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Notes from the legislative assembly
GNWT in the barge business

Kirsten Fenn
Northern News Services
Monday, February 6, 2017

The NWT's public works and services department is on the hunt for $14 million so it can take over the operations of now-bankrupt Northern Transportation Company Limited (NTCL).

Minister Wally Schumann met with the Standing Committee on Priorities and Planning on Feb. 2 to update regular MLAs on how the government plans to move forward after buying the company's assets just over a month ago.

The NWT closed a deal on Dec. 21 to purchase tugboats, barges, land and equipment from the former Hay-River barging company for a price tag of $7.5 million, said committee chair Tom Beaulieu.

NTCL had a contract with public works and services to deliver fuel and essential supplies for the government and companies in a number of communities, Beaulieu said.

Taking over the company's operations could involve running barges to Lutsel K'e, through the Nunakput region as well as the Mackenzie River, Beaulieu said.

He added he believes the barging operation is important and that it would be hard for MLAs to oppose it.

"I think that's an essential service," Beaulieu said. "I think it would be prudent for us to approve that money."

Those funds could be taken from a surplus or from borrowing, said Beaulieu, although he added the minister would have to decide where exactly they would be appropriated from. The committee would then choose whether to approve the funds, he said.

MLAs puzzled on junior kindergarten

Education Minister Alfred Moses confirmed Feb. 3 the government will roll out the full $5.1 million this fall that is needed to implement junior kindergarten across the territory.

The money will come from $1.5 million earmarked in the 2017-18 budget, another $2.7 million from the government that was originally scheduled to roll out through the life of the assembly, and $900,000 in internal funding from the education department.

But the announcement didn't come without a flurry of confusion amongst MLAs earlier in the week as they sought clarification on whether that money was all to be rolled out this year, or in pieces.

"If I wasn't confused before, I think I'm a little bit confused now," said MLA Shane Thompson (Nahendeh) on Feb. 2, after seeking an explanation from Minister Moses for the second day in a row in the assembly.

That same day, MLA R.J. Simpson (Hay River North)quipped that understanding the numbers would take some "digging."

MLAs again pushed the education minister on Feb. 3 to explain whether the department was thinking about the additional costs associated with junior kindergarten, such as for busses and safety measures.

Moses said the department is working with school boards on those issues.

Simpson and Thompson also raised concerns that junior kindergarten could negatively impact other programs like day care and day homes in small communities.

Thompson said a high school in one of his communities may not be able to offer certain courses anymore.

Budget doles out goods to communities

Despite some cuts to government departments, the GNWT is making investments in communities with its 2017-18 budget.

Besides funding for junior kindergarten, the government is giving $500,000 to Hay River and Fort Smith's joint bid for the Arctic Winter Games.

The budget includes another $3 million for the Small Community Employment Support program, which will go toward hiring youth for summer employment, on-the-job training and capacity building for adult workers.

Health and social services will get a $6.6-million boost, while low-income seniors will benefit from $500,000 meant to help them repair their homes.

Katlodeeche First Nation is set to receive $95,000 for a service centre, which will help residents find information about things like birth certificates and applying for benefits.

Approximately $1.1 million will also go to community government funding.

Premier pressured on mineral roundup

MLAs Julie Green and Kevin O'Reilly pressed Premier Bob McLeod to defend the estimated $75,000 price tag of sending 30 people to Vancouver for a four-day mineral conference at the end of January. All seven cabinet ministers attended this year's conference - a sharp contrast to the three ministers who attended the year before.

Green (Yellowknife Centre) asked McLeod to elaborate on the economic solutions cabinet came up with at the conference and to provide a cost-benefit analysis of the trip. The premier declined to do so.

"I believe it's good value for money with what we spent," McLeod said, explaining that the government met with mining companies, juniors, prospectors and finance companies.

"The conversations were very valuable to myself and my colleagues on this side of the House," he said.

O'Reilly (Frame Lake) asked the premier to explain what "indispensable role" the health, housing, justice and finance ministers played at the conference at a time when the territorial budget outlines a cut to 65 GNWT positions.

The premier defended the conference, saying the entire government has a stake in the success of the mining sector.

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