown or unexpected expenditures.  Our aim is to protect our existing programs and services, so we will have to find ways to increase our flexibility.  One thing we need to do is finalize our work with the federal government on our borrowing limit.  We will also have to work at the F/P/T table to successfully conclude negotiations on a renewed Health and Social Transfer agreement.

While our immediate fiscal situation is difficult, we will manage our way through the challenge.  With limited resources for new programs and services, we will have to make careful choices about how we spend our money.  Planning will be more important than ever and the Government of the Northwest Territories will be developing our approach that will help us address these issues.  Our decisions will be guided by the vision of this Assembly.  We have spent several weeks together as Members discussing the challenges and opportunities ahead of us. Those discussions will inform our plans and we will continue to seek your input as we move forward.

There are a few things we will need to keep in mind as we develop our approach:

  • Our decisions will need to be fair and balanced, taking the needs and interests of all our residents, communities and regions into account.
  • We will have to be strategic.  We cannot do everything all at once, so we will have to focus our attention on those areas where our efforts can create the greatest long-term benefits for our people.
  • Above all, we will have to be realistic, clearly understanding of the challenges and opportunities we face and what we can do about them in the context of our fiscal situation.

We are early in the mandate of this government and our plans are still in development, but there are already some areas that will demand our attention, including:

  • Concluding an agreement on devolution;
  • Working with the federal government to  increase our borrowing limit;
  • Forging strong working relationships with Aboriginal governments;
  • Working with our partners to protect our land and waters;
  • Developing a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable economic development and mining strategy;
  • Finding creative ways to address addictions, mental health and promote wellness;
  • Addressing housing needs through the Shelter Policy Review; and
  • Making strategic investments in our infrastructure.

Much of our work is interrelated.  Action on one priority will support action on other priorities.  We can not address social issues like poverty and dependence if we do not have a strong economy. We can not have a strong economy if we do not have healthy, educated people able to run businesses and fill jobs in our communities or houses for them to live in.  And we can not have healthy people if we do not have a healthy, sustainable environment.

Mr. Speaker, at the beginning of this Assembly I made a commitment to doing business differently.  As part of that I have reached out to Aboriginal and community leaders to hear their views.  I have taken the same approach to working with Members of this House.  All of Cabinet has made the commitment to work effectively with Members through respectful dialogue and an ongoing commitment to the people we all serve. I encourage all Members of this House to remain focused on our goal of a prosperous and sustainable future for our territory.

We know that we face some significant challenges.  But we also have some real opportunities to make a better and more prosperous territory for all our residents.  The vision, goals and priorities identified by this Legislative Assembly provide the basis for a balanced, realistic agenda that will help us achieve success on all fronts – social, economic, environmental.  I look forward to working with all Members over the next few months as we develop and review our plans to implement the direction we have set for ourselves.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.