(Check Against Delivery)
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to welcome Members back to the Legislative Assembly for our spring sitting.
Our first months as an Assembly were spent working together to define our priorities and agree on a mandate for the government.
Our work was guided by a new process convention on priority setting that all Members agreed to.
New features of that process included the first ever public debate on priorities, in which all Members were able to speak publicly about what they wanted to see the Government of the Northwest Territories focusing on, informed by discussions with constituents during the election and our meetings with Aboriginal government leaders and women’s groups after the election.
Another new feature of the process was the development and approval of a detailed mandate for the Government of the Northwest Territories that also was debated here in public.
That mandate – the first one ever for the Government of the Northwest Territories – is our plan and our commitment to the people of the Northwest Territories that we will be held accountable for.
It is a foundational piece that will both guide our work and be the standard our achievements will be measured against, and it was strengthened by the participation and input of all Members.
We learned a few things together while working on that plan.
We learned that there are many issues and many opportunities facing the people of the Northwest Territories today.
We learned that there are many opinions and views about how the government should approach those issues and opportunities.
We learned that one of the hardest things we will have to do as an Assembly is choose among the many priorities and options in front of us.
Most importantly, we learned how to work together to serve and advance the best interests of the people we represent.
We will need to apply those lessons in the coming weeks as we review and debate the 2016-2017 budget.
The budget is where aspirations meet reality, where the Assembly weighs the relative merits of the many things government does and makes practical decisions about what we can do now and what we need to leave for later.
During this sitting we will have to decide what we can afford to spend and what we should spend it on.
We will have to consider the current fiscal situation and the future prospects for economic growth when our revenue sources are limited and our economy is still in poorer shape than it was before the 2008 global recession.
While this is serious, it is not cause for alarm. It is the kind of situation governments face all the time and simply requires us to make prudent, responsible decisions.
Like every government before us, we have to take a hard look at what we are spending to make sure our programs are aligned with the priorities we have agreed on, that they are as efficient as possible and that they are still needed.
This is not austerity, Mr. Speaker, this is simply what responsible governments do to make sure they can continue to afford the programs and services the public needs by trimming and redirecting spending to keep it in line with revenues.
Every family knows that buying their groceries on credit or borrowing to pay their bills is not sustainable. It is even worse when that family is trying to save up a little money for a down payment on a home.
The government is not planning to buy a home, at least not for itself, but we are investing in public housing, in schools, in health centres and long-term care facilities that support the programs and services residents depend on.
We are investing in more efficient and alternative energy infrastructure that will help lower the cost of living and in improved internet access, road, air, and marine transportation links to help connect communities.
Like everybody, the Government of the Northwest Territories wants to make sure it can afford the major purchases it needs by making sure that we spend less than what we bring in and that we are able to put some money aside for our future.
We need to make sure that our decisions are realistic and sustainable and that we have a plan for investing in the Northwest Territories and its people and delivering on our commitments for advancing the Assembly’s priorities.
Not only am I confident that we can bring forward that kind of plan, I am pleased to report that we are already making progress on commitments in each area of our mandate.
To advance our Economy, Environment and Climate Change commitments, we have already taken action to invest in the art and film sectors and are building partnerships to expand resources available for community-based traditional economy programs, including culturally-based tourism and the conservation economy.
As part of our commitment to improve coordination and effectiveness in resource management systems, the Government of the Northwest Territories will soon respond to the first Northwest Territories Environmental Audit completed since devolution, outlining publicly our plans for continuing to uphold our environmental responsibilities.
To advance Education, Training and Youth Development, we are supporting quality early childhood development by continuing to implement Right from the Start, including improving access to rehabilitation services and outcomes of early intervention services for children under five.
We are working with Aboriginal governments to develop an action plan to improve the inclusion of traditional knowledge and program development, implementation and decision making while continuing to implement the Traditional Knowledge Policy and Framework as part of our commitment to increase cultural programming and education, revitalize Aboriginal languages and promote use of official languages.
We support opportunities for youth through effective programming such as the Youth Corps, Youth Contributors, Youth Ambassador Programs, Youth Centres and Youth Tours.
To address Cost of Living, we are increasing the availability of safe, affordable housing by implementing community-based housing property management services in rural and remote communities and supporting land requirements for new housing investment.
We are encouraging residents, businesses, condominiums, cooperatives and communities to invest in energy efficient products, energy conservation and efficiency and renewable energies, and improving the energy efficiency of public housing.
Our efforts to promote federal investment in reducing the cost of living for Northerners showed early results when the Government of Canada announced in its recent budget that it would increase the Northern Residents’ Deduction by 33 percent, putting almost $7 million dollars back into the pockets of Northern tax payers.
