Next week, Governor General Julie Payette will take to the throne in Canada’s Senate chamber to deliver the Liberal government’s blueprint for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Already, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers are building expectations for new investment in green infrastructure, measures to address systemic racism, and reforms to employment insurance that could inch toward a universal basic income.
But across the North, many advocates are hoping the speech’s ambitious vision does not look past long-standing issues they say must be addressed as part of any economic recovery.
“We want the prime minister … during the Throne Speech, to acknowledge that there needs to be more,” said Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada.
“Northerners are different from anybody else in Canada,” she said. “I’m hoping they’ll have a better understanding of our needs up here.”
Renewed action on MMIWG
Many of the issues raised by northern leaders are not new — like putting an end to violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Kudloo said she was “disappointed” to learn the pandemic delayed federal action on the findings of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, now more than a year old.
“The families went through a lot during the inquiry, and they are waiting another year now to see if anything is going to be happening,” she said.
As Liberals hint at historic measures to tackle systemic racism in next week’s speech, Kudloo also pointed to recently publicized “horror stories” of women’s arrests in Nunavut — including allegations of degrading strip searches and excessive violence that had northern leaders calling for a review of policing in the territory.
Kudloo said federal investments in expanding cultural training and providing access to Inuit interpreters would go some way to improving those encounters.
Kudloo’s organization is also pushing for $20 million in federal money to construct five new Inuit women’s shelters that could save lives in winter.
“We deal with very extreme cold weather,” she said. “If a woman has to try and get away, it’s going [out into] 30, 40 below outside, along with the children.”
She described the shortage of shelter space, along with slow police response times and a lack of Inuktitut services, as chronic, underfunded issues that put vulnerable women at greater risk and enable family violence.
Reinvestment in housing
It’s not just shelter space that’s in short supply in Nunavut. Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the Nunavut land claim group, said she’s hoping to hear real investments in new housing for Inuit.
That was echoed by Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya in the N.W.T., and by Charlotte Hrenchuk, co-chair of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition. They both said the throne speech should contain new commitments to building affordable housing.
“Housing is such a determinant of the quality of people’s life out here,” she said. “If you don’t have a place to live you can’t be safe from COVID[-19]. You can’t be safe from anything.”
Hrenchuk said the pandemic has also “shined a spotlight on food security,” with a “new demographic” of working poor, now unemployed, showing up at food banks.
“All the agencies that are providing food to people who are food insecure are just tapped out beyond belief,” she said.
A basic annual income, which some see as an end goal for employment insurance reform, would “solve a lot of those things,” she said.
Basic income — and basic amenities
Donovan Erutse agrees. He’s an organizer with Our Time Yellowknife, a youth-led climate and social justice advocacy group that is calling for the throne speech to launch major reforms.
“The pandemic has had the biggest impact for those most vulnerable in our society,” he said. “But the pandemic has also shown that the government can act quickly when they take a crisis seriously.”
Erutse’s organization has signed on to letters to territorial and federal politicians demanding that pandemic recovery be used to reduce inequality and respond to climate change.
“For the throne speech, that means investing in people and not corporations, upholding Indigenous rights and sovereignty, and treating the climate crisis like the emergency it really is,” he said.
Our Time Yellowknife is pushing for universal sick leave, better addictions treatment, and a liveable minimum wage — assessed at nearly double the existing amount in the N.W.T.
They’re also calling for universal internet access, which Erutse said has only become more important as the pandemic has forced health services and education online.
Most importantly, they’re demanding investment in a “green new deal” — large scale investment in environmentally-friendly infrastructure and technology to meet Canada’s climate targets.
New incentives for ‘strategic’ mining
Powering much of that technology are batteries built from minerals found right in the North — but according to Tom Hoefer, executive director of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, there’s not a lot of incentive right now to get them out of the ground.
Hoefer said there should be special incentives for undertaking this kind of “strategic” mineral exploration in the North, which can be “up to six times” more expensive than in the South.
As demand for the North’s resources increases, so will the demand for energy and labour, said Albert Drapeau, the executive director of the Yukon First Nations Chamber of Commerce.
That means investment in training programs for Indigenous communities and older employees laid off during the pandemic — and, of course, housing, which is in short supply.
Encouraging immigration — and clearing the backlog
To fulfil its labour needs, the North has historically relied on foreign workers and new Canadians. But the pandemic has cut off that vital influx.
“Something that would take two months now will take six to eight months,” said François Afane, director of the Conseil de développement économique des Territoires du Nord-Ouest (CDETNO), which assists immigrants to the N.W.T.
“People are left in … limbo.”
Many of Yellowknife’s basic services are powered by temporary foreign workers and other new residents, said Malini Sengupta, an immigration consultant with CDETNO.
“When you talk about immigration, people tend to think that we are talking about people who are outside of Canada coming in,” she said. “What we are talking about is … people who are already here, working in our businesses.”
“These people are already in our community. They are already productive.”
Delays with visa processing and pandemic-related layoffs are forcing some immigrants to leave the country, Sengupta said, which could cause a labour shortage as businesses restart.
Our communities are not as self-sufficient as they should be.– Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated
Those problems will only get worse if the federal government suddenly dumps millions of dollars of investment into skilled trades, Afane added.
“Before we went into the [pandemic], there was already a shortage … of labour,” said Afane. “So as we are going to enter into rebuilding the economy, we are going to need the skills and the labour that comes with immigration, especially here up North.”
But Kotierk, with the Nunavut land claim group, emphasized that in her territory, foreign workers should be a temporary measure.
“It’s been emphasized, magnified through the travel restrictions … how much we depend on individuals who don’t live in Nunavut to come into our communities … as transient workers,” she said.
“Our communities are not as self-sufficient as they should be.”
She pointed to Article 23 of the Nunavut land claim, which states the goal of achieving a representative workforce.
But even amid travel restrictions, she says, construction crews are being flown to the North to do work that Inuit are not being trained for.
“There’s an opportunity to rectify that inequity,” she said.
Direct funding for Indigenous governments
For Yakeleya, the Dene national chief, the key to addressing that inequity is to give Indigenous communities direct control over funding that typically flows through the territorial government first.
“We know what’s needed in our communities for education, employment, economic development, infrastructure,” he said. “The government of the Northwest Territories, with all its good intentions, needs to get out of the way.”
Yakeleya said that process would be made easier through the settling of long overdue land claims with several of the territory’s Indigenous groups, which he said must be resolved “in the life of this government.”
“This brings certainty, it brings some security, and it clearly outlines … the jurisdictions of the North,” he said.
Direct funding should come with direct engagement, he said. Yakeleya proposed that Indigenous governments could work with Canada on the establishment of a national water monitoring agency, to help ensure the health of northern watersheds like the Mackenzie Basin.