N.W.T. voters faces tough choices in gloomy election

YELLOWKNIFE – The Northwest Territories goes to the polls Monday in an election where voters in the land of the midnight sun may feel they face more of the former than the latter.

The territory’s resource-driven economy is stagnant, becalmed by low commodity prices and uncertainty over land rights. Its population growth is just as sluggish. Demands for social spending and infrastructure such as roads are rising.

And while the N.W.T. has managed a string of balanced budgets, those days may be ending.

“There’s a lot of challenges we’ve got to face,” said Premier Bob McLeod, running for re-election in Yellowknife.

Under the territory’s consensus form of government, candidates run individually instead of under a party banner.

The 19 successful candidates meet shortly after the election to choose a premier and cabinet. The remaining members then hold the executive to account, functioning as a kind of opposition.

Whoever wins the premier’s chair has big issues to deal with — like who controls the land.

“The real foundation is uncertainty over the land claim,” said Herb Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations, which has an unresolved claim covering much of the Mackenzie Valley. “That’s really created a lot of problems.”

Nor are unsettled claims the only land issue. The N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines has expressed serious concerns about access, saying that 30 per cent of the territory is already closed to exploration.

“We don’t know where all the attractive mineral deposits are in the N.W.T.,” the group wrote in a briefing note. “We also don’t know the types of minerals society will be needing in the future.

“If we want to keep our mining industry strong, closing off even more lands to exploration doesn’t make sense.”

Then there’s actually getting to all those deposits.

“We need more infrastructure, like roads, so there could be more mines,” said Edward Erasmus, chief of the Tlicho government, which covers a series of First Nations in the central part of the territory.

An all-weather road up the Mackenzie Valley would dramatically reduce costs to develop the region’s known reserves of oil, gas and minerals, as well as for those living along its route. Cost is a factor — the previous government has asked Ottawa to double the territory’s legal borrowing limit to a total of $1.8 billion.

But without it, resource investment may well remain stuck at the same level it’s been since 2010. That $100 million a year is the lowest of the three territories.

Still, a telephone poll conducted by Ekos Research for Ducks Unlimited last week found that 20 per cent of respondents listed the environment as a top-of-mind issue, outpolling economic development at 14 per cent.

Meanwhile, social demands keep increasing.

Small communities need more housing and suffer gaps in health care. The N.W.T.’s school graduation rate is increasing, but still low. The cost of living is high.

And the fiscal cupboard is bare.

Revenues are forecast to grow by less than half a per cent in total by 2019. By then, expenditures will have grown by more than eight per cent.

McLeod acknowledges times are tough. But as someone who’s been in the N.W.T. government for decades as both a politician and high-ranking bureaucrat, he’s seen worse.

“This is not the worst situation for our government,” he said. “We still have a lot of positive things going on out there.”

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960