Federal finance minister says N.W.T.'s isolation hubs are 'money well spent'

·3 min read

Federal finance minister Chrystia Freeland says the North is "uniquely vulnerable" to COVID-19 — but the Northwest Territories' response is "a real success story … so far."

Freeland made the comments Tuesday morning on The Trailbreaker, the territory's morning radio show, following a federal fiscal update that sets aside money not only to fight COVID-19, but for a post-pandemic future.

The federal government says $380 million will be going to a support fund for Indigenous communities, and $64.7 million will go to the three northern territories to help fight the coronavirus.

It's up to the territories to decide how to spend that money, but the territorial finance minister said much of it would go to the health sector, and to the enforcement arm of the COVID-19 secretariat.

"I am never going to presume to know conditions on the ground in the Northwest Territories better than you guys do yourself," said Freeland in Tuesday's interview.

Freeland did, however, note that the federal government has spent $30 million on hotel stays in the Northwest Territories where people arriving in the North are required to isolate, if they can't at home.

"Premier [Caroline] Cochrane specifically said it would be great if we could provide some extra support for your isolation hubs," she said. "In my view that is money well spent. I think those isolation hubs, while obviously causing a lot of difficulty in people's lives, are keeping people alive and healthy and safe."

Freeland spoke only hours before the territorial government announced that it was offloading the costs of most isolation stays to residents of the territory, at a cost of up to $4,000 a person.

Freeland's fiscal update projects a record-high deficit of more than $381 billion. It includes proposals to fund reconciliation efforts and boost funding for a plan to build high-speed internet in remote corners of the country.

The update also proposes $238.5 million over six years to buy body cameras for RCMP officers, a move that the document says will "effectively respond to concerns about policing from racialized and Indigenous communities" — even though a pilot project on the cameras in the community of Iqaluit only started this week.

The RCMP's own research on the efficacy of body cameras is ambiguous.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Territorial minister says tourism is hurting

The tourism sector in the North has been particularly hard-hit by the global pandemic, as international and even domestic travel to the North have slowed drastically.

When asked how she would support the North's travel and hospitality industries, Freeland pointed to federal funding available for all businesses, including rent support and an increase in the wage subsidy.

She also said that she expects tourism businesses will see a lot of "pent-up demand for travel" after the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.

"I think they're going to be a really important part of the Canadian economy coming roaring back," she said.

Shortly after Freeland's interview, territorial Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said she was "looking for something maybe a little more targeted to the tourism sector."

However, she said that it's now her government's job to look at the money the federal government is putting on the table, and find out how to make the territory a candidate for those dollars.

"It may not have the word tourism splashed across it," she said, "but maybe that does mean it's now up to us to make sure we access the money that is here to fill in the gaps we have locally."