Close Reading: McLeod’s Letter to the Leaders

In a democratic environment where people think that “share if you agree” is a useful political act, Premier Bob McLeod’s seven-question letter to the four main parties on NWT issues seems positively old school.

First of all, it’s a whole three pages long. Take a look at the main partieswebsites: giant fonts, short sentences, bullet points and design that looks like a Walmart flyer abound. Campaigns may or may not be the time to talk about policy, but they’re definitely the time when parties take nuance down to the basement and handcuff it to the radiator.

McLeod’s letter helpfully lays out the basic policy areas of the NWT’s current economic and demographic dark age. In short, he writes, our resources are trapped in the ground, our population is declining, the cost of living in general and electricity in particular are just about unbearable, housing is in short supply.

If we want to boil this letter down to the giant, colourful fonts of modern retail politics, the gist of the premier’s letter is this: give us more money.


Because the GNWT is caught here: if it wants to see new mines and oil wells open and stop the worrying pace of out-migration, it needs to spend money on infrastructure, electricity and housing. But the money for those improvements can come from only three possible sources: royalties and tax windfalls from new development (hampered by the infrastructure deficit), increased federal transfers, or a la carte federal funding for specific projects.

So while the details of how each of these problems need, to varying degrees, to be worked out, the bottom line for federal involvement in a post-devolution world where Ottawa no longer provides services directly, the real question is: Will you give us money for this? If yes, how much?

Oh, and climate change appears to be nearing catastrophic levels. Can you please fix this problem at no cost to us while also helping us sell our oil? Specifically, McLeod asks: “What steps would your government take to address climate change while at the same time avoiding increases in the already high cost of living for Northerners or creating unintended barriers to sustainable Northern economic development?” (Remember that in this context, “sustainable Northern economic development” is dog-whistle for oil and natural gas.)

The premier’s premise

I know that rejecting the premise of questions gets a bad rap these days, but the premise of this question by the premier is insane: McLeod appears to honestly believe that the NWT can somehow arrange things so that hauling millions upon millions of barrels of oil out of the Sahtu, as well as the stranded natural gas deposits of the Mackenzie Delta, will have no impact on the climate.

McLeod’s hope against reason here is utterly bizarre. His question to the federal party leaders includes a downright biblical list of climate change impacts that he acknowledges are happening now: thawing permafrost, shoreline erosion, forest fires, droughts, shorter ice road seasons.

Slice it a little finer, and what the premier is asking is for Canada to drastically slash its overall greenhouse gas emissions, while simultaneously allowing the NWT to dramatically increase its own emissions. Good luck getting the energy producing provinces onside with that.

Having said all that, I suspect the premier’s intent here is to do his civic duty, to elicit information that NWT voters can use to make their decision at the federal ballot box come October. It will be interesting to see whether and to what extent the party leaders bother to reply.

But for McLeod, who will soon be in the throes of his own campaign for MLA, and then, if that goes well, for a second term as premier, this letter may not be so helpful. His government has attempted to address most of the issues raised in this letter, so far without much success.

Perhaps there’s a case to be made that the government needs another five years to make true progress on the NWT’s economic woes. But slap a regular MLA’s address on the letterhead and the premier’s missive would read like a damning indictment of the McLeod government.

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