We are continuing to leverage available funding for investments in housing, transportation and community public infrastructure through the programs identified in the federal budget for public transit, green infrastructure and social infrastructure including the almost $52 million for NWT communities through the newly-established Clean Water and Wastewater Fund. We are also working in collaboration with the federal government to fast-track the funding identified under the previous government’s infrastructure programs to help bolster our local economies.
To advance Community Wellness and Safety we are looking at innovative ways to address crime such as integrated case management, wellness courts, domestic violence treatment options courts and culturally appropriate correctional programs as part of our commitment to focus on mental health and addictions.
We are looking at policy and financial needs for long-term care and dementia beds, developing updated capital projections and building more seniors’ independent housing as part of our commitment to take action so seniors can age in place.
We are fostering healthy families by focusing on wellness, prevention and improved nutrition by continuing to implement the Building Stronger Families action plan to transform child and family services. We have introduced new risk assessment tools for workers and are ensuring services for children focus not just on safety, but also on stability and child development.
We are reducing the burden of chronic disease by promoting healthy eating through several programs, hosting healthy living fairs in communities and giving health care providers tools and training to support patients and families in the management of chronic disease.
Health system transformation is moving forward this summer, creating the integrated health system we need to ensure our people get the improved care they need.
We are supporting community wellness initiatives with early childhood development funding, continue to work with partners and stakeholders to reduce poverty and promote volunteerism to help strengthen the social fabric of our communities.
We continue to take action on family and community violence by funding shelters in five communities and developing protocols and response teams in other communities. We are supporting the RCMP and communities to develop policing action plans for each community and continue to participate in planning for a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women.
To advance our Governance commitments we are consulting with Aboriginal governments to complete the next phase of regulation making under the Wildlife Act, continue to support the Intergovernmental Council, and provide funding to Aboriginal governments and work with communities to develop wellness plans as part of our commitment to collaborate and foster government-to-government relationships.
We are implementing the new Financial Administration Act to improve government-wide planning and accountability and overall fiscal responsibility as part of our commitment to increase transparency and accountability and strengthen consensus government.
We are working with communities to monitor drinking water quality, continuing to pursue federal funding for community infrastructure, working with stakeholders to develop and propose amendments to the Civil Emergency Measures Act and working on a strategy to close the gap in funding levels to meet municipal core needs as part of our commitment to build stronger relationships with community governments and stakeholders.
These are just some of the commitments that the Government of the Northwest Territories is implementing or fulfilling.
Responsibility to oversee, coordinate, track and report our progress on each one of the 136 mandate commitments has been assigned to the seven Committees of Cabinet, which will ensure work continues to advance in all areas.
Other achievements during the past several months include meetings with Aboriginal leadership to discuss outstanding claims.
Resolving claims to create certainty around Aboriginal rights, land use and resources is critical for the future of our territory and a priority for me that I know Members share.
To take advantage of that interest, we have recently completed draft terms of reference for a joint Cabinet and Regular Member advisory committee on Aboriginal relations that I hope can be finalized and established shortly.
We have also been working on proposed new approaches for a number of negotiating tables in the hope that we can resolve outstanding issues that have slowed our progress. These will be announced once they have been discussed with our negotiating partners and shared with MLAs.
Our efforts to identify new approaches has benefitted from our discussions with the Government of Canada and the federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Engagement with Canada has been an important focus for us in the early days of this government; myself and all Ministers have been active participants in the renewed national discussions on matters of importance to the Northwest Territories, including climate change, Aboriginal relations, infrastructure investment, economic development and healthcare.
We continue to take steps to make the Northwest Territories a more attractive place to work and live as part of our efforts to grow the population. Minister McLeod will have more to say on this in his budget speech tomorrow.
As part of our efforts to make government more accessible to Northerners and improve openness and accountability Cabinet held open houses in Norman Wells and Inuvik last month. These events were an opportunity for people in these communities to meet all Ministers and tell us about their priorities, interests and concerns. We are currently identifying dates for additional open houses in Hay River, Fort Simpson and Yellowknife.
This is just the beginning of our work, Mr. Speaker. This Assembly, and the people of the Northwest Territories, expect to see sustained progress on the government’s commitments. We have worked with Members in Committee over the past weeks to develop and refine our plan for achieving that progress and I thank Members for their input and support. I look forward to our continued discussions over the next month as we debate and finalize the plan for the current fiscal year. I hope that we can continue to rely on their support as we work to advance our shared priorities and mandate.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.