MLAs approve N.W.T. budget, adding millions in new spending

·3 min read
A view of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. MLAs approved more than $2 billion in spending Wednesday, but not without extracting commitments from the finance minister for more spending on social services. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A view of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. MLAs approved more than $2 billion in spending Wednesday, but not without extracting commitments from the finance minister for more spending on social services. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The N.W.T.'s finance minister called the territory's fiscal state "unsustainable" when tabling her budget last month — but when it came time to approve the spending, MLAs added more than $4 million in supplementary spending commitments.

MLAs announced the passage of the territory's 2021 budget Wednesday after a month-long department-by-department review of the $2 billion in spending it outlines.

In those discussions, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek, who called for "aggressive" government spending reviews when tabling the budget on Feb. 4, agreed to $4.28 million in supplementary spending.

Calling the agreement "the true spirit of consensus government," Wawzonek said in a statement that discussions with MLAs "identified additional areas where we needed to do more for the good of the people of the N.W.T."

"The work we've done over the past several weeks is a credit to every Member of the 19th Legislative Assembly," she is quoted as saying.

Most of the new spending is aimed at addressing longstanding demands for increased funding to social services that saw little attention in the budget.

The spending commitment includes an additional $1.4 million for addictions treatment and after-care in the territory, and $935,000 for "anti-poverty efforts," including $75,000 earmarked for the Hay River shelter.

Another roughly $1.4 million is allocated for health care, with $600,000 going to implementing the second phase of the N.W.T.'s new midwifery program, and $743,000 suggested to fund four new positions "to pilot a new approach to supporting Indigenous patients."

Wawzonek agreed to half a million more for the territory's Childcare Infrastructure Fund, and an increase of $100,000 to the troubled department of Child and Family Services' budget.

Wawzonek looks at her notes during a briefing with reporters prior to the tabling of the 2021 N.W.T. budget. Wawzonek has said the territory's difficult financial situation need not mean cuts to government spending.
Wawzonek looks at her notes during a briefing with reporters prior to the tabling of the 2021 N.W.T. budget. Wawzonek has said the territory's difficult financial situation need not mean cuts to government spending.(Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Wawzonek also appeared to respond to concerns that little money was allocated for economic recovery in the tourism sector, agreeing to allocate $350,000 over two years to creating seven new government "tourism coordinator" positions, and another $180,000 "to address the tourism priorities of Fort Smith."

The agreement with MLAs also includes a commitment to review departmental travel budgets to try to find $4.03 million in savings, "so these commitments can be funded without significantly growing expenses."

Other commitments include continued funding for caribou recovery plans, a report on the territory's affirmative action policies, and an examination of "the effectiveness of specific program delivery by the N.W.T. Housing Corporation."

Historic gov't expansion

Wawzonek also committed to continuing funding for government positions in Tukotyaktuk and Hay River.

The spending will be formally approved as part of a supplementary appropriations bill in the June sitting of the legislature.

The budget approved Wednesday anticipates plummeting tax and resource revenues and an increase to the territory's short-term debt of more than 27 per cent.

Despite the dire outlook, the budget also enables a historic expansion of government, with the creation of 280 new staff and $117 million in new spending.