MLAs oppose funding for N.W.T. COVID-19 secretariat

·3 min read

During a long debate over funding for a COVID-19 secretariat, some Northwest Territories MLAs said the money would be better spent addressing problems that have plagued the territory for generations.

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty says he wants to delete the territorial government's share of funding for the secretariat this year.

"This is a whopping millions of dollars, we can't approve it just like that," Lafferty said.

"As soon as we walk out of here, we see people begging for homes, begging for food, and here we're going to pass [millions] like it's nothing."

The comments came during a committee of the whole meeting in the legislature Tuesday evening where ministers were asked to consider adding $88.7 million to the territory's 2020-21 operating budget.

Of that, $79 million would be slated to go toward the government's health and economic response to the pandemic, including $31.7 million for the proposed COVID-19 secretariat and $29.1 million for a safe restart agreement. The funds would also go toward PPE, vulnerable populations and as support to the communities.

The proposed secretariat is a 150-person, temporary department dedicated to the government's COVID-19 response.

Lafferty made a motion to delete the funding for the secretariat. He pointed out that nobody in the territory has died from COVID-19, while many die each month as a result of suicide and addiction.

The federal government is contributing $23.4 million toward the secretariat this year. Premier Caroline Cochrane said Ottawa has indicated it may be willing to contribute even more.

Lafferty asked for the support from Indigenous leaders and mayors throughout the territory in writing.

Cochrane says the territory has reached out to local governments, though she added they have not yet met with the Tłı̨chǫ government.

While Lafferty says he supports the coordination of COVID-19 messaging in the territory, he called the proposed secretariat another form of bureaucracy.

Steve Norn, the MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, also says he is against the secretariat and that in his riding the general consensus is not in favour.

Sara Minogue/CBC
Sara Minogue/CBC

"You try to make the best decision possible, you look at all the stats, you try to look at all the benefits," he said. "The rationale behind this … this is a mistake," Norn said. "I honestly think there's a better way through, this isn't it."

Norn called it "frustrating" and says while he gets "the position the premier's in," he thinks the non-response from some of the Indigenous leaders in the territory is a "clear signal."

Both MLAs' sentiments match the cold reception the proposal received in September when it was introduced.

In a letter sent in September addressed to the premier, the N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce questioned why the territory was not directing that money toward beefing up the health-care system.

Other MLAs show support for secretariat

In a previous meeting, Cochrane said the new secretariat will "enhance" the government's response by creating a "single agency" to manage work between departments, and centralizing government communications on the pandemic.

She also said at the time that the current approach to the territory's COVID-19 response is unsustainable.

Yellowknife MLA Kevin O'Reilly was one of the MLAs who voted down Lafferty's motion to end the funding.

"You know, at the end of the day how much is public health worth … I'm sorry, but I'm willing to invest that in the health and safety of our residents," he said.

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos also said she would be supporting the secretariat and the supplementary funds "in full." She says the leaders in her community, including the mayor of Fort Smith, along with the chief of the Salt River First Nation and the Fort Smith Metis Nation all support the secretariat.