(Check Against Delivery)
Mr. Speaker, I would like to welcome all Members back to the second session of the 18th Legislative Assembly. During this session, we will continue our work together to advance the priorities of the Assembly and the Mandate commitments of the Government of the Northwest Territories.
One of the priorities of the Assembly is to improve accountability, transparency and collaboration. The GNWT made several commitments in its Mandate in relation to this priority, including a commitment to improve public visibility and accessibility of Cabinet by organizing Cabinet meetings in each region of the NWT.
Over the past several months, we have made good on this commitment by holding public open houses with all Ministers in four communities: Inuvik, Norman Wells, Hay River and Fort Simpson. We are planning a fifth open house here in Yellowknife next Tuesday evening in the Great Hall of the Legislative Assembly.
The open houses have been very informal, Mr. Speaker, but that has been the point. Our intention was to hear from members of the public about the issues and concerns that they had. We did not want to go in with an agenda of our own or any government initiative to promote or sell. We simply wanted to hear from NWT residents directly.
The meetings have been well received by NWT residents, Mr. Speaker. We have been warmly welcomed in each community and the events have been generally well attended. We have heard that people appreciate the time we have taken and the respect we have demonstrated by going to them and their communities, not expecting them to come to us.
Based on this reception, we are now looking at scheduling additional open houses in each region. Our focus this time will be on some of the smaller communities and some of the constituencies we have not already been to. Our hope is that by this time next year, we will be able to report that Cabinet has visited every constituency in the NWT as a group at least once.
During our trip to Hay River, Mr. Speaker, we also held the inaugural meeting of a Committee of Cabinet in public. Holding selected Committee of Cabinet meetings in public was another one of our Mandate commitments that is meant to shed more light on how government does business.
Our first meeting, a meeting of the Economy and Environment Committee of Cabinet chaired by Minister Schumann, included an opportunity for each member to provide an update on the mandate commitments they are responsible for. Members also received a presentation from an outside party on new airship technology and its potential application for transportation in remote areas with limited infrastructure.
In some ways, Mr. Speaker, we are breaking new ground for the government. I do not recall any time in the past when the entire Cabinet has made it a point to visit and meet with residents in each region. Nor do I recall any previous examples of Cabinet inviting the public to attend any of its committee meetings.
Breaking trail can be slow going, and doesn’t happen without some course corrections along the way. That is particularly the case when you are trying to change processes and practices that have built up over decades. But we are committed to improving the level of public engagement and transparency in the GNWT, and we will continue to develop and refine our processes as we go forward. These efforts complement the many things we already do to support government accountability and transparency.
Most important among these is the ongoing interaction between Regular Members of the Legislative Assembly and Ministers here in this House. Each day during Session, Ministers are asked to account publicly to Members for their policy decisions and the administration of their departments. In Committee of the Whole and Standing Committee meetings and briefings, Regular Members have the opportunity to dig more deeply into proposed GNWT initiatives and decisions and have their questions answered by both Ministers and senior public servants.
A range of public reports and other information is regularly tabled in the Assembly, where any Member can bring it forward for additional discussion or ask Ministers questions about it. These are very immediate and ongoing ways that Regular Members have for holding the government accountable by raising issues or concerns with Ministers in a public forum at almost any time.
Even when the Assembly is not sitting, Ministers continue to provide information and briefings to Standing Committees, answering their questions and seeking input on proposed legislation, policies, decisions and initiatives. Of course, we can always make improvements to the system and the way we work together on behalf of the people of the Northwest Territories. One way we will do this is through the creation of a new Joint Advisory Committee on Aboriginal Rights.
Establishing a joint committee between Cabinet Ministers and Regular Members to share information and discuss approaches on the advancement of land, resources and self-government agreements was one of the GNWT’s Mandate commitments. I am happy to report that terms of reference for this Committee have been finalized and it will hold its first meeting shortly.
Finalizing outstanding claims and bringing increased certainty to land and resource management in the Northwest Territories is one of the most important challenges the 18th Legislative Assembly faces. Decisions about how the land and resources of the Northwest Territories are used and managed are central to the health of our people, our economy and our environment. Resolving Aboriginal claims will be an essential step towards determining what land is available and how it can be used for economic development, for conservation, for recreation and for traditional activities.
Establishing the Special Joint Committee is one approach we are taking to reach that goal. Another approach was the appointment last summer of Ministerial Special Representatives for the Dehcho and for the South Slave by the GNWT and the Government of Canada. The Ministerial Special Representatives have been tasked by myself and Indigenous Affairs, Minister Bennett, to talk to all of the parties involved in negotiations in these two areas and report back on any issues or roadblocks that continue to stand in the way of settling claims in these regions. Through this process, we hope we can move past the current impasse and identify a practical path for moving forward that will work for all the parties involved.
