First Things First: Advice from the 17th Assembly to the 18th

On Monday, members-elect will share their priorities for the 18th Legislative Assembly. And then, two days later, they’ll select a premier and speaker. EDGE sat down with Wendy Bisaro, retired Frame Lake MLA and former chair of the Standing Committee on Priorities and Planning for the 17th Legislative Assembly, to talk about what pressing issues our new government will face.

We asked her to reflect on what will be a key document for the early days of the 18th assembly: the Report on Transition Matters, a set of recommendations from the Standing Committee on Priorities and Planning – created with input from the various committees of the 17th assembly – and approved by a committee of the 11 regular MLAs

Before diving into the report, Bisaro suggested the issue of midterm reports for members was likely to surface again under the new government – hopefully moving forward. Some kind of evaluation has been recommended since before the 16th assembly, she said, but held up by uncertainty about how exactly they would be done, and whether they would involve solely cabinet, just regular MLAs, or everyone.

It won’t necessarily be easy to do, Bisaro says. “When you’re in a group of 19 trying to decide something, it’s a lot of voices to try and sort of meld. It would be difficult to do evaluations with 19 people as your committee.” But it’s an important step, she thinks.

Managing the land

As has been widely reported, the picture isn’t a pretty one for resource revenues. Metal prices are down and mine closures, such as Snap Lake, mean that within the territory even less cash will be coming in, Bisaro says.

So, with powers over land, water and development devolved to the GNWT, getting a “made-in-the-North” regulatory system in place, as well as a tax and royalty regime to ensure adequate revenue in return for land used for development, is absolutely necessary.

Another major drag on the system: unsettled land claims, which keep Aboriginal governments who have not settled from taking part in the Intergovernmental Council that assesses issues such as tax regimes and revenues for development. This issue was something Bisaro says she heard raised at nearly every forum during the election.

“What I got from the Deh Cho forums is the Dehcho government hugely wants land claims settled,” she says.

“It’s an issue from an Aboriginal government perspective, an issue from a territorial government perspective, but also an issue from the perspective of mining and economic development, because we have two such large parcels of land not settled with the Dehcho and Akaitcho – it inhibits development.”

Decentralization in writing

In the government’s three-phase plan to decentralize jobs to communities around the territory, Bisaro says the committee found that the major issue was a lack of any formal report or hard copy version of the government’s plan. It ‘s recommended that the new assembly evaluate the implementation and request the written plan.

What’s the energy plan?

“The challenges of providing abundant, cheap, and clean energy to the people and businesses of the Northwest Territories are reflected in the fact that, after decades of study and debate, there is no comprehensive NWT energy plan,” the Transition report reads.

Following the 2014 Energy Charrette, the committee recommended an energy efficiency act be developed in the coming year; that has not yet happened.

“We need an energy efficiency act, but we also need an energy plan. We should have been acting on some of the stuff from the first charrette three years ago, but we’re spending money on low water,” says Bisaro.

“There’s the need to reduce the cost of living, and energy is a big factor in there, and we don’t seem to be doing anything about it.”

Speaking of cost of living

COL is an issue everyone is struggling to fix, Bisaro says.

Ensuring the implementation of the Action Plan to Reduce and Eliminate Poverty in the Northwest Territories and promoting small-scale food production in communities are listed as key parts of alleviating the high cost of northern living. Also, Bisaro says encouraging the territorial government to work with its counterpart in Ottawa on reshaping Nutrition North would be essential.

Growing the people

One way to fight our shrinking revenue streams is through contributions from the federal government as/if the territorial population increases.

“Far too little has been done to date. Growing the NWT – Supporting Population Growth of the Northwest Territories, tabled in June 2015, does not describe a strategy. It is largely a description of current activities, lacking focus and a plan of action,” the committee report firmly states.

Little success has been seen from the current population strategy, Bisaro says, and the future committee may consider reviewing these efforts. Says the report, it’s an issue that needs to be “remedied as quickly as possible.”

The cost of the climate

The cost of climate change and the resulting forest fires, low water levels and other factors are estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the committee stated, suggesting a need for proper planning for such impacts.

“The government talks about it, but there is a lack of adequate action,” Bisaro says.

Tracking the money

Bisaro says financial reporting for public accounts needs review.

“From a financial perspective, we felt strongly that there needed to be better accountability for boards and agencies,” she says. In particular, details on operations and how money will be spent could be better outlined in business plans.

The committee points to financial reporting from Aurora College and education authorities — which make up $187 million of the Department of Education, Culture and Employment’s budget — as being of particular concern.

“We give a lot of money to boards and agencies, and I think the bottom-line concern from committee is that we don’t really know how they’re spending it,” Bisaro says. “And we should.”

Funding heritage

Areas not dealt with regarding the NWT Heritage Fund include setting a minimum 25 percent per year contribution to the fund.

“The legislation doesn’t talk about how much money goes into the fund. That’s determined on an annual basis,” Bisaro said.

“A perfect example is now we’re in an economic downturn, you could see the finance department saying we’re not putting 25 percent in, it should do 10 percent.”

As well, establishing arms-length management of the fund and independent oversight of that management is recommended.

The F word

Despite there currently not being any hydraulic fracturing taking place in the territory, Bisaro says the committee’s main concern is that meaningful consultation on the issue take place, followed by official regulations.

While the proposed regulations were brought through the communities and presented to the public, Bisaro says it was a one-way conversation, not receptive to the opinions of residents.

“Everybody, in every meeting, was saying this isn’t consultation,” she says.

“Whether you support fracking or not, we still have to have that conversation about the impact, and the regulations will determine how we do it.”

On a personal note, Bisaro says her biggest hope for the 18th assembly is to see greater focus put on education.

“You educate people, and that’s the key to helping them.”

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