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Northern Affairs Minister defines what the speech from the throne means for Nunavut; NTI 'cautiously optimistic'

Affordable housing, particularly for Indigenous people and Northern communities, got a mention in the federal government's Sept. 23 speech from the throne.

Although it appears on page 19 of the written version of the speech, Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said affordable housing remains the issue that arises most often in his Northern travels.

Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal: “We are making progress, believe it or not, but the problem is the gaps are so large that the progress is hardly noticeable.” NNSL file photo. photo

Asked for specifics on what further the Government of Canada plans to do on that front, the minister referenced a new $1-billion national “rapid housing” program to convert vacant buildings into residences, which he said is applicable to Nunavut.

Vandal also cited a $700-million, 10-year housing agreement with the three Northern territories and a $300-million, 10-year housing agreement with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami as evidence that the federal government is addressing the issue.

“But we realize that's only a fraction of the work that needs to get done,” the minister said, adding that better infrastructure is also a priority for the North. Energy-efficient retrofits, clean energy and rural broadband were all included as areas for improvement in the throne speech.

Another aspect of the national address that Vandal highlighted was reconciliation with Indigenous people, including the Inuit. The speech from the throne, delivered by Governor General Julie Payette, promises to co-develop Inuit health legislation and a mental health and wellness strategy. Ottawa also committed to implement the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples before the end of this year and to accelerate work on the national action plan in response to the National

Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ calls for justice, as well as to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

“From there we're going to look for money in the budget to help those initiatives,” Vandal said.

There has been some movement on reconciliation, such as the co-development of an Indigenous child and family services branch, which Inuit will manage in Nunavut.

“That's something that is absolutely historic because every nation should have the right to take care of their own children. It's the enhancing of languages and culture,” the minister said, adding that a language bill has also been co-developed to encourage Indigenous language promotion and enhancement.

“Our government has invested, financially, more dollars in partnership with Indigenous nations than any government in recent memory,” said Vandal. “We are making progress, believe it or not, but the problem is the gaps are so large that the progress is hardly noticeable. So we need to continue what we're doing – we need to do more of it and we need to do it for a long time.”

The throne speech also focused on policing and justice reforms. Vandal said he's “absolutely” supportive of body cameras being deployed for RCMP officers in Nunavut. He also noted that the Government of Canada is modernizing training for police, establishing a national standard on the use of force and facilitating civilian oversight for law enforcement agencies.

There's also recognition in the speech from the throne that Indigenous people are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The government vowed to tackle “systemic inequities” relating to sentencing, diversion, rehabilitation and criminal records.

'Cautiously optimistic'

Land claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) stated that it's “cautiously optimistic” following the throne speech.

“NTI looks forward to working with the Government of Canada to begin working toward what the speech from the throne identified as joint ambitions, in true partnership to achieve transformative change,” the organization wrote in a news release. “NTI remains committed to achieving self-sufficiency through a made-in-Nunavut workforce by establishing a joint Inuit pre-employment strategy and plan. NTI is further committed to work with the Government of Canada to address the conditions and determinants of health that promote tuberculosis transmission which are the same ones that increase the risk of widespread Covid-19 and other communicable diseases; overcrowded and poorly-ventilated housing.

“Finally, NTI applauds the focus on health care access, climate change, food security and the blue economy.”

Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main's opinion of the throne speech was that “there’s a lot to be encouraged by.”

Speaking in the Nunavut legislative assembly on Sept. 24, Main credited the federal government for its leadership role in responding to Covid-19. He added that he was pleased to see pledges to improve access to daycares, assist Elders, ensure everyone has access to a doctor or a primary care team and to accelerate investments in shelters and transitional housing.

Premier Joe Savikataaq said in every interaction he has with the Prime Minister and federal ministers, he always emphasizes Nunavut's infrastructure deficit.

“My saying has been that we are so far behind that we’re not even at the starting line and that the federal government has to do some nation-building within Nunavut so that we can at least get to the starting line,” said Savikataaq.

The Premier said the territory has a shortfall of more than 3,000 houses to meet existing needs and that the number  of new homes added each year doesn't even meet growing demand.

“We are going further behind on our housing needs instead of lessening the gap there,” he said.