Bob McLeod: Greater Vancouver Board of Trade - Keynote Speech

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Delivered on January 25, 2018

Good Morning and thank you for being here today to talk with me about the future of the Northwest Territories and why it matters to Canada.

The Northwest Territories has all the ingredients for strong economic growth, including abundant natural resources, and significant participation and support for economic development from Indigenous-owned businesses and governments.

The Northwest Territories is home to many of the minerals that will fuel the global green economy, including cobalt, gold, lithium, bismuth, and rare earth elements. The makers of batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, hand held electronics and computers rely on these minerals to make their products more efficient. 

Our territory is also blessed with an abundance of “old economy” resources that have yet to be fully developed.

That wealth, includes substantial oil and gas resources stretching from the Beaufort Sea in the north right down to the Cameron Hills in the southwestern Northwest Territories near our border with the Yukon and British Columbia.

We also have substantial reserves of lead, zinc, silver and copper and are the third biggest producer of diamonds by value in the world.

At the same time, the Northwest Territories is also a place where reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is already working.

While the rest of Canada wrestles with ways to ensure Indigenous people share meaningfully in the benefits of economic development, we are making it happen.

To give an example from just one sector, diamond mining created over 26,000 person-years of employment between 1996 and 2006. Half of those jobs went to Indigenous people. During the same period, diamond mines spent more than $13 billion on northern businesses, including $5.6 billion on businesses owned by Indigenous people.

One of the reasons that reconciliation works in the Northwest Territories and Indigenous people participate meaningfully in the economy, is our decades-long approach to partnership and shared decision making.

To put it simply, Indigenous people in the Northwest Territories benefit from economic development because they are decisions makers.

They are not a special interest or a stakeholder to be consulted and then forgotten or ignored.

They are governments in their own right and major owners of land and resources.

Indigenous people are also integrated into the broader territorial society. Except for two small reserves, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in our territory live and work in the same communities together, go to the same schools, visit the same hospitals and live side by side.

Indigenous people account for more than half of the Members of our Legislative Assembly, and five of the seven members of our Cabinet are Indigenous.

I am Metis and my predecessor as Premier was Inuvialuit. Since the position of Premier had its beginnings in 1983, only two non-Indigenous people have ever led the Government of the Northwest Territories. In comparison, nine Indigenous people, including Canada’s first Indigenous female Premier, Nellie Cournoyea, have led our Territory.

At the same time, there are seven regional Indigenous governments in the Northwest Territories, as well as community governments. Several of them have negotiated land claims or self-government agreements that give them substantial resources and a guaranteed role in decision making processes for the whole territory, including decisions on the management of public land and resource.

Last February, Prime Minister Trudeau and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami announced a government-to-government agreement to work together on shared priorities. That agreement was followed by similar announcements with the Metis National Council and the Assembly of First Nations.

Our government has long believed in maintaining government-to-government relations with Indigenous governments.

We have backed our commitment up with intergovernmental agreements of our own with eight Northwest Territories Indigenous governments. We signed our first MOUs over ten years ago; we’re glad to see Canada catching up to us.

As a Metis person and Premier of a territory where approximately half the population is Indigenous, I’m happy to see the new focus on Indigenous reconciliation and improved outcomes.

But I think there is something missing from the conversation.

While there is a great deal of focus on political self-determination, the topic of economic self-determination isn’t receiving much attention.

Full reconciliation can’t just be about political and legal authority, it also has to be about economic power.

It is one thing to have the right to make decisions for yourselves, but if you have to depend on another government to fund their implementation, you have only achieved partial self-determination.

That fact is part of what led me to issue a red alert on the future of the Northwest Territories last November.

Part of why reconciliation works in the Northwest Territories is because Indigenous decision making authority has been matched with access to economic resources. Those have come both through the negotiation and implementation of land, resources and self-government agreements and through Indigenous participation in the broader development of the Northwest Territories economy.

Right now, resource development is the engine of the Northwest Territories economy and a significant source of middle class jobs and business opportunities. In 2016, resource development accounted for $938 million of territorial GDP. That’s almost $1 billion dollars, making the resource development sector the single biggest sector of the Northwest Territories economy, followed by government administration at $593 million.

While the strength of the resource sector is positive news for the Northwest Territories, we know we can’t afford to take the health of our economy for granted.

The Northwest Territories does not exist in isolation. We have a small open economy that is subject to external pressures like the global financial crisis ten years ago and weak commodity prices. Between 2007 and 2016, the territorial economy declined from $4.5 billion to $3.7 billion.

A smaller economy means fewer jobs and lower incomes in virtually every sector, including mining and resource development.

A smaller economy also means fewer opportunities for Indigenous people and their governments and for their hopes of true self-determination.

Unfortunately, we continue to face a number of challenges that have to be addressed if we are going to be able to reverse the trend and start to grow the Northwest Territories economy.

One of these challenges is a continuing infrastructure deficit.

The Northwest Territories is a long way from markets and it is expensive to get our goods and resources to the people who want to buy it, limiting our ability to take full advantage of economic opportunities in our territory.

It is also important that Northerners have the ability to make their own decisions about how to manage and develop their land and resources.

The land is a source of great potential wealth, but we cannot benefit from it if federal decisions and policies prevent us from developing it.

That is why I took such exception to Canada’s unilateral decision to impose a moratorium on oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea a little more than a year ago.

I’m a realist, I understand that development is primarily a business decision and that low prices are disincentive to oil and gas development right now. Still, the decision to permanently take a significant economic opportunity for the Northwest Territories off the table with no discussion and no plan to replace its value for our people seems short-sighted at best, and certainly doesn’t take Northern needs,  priorities or self-determination into account.

That is one of the reasons I issued the red alert. We need to re-grow and diversify the territorial economy – especially in communities and regions – so more people can have good middle class jobs and incomes.

More importantly, we need to understand Canada’s intentions towards the North and what sectors they are willing to invest in and support.

Effective planning takes time and so it is imperative that developing a plan for our territory be a priority for Canada. That’s why I have called for a national discussion on how all Canadians can join with the territorial, provincial and federal governments to create a plan for developing the north through clear priorities and solid investments.

While other Arctic nations are proceeding with ambitious plans for social and economic development of their northern regions, there is no similar vision for Canada.

Canada should have its own plan, one that is developed by and for Northerners. The people who live in the North are the ones with the most to gain – or lose – under such a plan and our priorities and values have to be front and centre.

Why does this matter to you? It isn’t just Northerners who will benefit from the long-term development of the North, it is all of Canada. We are a small territory with a small population. Economic expansion in the Northwest Territories won’t just provide Northerners with jobs and business opportunities, it will provide them for Canadians from across the country.

A growing Northwest Territories will demand goods, services and materials from southern Canada as we build and invest in new infrastructure and businesses. It will also require labour from the south to supplement our own relatively small labour force.

It also matters because we have a successful model for Indigenous reconciliation that can serve as a guide for the rest of the country.

A strong, thriving economy is a crucial part of that model, and we have to make sure we continue to support it.

I would like to thank you again for joining me this morning and thank you to the Vancouver Board of Trade for arranging this. The topic ‘Northern Vision, National Opportunity: Planning for the sustainable development of Canada’s North’ is an important one and part of the larger national discussion that we must continue to have with each other.

I am confident that as Canadians make their voices heard, and meaningful discussions are started across our country, that together we can create a plan for a stronger, resource rich, sustainable north that all NWT residents and Canadians can be proud of. 

Thank you.