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Trauma and treatment centre likely, but overall federal budget disappoints Nunavut leaders

Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau laces up his budget shoes March 19 prior to delivering a 2019 budget confusing and disappointing for Nunavut.
photo courtesy Government of Canada

Underwhelmed – that was Nunavut Finance Minister George Hickes' reaction to the federal government's 2019 pre-election budget issued Tuesday.

On the "welcome news" front, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau indicated his Liberal government's intention of "together with contributions from the Government of Nunavut and Inuit partners … supporting the construction and ongoing operation of a treatment facility in Nunavut."

Hickes says that means negotiations are ongoing.

"But it sounds to me like it's a very firm commitment to move forward," Hickes said. "I'm looking forward to working with them to complete that project. We're going to work closely with the federal government and NTI on that."

Independent MP Hunter Tootoo said, while that news is encouraging, "it would have been nice to see some numbers, an actual dollar figure."

By far the greatest disappointment for Hickes, as well as Tootoo, is the lack of new funding for housing in Nunavut, especially in the wake of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's tuberculosis (TB) apology in Iqaluit earlier this month. Inadequate, overcrowded housing is a root cause of Nunavut's extremely high TB rate, as compared to the rest of Canada.

The 2019 federal budget proves underwhelming for Nunavut Finance Minister George Hicks – a territorial treatment centre looks likely, but there's no new money for housing and it will take time to figure out exactly what funding the Government of Nunavut will be able to access.
photo courtesy Nunavut Legislative Assembly

"Housing has such a dramatic impact on health outcomes – I was hoping to see more focus on housing. There wasn't any new money announced there," said Hickes.

Tootoo brought the matter up in Ottawa.

"Previously announced funding, although sounding good, doesn't even provide for two houses per community per year," said Tootoo.

In excess of 350 homes are immediately needed in the territory.

Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O'Regan replied only that his government is committed to eradicating TB across Inuit Nunangat by 2030.

"It's disappointing. It's always been the number one ask from the GN," said Tootoo.

For Hickes, as well as Tootoo, much of Budget 2019 is vague – mostly because the money announced which could positively impact Nunavut Inuit – 85 per cent of the territory's population – doesn't have a clear avenue to the GN.

Both Hickes and Tootoo noted the Government of Nunavut (GN) is responsible for service delivery.

For example, under the heading Supporting Inuit Priorities, the following funding allocations are listed:

  • $125.5 million over 10 years for an Inuit-led post-secondary education strategy
  • $50 million over 10 years to continue the important work of the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy (an Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami initiative)
  • $220 million over five years to provide important health and social services to Inuit children

"It's like they're switching to a trend of funding outside the GN. We're the service delivery partner. We're the ones being held accountable by the public on meeting the needs of our residents. I just find it strange they're continuing that trend of having the funding flow outside the GN," said Hickes.

"There's good news for Inuit in here, but a lot of confusion for the GN," said Tootoo, adding everything in the budget is shrouded.

"I think it's done like that on purpose. It's an election budget."


'Better than we had yesterday' 

The Gas Tax Fund will be doubled for this fiscal year only. Hickes said that amounts to an estimated extra $15 million to $16 million.

"We do use that money to provide infrastructure at the community level. That's one small recognition of the infrastructure challenges that we have. I look forward to Community and Government Services rolling out additional projects across the territory," he said.

"It's better than what we had yesterday."

City of Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern was similarly encouraged by the doubled Gas Tax Fund, however, she said more flexibility with existing climate-change related funding would actually help the municipality deal with its ongoing water and pipe issues.

"The City of Iqaluit, as with all the municipalities, think the Gas Tax Fund is the most flexible and the easiest of the federal infrastructure funds for us to access, unlike some of the other infrastructure funds, which are much more challenging," Redfern said.

She says that at last count, there were more than 25 climate-change funding programs.

"The criteria are often difficult for municipalities to meet. To give an example, the issues we're dealing with, breaking pipes, which is due to permafrost, and less precipitation in Lake Geraldine – those haven't always met the climate-change mitigation/adaptation funding criteria," said Redfern.

"While it's important that greenhouse gas emissions get reduced to address future climate-change issues, the reality is in the Arctic we're dealing with climate-change issues now."

Iqaluit's underground infrastructure needs upgrading, with significant portions needing replacing. The Gas Tax Fund can't address those deep needs.

"We also need to look at innovative solutions, and we need to work with suppliers in research and development to find the best longer-term solutions," said Redfern, adding engineering studies are also required.

"So that every year we're not doing the same fixes."

Regarding Internet, the feds announced plans to have 95 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses with access to minimum download speeds of 50 megabits per second and upload speeds of 10 megabits per second by 2026, and 100-per-cent coverage at those speeds by 2030.

"There wasn't anything specific to Nunavut within that, so I'm curious to see how that's going play out through discussions on how we're going to be able to access some of those funds to make sure we can get up to par with the rest of Canada. I would have appreciated a nod … 'Looking forward to working with Nunavut,'" said Hickes.

Redfern, who is a fierce advocate for affordable and stable communications for the territory and the capital, also notes the lack of detail on how the feds will accomplish their goal.

"In the North it would make a lot of sense to look at how it is possible to invest in a scalable way in multiple platforms to bridge the divide. Right now there's a tremendous disparity in the cost and the quality of telecommunications between the south and the North," said Redfern.

Tootoo did say a number of programs seemed to be targeted toward the Kivalliq hydro-fibre link project.

"I'll have to do more looking and questioning," he said.

He expressed disappointment that language money was not specifically targeted to help develop bilingual education in the territory, never mind the disappointing Indigenous Languages Act, which has passed second reading in Ottawa.

Hickes said his staff will be working over the next week to figure out what exactly this federal budget means for the territory.

"I do look forward to further work, especially in the telecommunications and housing area. I was hoping for a little bit more for mental health and seniors. We'll have to figure out exactly what pots of money are available to us," said Hickes.