Scheme faces skepticism at Iqaluit conference

Northern development agency on track for this fall


Nunavummiut got their first look at the new Northern economic development agency, which should be up and running by this fall.

Tim Gardiner, the new director of northern economic development for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, told delegates at the Sivummut III economic conference in Iqaluit last week that the new, still unnamed, agency will have offices in all three territories, a headquarters North of 60, and likely a satellite office in Ottawa.

"The voice of Northern stakeholders in economic development will be stronger than it was in the past," Gardiner said.

The new agency was a campaign promise made by the Conservative government during last fall's election campaign. In last month's federal budget, the government announced $50 million over five years to fund the agency.

Plans this year call for the agency to be legally established, while staff is hired and office space rented. The agency will also take over economic development programs currently run by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. That includes the $90 million Strategic Investments in Northern Economic Development (SINED) fund, announced in last month's federal budget.

The agency will report to the INAC minister, Gardiner said.

It may also include a Northern Project Management Office which would offer mining companies what Gardiner called a "single-window access point" to the patchwork of federal regulatory agencies.

Mining companies have complained that the assortment of federal and territorial regulators slow down mining projects by tying them up in red tape.

"It makes sense to us that this sort of initiative would be housed within a Northern development agency," Gardiner said.

After that first phase is complete, the new agency would need to do "considerable policy work" to develop new programs and take over programs run by other federal departments.

Dennis Patterson, the former Northwest Territories premier who is now an advisor to Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. on devolution, said the new agency needs a Nunavut advisory group to chart its early course in the territory. He also urged Ottawa to ensure a deputy minister is stationed in each territory.

But with a federal government interested in Northern issues, Patterson said "we have a very good opportunity to set our own priorities" as long as Ottawa agrees to follow the existing Nunavut Economic Development Strategy.

"Every once in a while the stars align politically and things get done in the North," he said. "They don't always put the spotlight on us, but when they do we have to be ready to dance."

Patterson also urged INAC "to make sure money isn't just swallowed up" by administrative costs.

Gardiner said the structure of the new agency is still up in the air and that INAC plans to consult Northerners during the set-up process.

"We haven't fully thought this through yet," he said.

But Gardiner, who was making his first trip to Nunavut after a month on the job, faced an otherwise skeptical room.

Anthony Speca, a fiscal policy analyst with the Government of Nunavut's finance department, warned the agency will need to conduct more studies about the Northern economy and could easily burn through its $10-million annual budget.

"You're probably going to need more money than you think," he said.

Jerry Ell of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, said "the last thing we need" is more studies. Instead , Nunavut needs more jobs, housing and training, he said.

The new agency also won't cover Nunavik and Nunatsiavut, but that's because those regions already fall under the jurisdiction of existing development agencies, Gardiner said.

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