Establishing clear GNWT priorities and policies for land use, development and conservation is another critical step in creating certainty for all land users in the NWT. The GNWT continues to work towards this goal, based on the Northern principles and priorities outlined in the Land Use and Sustainability Framework. Some of that work includes the recent release of Healthy Lands, Healthy People by the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources earlier this month. Healthy Lands, Healthy People outlines key tasks the GNWT will undertake over the next five years to pursue a comprehensive and collaborative approach to conservation network planning. Clear outcomes for that work include completing planning and decision-making for existing candidate areas, a GNWT Mandate commitment, and developing a renewed strategy for NWT conservation network planning.
Work undertaken in recent months to finalize consultation boundaries for the proposed Thaidene Nene Park is another example of the GNWT pursuing certainty with respect to land use while balancing the interests of the Aboriginal people of the region, recreational users, industry and environmentalists.
The draft Recreational Land Management Framework released this month by the Minister of Lands is another example of how the GNWT is looking to create certainty with respect to land use and management in the Northwest Territories. The draft framework outlines the GNWT’s approach for reviewing and updating its management of cabin leases and recreational uses of public land across the Northwest Territories. Informed by extensive public engagement, finalizing the framework will allow the GNWT to improve coordination and effectiveness in resource management systems, recognizing traditional knowledge, land claim agreements and devolution.
In addition to creating the kind of certainty around land use necessary to support responsible economic development in the Northwest Territories, the GNWT is also committed to investing in the infrastructure necessary to support a strong, prosperous territory in partnership with the Government of Canada. This past July, the Minister of Transportation announced with federal Infrastructure Minister Sohi an investment of almost $81 million in territorial transportation infrastructure. The 13 projects being funded include the rehabilitation of nine bridges, three access roads and the construction of a four-bay highway maintenance facility in James Creek.
Improving the transportation system has a long-term impact on economic growth in NWT. Ongoing investments in transportation infrastructure can contribute to improving the quality of life of communities by ensuring people have diverse employment, economic and social opportunities. The NWT also has enormous potential for non-renewable resource development, ensuring effective access to areas of high mineral potential, reducing exploration and development costs for industry, and leading to economic growth. The Government of the Northwest Territories will continue to pursue partnership opportunities with the federal government to support other infrastructure projects, such as the Mackenzie Valley Highway, the Tłı̨chǫ All-Season Road and improved access into the Slave Geological Province.
We will also continue to explore opportunities for partnering with Canada on energy infrastructure projects that could both reduce the cost of living for Northwest Territories residents and help contribute to national and territorial greenhouse gas emissions targets.
Our partnership with Canada includes working together on ways to implement the recently announced carbon price that will not increase the cost of living for NWT residents, while ensuring we are doing our part to address climate change. We have always recognized that putting a price on carbon is an important tool for encouraging people to reduce consumption of greenhouse gas producing forms of energy. At the same time, we have always said it is important that national approaches take the realities of northern living into account and the lack of economically viable alternatives in many of our most remote communities.
In that regard, I am pleased to report that federal Environment and Climate Change Minister McKenna recently committed to sending a technical team to the Northwest Territories to study this issue and better understand how our governments can work together to address climate change, while ensuring unintended consequences for Northerners and the NWT economy are avoided.
Mr. Speaker, during this Session, Members will be asked to consider the 2017-2018 Capital Estimates. Supporting NWT residents by lowering the cost of living and growing the economy so people have the income and resources they need to look after themselves and their families continues to be an important priority for this government. One of the ways we can do this is through investments in public infrastructure.
As already noted; investments in transportation infrastructure can pay off by supporting long-term economic growth and improved quality of life, including reduced cost of living. Investing in housing in our communities is another way the GNWT can directly affect the high cost of living. In addition, infrastructure projects are themselves an important source of jobs and income for many Northerners who are looking for work in or near their communities.
As always, Mr. Speaker, the GNWT must continue to manage the public's money prudently and responsibly. Over the summer, Moody's Investor Services gave our Government its tenth straight debt rating of Aa1. This is the second highest rating Moody's offers, and is based on our continuing adherence to the Fiscal Responsibility Policy and high standards of fiscal management. The high rating reduces the government's borrowing costs and has direct implications for the GNWT's ability to invest in infrastructure projects. Ensuring we live within our means and do not spend more money than we bring in will continue to be important for the territory's financial health and our debt rating.
I look forward to hearing from Members during this Session on the GNWT’s proposed Capital Estimates and on ways we can continue to work together on behalf of the people of the Northwest Territories.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.