Northern budget items a “down payment” on new Arctic policy, LeBlanc says
“It’s sort of a recognition that the policy framework has to include new investments”
Think of it as a down payment.
That’s how Northern Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc views the numerous spending items for northern Canada sprinkled throughout Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s March 19 budget: a down payment on the Liberal government’s long-awaited Arctic policy framework.
“We’re not re-packaging previous funds. We want to show that if we’re serious about developing a framework with our northern partners, that we’re prepared to add new money,” LeBlanc told Nunatsiaq News in an interview last week.
For the three northern territories alone, that new money totals about $1.7 billion over the next 12 years.
“It’s sort of a recognition that the policy framework has to include new investments,” he said.
Northern peoples, along with their governments and representative Indigenous organizations, have been waiting for the Arctic policy framework since December 2016, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government’s intention to create one.
When completed, it would replace Stephen Harper’s Conservative government’s 2009 Northern Strategy and Harper’s 2010 Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy.
Treatment centre to proceed “very quickly”
One Arctic budget item that doesn’t yet have a dollar figure attached to it is the Nunavut addictions treatment centre.
But Leblanc insists that his government is committed to building “a world-class facility” in Iqaluit and to doing that as quickly as possible.
He said he knows how badly Nunavut wants it because of what he learned on his first trip to Nunavut as northern affairs minister this past August, when Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq pressed him about it.
“So, we’re prepared to move very quickly, and the infrastructure funds will be available to build and support the operation of this wellness centre,” LeBlanc said.
He said there’s a reason last week’s budget doesn’t state a dollar figure for it: the federal government, the Government of Nunavut and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. are still working on the project’s design.
And in addition to helping pay the treatment centre’s construction cost, Ottawa will also help finance its continuing operations, year after year.
“It’s one thing to spend significant money to build it, but we want to make sure that the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit partners have the funds to operate it at the highest level,” he said.
On March 19, federal budget day, LeBlanc said he wanted to make sure that Savikataaq knew about Ottawa’s treatment centre commitment, even though Savikataaq was on the land.
“He was not easily reachable. He was on a satellite phone, but I exchanged text messages with him, sort of excitedly, to express my own excitement that the wellness centre, the treatment centre that he’s been working on for a long time will be built, and frankly will proceed very quickly,” LeBlanc said.
Big infrastructure, internet promises
Another priority that LeBlanc said he hears about whenever he talks to northern business and political leaders is high speed internet, which he described as “a huge challenge” for northern Canada.
To that end, the federal government has put another $150 million into its existing Connect to Innovate program, he said.
“It necessarily will take a number of years to get every household connected but we wanted to make a down payment right away and it’s part of a broader multi-million dollar plan.”
That’s a reference to a Liberal budget promise to provide access for all Canadians, no matter where they live, to minimum broadband speeds of 50 Mbps for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads by 2030.
On infrastructure, LeBlanc also spoke about the additional $400 million that Ottawa will put into the Trade Corridors Fund, for transportation projects.
Also, he cited a “broader commitment” of $700 million for infrastructure.
“So, there is a very sizeable increase of additional funding for northern infrastructure, and Nunavut’s needs are very compelling, whether it’s harbours, whether it’s ports, whether it’s roads,” LeBlanc said.
More food security money
In addition to the $62.6 million over five years announced last fall as an add-on to the Nutrition North Canada program, which Ottawa proposes to spend on country food harvesters, the federal government will sprinkle even more money around the North to help improve food security.
Last week’s budget included $15 million over five years, starting April 1, 2019, for a new program called the “Northern Isolated Community Initiatives Fund,” aimed at financing small-scale projects in communities.
“It speaks to hydroponic greenhouse operations, it speaks to small-scale community agriculture, it speaks to, in some cases, community freezer capacity,” LeBlanc said.
As for details about how the $62.6 million in Nutrition North harvesters money will be distributed, LeBlanc said Ottawa is working that out with Indigenous partners and northern governments, including a Crown-Indigenous working group.
“I’m told those conversations are almost finalized. In the coming weeks we will explain how the money will become accessible,” LeBlanc said.
And he said Ottawa wants that harvesters money to start flowing in time for this spring’s hunting and fishing season.
On the Inuit social agenda, driven by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and its four constituent organizations, LeBlanc cited a $50-million contribution over 10 years to help fund ITK’s Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy.
At the same time, Ottawa will spend $220 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, to extend Jordan’s Principle to Inuit children.
That’s a policy under which Indigenous children, no matter where they live in Canada, may gain access to highly expensive but necessary medical care
Last September, Jane Philpott, the former Indigenous Services minister, announced interim measures that now allow the parents and guardians of Inuit children to seek help if their children need extraordinarily expensive forms of medical care.
That will be followed by an Inuit-specific child-first policy that’s still being developed.
Arctic policy delayed
As for the long-awaited Arctic policy framework, early drafts are circulating among stakeholders, but its completion date now appears to be a moving target.
LeBlanc said that’s because the scope of the Arctic policy process has expanded, and some northern partners want to write their own chapters.
“Other partners are saying, wait a minute, we want to include a chapter—so that has caused a few extra weeks of delay, but nothing that is concerning,” he said.
For his part, LeBlanc said he hopes “a draft for comment” will be done by April.
“I would prefer to wait a few extra weeks and have everybody feel that they’re part of something that we’ve sort of co-developed, as opposed to just rushing out, and perhaps not being as inclusive as we want to be,” he said.