Depressed over the past; anxious for the future — Happy New Year!
Some dark clouds from 2018 are casting a troubling shadow over 2019.
As GNWT workers return from their annual extended Christmas leave — that essentially shuts the place down for two weeks — the territory’s leaders have to grapple with labour strife, a weakening economy and a shrinking population.
The incoming federal carbon tax requirements will add extra burden to the 44,445 people living here — a decrease, by the way, of 1.4 per cent from 2017 to 2018 — who are already coping with a seriously high cost of living.
Our economic future is described as “grim,” states the Conference Board of Canada, as peak diamond production has passed and is now in decline. Unless some new exploration can result in a major new mining project — that would take up to 20 years to get underway — tens of thousands of jobs could hang in the balance over the next two decades if alternatives can’t be found.
The Union of Northern Workers (UNW) representing some 4,000 public service employees has been threatening strike action for months, with the main issues being money, money and money.
Does the GNWT have any extra cash on hand? Maybe. Will it be able to afford a major hike in labour costs in years to come? Unlikely.
So the two sides need to find some reasonable compromise. And this years-long issue needs to be put to rest; it isn’t helping the economy as the GNWT is one of the territory’s largest employers.
The city has a new set of elected reps, after a fairly dull election last fall.
The only super controversial position taken by mayoral candidates was from Bob Stewart. The downtown bar owner suggested the best place for the city’s homeless shelter would be at the Bristol Pits. Turning the former gravel pit into a modern-day leper colony was and insensitive and unworkable idea. It was also racist.
And Stewart’s utterance was also a very poor reading of an electorate, which was looking for a much more resonable gfroup of people. Voters selected a gender-balanced council — including new mayor Rebecca Alty — with decidedly fewer white faces than the previous group. There are also enough councillors — retyurning and new — with solid business acumen to keep an eye on the bottom line. Bravo. The city needs all of that.
And the new group showed promise as it tackled and tamed a number of serious pressures to end up with a modest tax increase of 1.44 per cent.
Alty was so defensive of the first major accomplishment of the new council that she penned a letter to the editor of the Yellowknifer decrying the paper’s “misleading and inaccurate picture editorial position” that the city’s cash management is a runaway train and the council will “spend away as the city has always done.”
She wrote: “Overall, council is pleased with 2019’s $88.51 million budget as it reflects a healthy compromise between what we want, what we need and what we can afford, all while looking ahead to the future.”
Not a bad line. That type of quality spin is what we should expect from a mayor who was a communications executive at Diavik Diamond Mine.
But I digress.
One major project the city needs to push for now is a university for the NWT.
Education Minister Caroline Cochrane last year announced plans to transform Aurora College into a polytechnic university as soon as 2024. Her call came after the release of a foundational review of the poorly envisioned institution. Cochrane did not provide many details on her plan, including where any new university would be headquartered.
As I stated in a column for the Yellowknifer, that university needs to set up shop in the largely vacant downtown Centre Square Mall. Finding new uses for these ‘80s-era retail centre fossils is a challenge for communities across Canada.
Walking through the mall these days is depressing. And really not a welcoming site for the thousands of tourists who flow through the city during this peak aurora tourism time.
In fact, I’ve seen Instagram posts from Asian tourists showing the boarded up storefronts. Not a great selling point for us. In fact, it’s an embarrassment.
Tourism needs to be a serious focus for us to bolster our economy. We need to draw people here from across the globe, injecting their cash into our coffers. So we need to give tourists much more to do than wait for cloud-free nights to view the northern lights.
These are only a few issues facing us this year. Should we be anxious over our future up here? Sure. Can we rise to the occasion? You bet.
But we need to make sure we keep our elected leaders focussed on priorities. We need fewer studies, papers, reports and plans. We know what has to be done and the work needs to start now.
But James, what does that really mean?
Well, it comes down to money. Everything is about money.
Here’s one example:
It’s clear we need cheaper power up here, both for residents and industry. And that power needs to be clean and dependable.
The North Slave’s power grid needs to be connected to the south and the hydro system on the Taltson River.
That 500-kilometre river that drains into the Great Slave Lake has three hydroelectric structures and one power station. That $1-billion project to blend the grids has been bandied about for many years.
The GNWT has mentioned it to Ottawa, to no avail. However, with the Trudeau government’s penchant for all things carbon free, now is the time to convince them it’s a great way to wean us off our diesel-electric habit.
The GNWT should focus on that project. The city needs to focus on pressing the GNWT for that as well.
So let’s shrug off the dirty garment that was 2018 and don a fresh outfit for the future. We need to have hope.