'Right now we're sitting in the bleachers.'
Picco implores Ottawa to boost northern incentives
Using a Senate committee hearing in Iqaluit last week as his soapbox, Ed Picco called on Ottawa to boost Nunavut's economy by increasing the northern tax deduction and creating a northern economic development agency.
Such moves could help lift Nunavut out of poverty, said Picco, Nunavut's education and energy minister.
"We want to get into the game, but right now we're sitting in the bleachers," he told senators.
Picco made the comments before a hearing of the Senate's standing committee on agriculture and forestry, which is investigating the state of rural poverty in Canada. The committee's Iqaluit hearing on Feb. 21 was the final stop on their cross-country tour.
In a territory where the average income is 27 per cent below the national average and the cost of living is the highest in the country, Picco said the federal government needs to increase the northern residents tax deduction, which hasn't changed since it was introduced in 1986.
And he said Atlantic Canada, the Western provinces and Northern Ontario all have federally-funded economic development agencies that dole out cash to help businesses expand and governments build infrastructure.
"In the most rural and remote area of the country we have nothing. Absolutely nothing."
Picco suggested Nunavut could use that funding to build projects like the Bathurst Inlet road and port, and ports in Pond Inlet and Iqaluit: big-ticket items the cash-strapped GN has long sought but been unable to afford.
Nunavut's high cost of living was a frequent complaint from witnesses who appeared before the committee.
Monica Ell, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.'s director of business and economic development, said Nunavut and Ottawa should create an Arctic gateway initiative that would connect ports in Nunavut communities to the southern supply chain.
"This means forging critical north-south links," she said. "Our communities need major, significant investments across all modes of transportation, including marine, air, rail and road."
Ell also said the federal government's recent announcement of $242 million for infrastructure over seven years isn't even close to what's needed.
"Nunavut requires billions of dollars in federal investments in basic infrastructure. Tens of billions of dollars are required," she said.
Elder Inuapik Sagiaktok told senators through a translator that income support payments are too small and infrequent for parents to feed young families.
"We only receive allowances once a month and that's not enough to feed our younger generations," she said.
Carol-Anne Scott, director of the Oqota homeless shelter, said many of the men who sleep in the Salvation Army's 20-bed facility might have jobs, but are caught between the cost of living and Nunavut's severe housing shortage.
"[They] don't earn enough to afford accommodations even if they could find them," she said.
In the Legislative Assembly last week, Cambridge Bay MLA Keith Peterson cited Statistics Canada figures that show Nunavummiut spend twice as much of their income – 20 per cent – on food than the average Canadian.
Between 2004 and 2005, Peterson said the number of Nunavummiut on welfare increased 60 per cent from 8,600 to 13,800.
Peterson urged the government to consider an anti-poverty strategy for the territory.