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  • Rylund Johnson

Reply to the Budget Address

On February 28th, 2020 I delivered my first Reply to the Budget Address, which is an opportunity for MLAs to weigh in on the budget we spend so many weeks reviewing.


I chose to speak to more systemic factors that shape the way we interact as a government and a society in the north. These are important questions we should be asking ourselves every time we look at a budget.


Here is the footage from that address, a transcript is posted below.



A mystery editor apparently liked my address so much they cut the whole 16 minute speech with movie clips and archival footage. They clearly share my sense of humor.



"Thank you, Mr. Speaker.


I would like to thank our Minister of Finance for our budget address this week, and before we move it into Committee of the Whole, I wanted to provide my response.


In reply, I want to pose some fundamental questions for this Assembly, questions of what kind of territory we want to be and our place within confederation. I want to share some thoughts on where we're at as a territory and what I believe we must do to move forward. I will focus my address on the question of what it means to be seated here in this House and what it means to be a Northerner. Given this is a budget address, I want to begin by talking about a quarter. Not a quarter of a million dollars; a 25-cent piece. Mr. Speaker, when you look at a quarter, what do you find? On one side, you see an aging monarch who lives thousands of miles from here. On the other side, you see a caribou, an animal whose future becomes more and more precarious each year. How do we in this House self-locate, even as our currency seems to simultaneously represent, overlook, and mock our interests? The contrast is emblematic of the position we are in today: constituents of one of the wealthiest nations on earth, yet we govern a territory too often forgotten and left to deal with economic and social crises threatening a way of life. Mr. Speaker, the grand bargain of northern participation in the confederation that was Canada would be that people would have a standard of living found anywhere else in Canada. Mr. Speaker, that bargain has failed. Our climate, our economy, our education, our housing, even our actual caribou, are in crisis, Mr. Speaker, and the Government of Canada remains similar to a monarch: too slow to invest in the transformational change this territory needs, even as tens of thousands of Canadians struggle too far out of sight for outsiders to understand. Mr. Speaker, this is not a new story. For decades, we've seen investments in the grand bargain for Arctic sovereignty fall off. Our communities remain disconnected, lacking physical and digital infrastructure most Canadians have taken for granted for years. Our people struggle with staggering rates of mental illness and intergenerational trauma, and our most vulnerable often face these struggles without roofs over their heads, and we face one of the greatest housing shortages in the developed world. These aren't problems that can be solved with the transfer payments that trickle in each year, and, in fact, that's not what they were ever designed to solve. To tackle the big issues of the day, we need transformative investment, the sustained multibillion-dollar kind, which our tiny tax base could never expect to afford as we pay our bills, and with the fresh scars of colonialism affecting generations of the Indigenous people in this territory, exasperating every issue, I believe it is a moral imperative for Ottawa to put that kind of money behind making it right and putting the North on even footing with the rest of Canada. However, Mr. Speaker, I have to say I don't place all the blame on the federal government for not opening their wallets. Part of the blame lies with us, with successive governments who didn't articulate a clear enough vision of who we are as a territory. We negotiated devolution, and yet, for six years, we've hit the wall in fulfilling its true vision of further devolving powers to Indigenous governments. We've released strategies to renew children in care and to deal with our education crisis, and then the federal government via the Auditor General made it clear that we are letting too many children fall through the cracks and inflate our graduation rates. Most recently, we've answered a housing crisis by failing to put 42 inexpensive units at risk because we couldn't get our ducks in a row. How do we get beyond the narrative of stasis? We need to tell our story, Mr. Speaker. We need to present a vision for what this territory can be, and we need to back it up. What's the biggest story I believe we can lead in this Assembly? Mr. Speaker, it's reconciliation, and, as blockades line the tracks across our nation, we in the North have a chance to show our country how to bring people together and break down the barriers dividing us. We have already come a long way compared to our peers. We have settled a lot of big land claims, and, as those claims were settled, we saw the potential of our Indigenous governments unleashed. The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation is paving the way with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. Communities like Deline are finally self-governing, setting their own path forward for the future. The Gwich'in jumped us by seven years on electronic voting. The Tlicho are world leaders in mine logistics. Mr. Speaker, I could go on, but we all know we have so much more to do. We need to settle the Akaitcho and Dehcho claims. For too long, we've seen too many stories of how our government is standing in the way. It's self-defeating, Mr. Speaker. The vision after devolution was to get our house in order and continue to devolve powers and resources to Indigenous governments across this territory. The vision was to realize a Denendeh and Inuvialuit where public and Indigenous governments interacted nation-to-nation, and it's not just about finishing this long, painful process. It's about untying our hands and embracing the economic opportunities settling these questions would bring. Akaitcho believes there's $1 billion on the table when their process ends. The Deh Cho is a home to unbelievable sites and minerals. We need to get UNDRIP on the books during this Assembly. After a century of damage, we need to show we're ready to make the next step in decades of healing. For the people who have lived on this land for thousands of years, their relationship with Canada has been devastating more often than it has been beneficial. We in Canada have much work to do in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and reconciling what our identity is as a whole. Mr. Speaker, I want to emphasize that I am a patriot, a word not often used by people of my generation, and I may not sound it at times, but I am, in fact, strongly committed to this venture that we call Canada, something, very understandably, many Indigenous people are not as committed to. That is understandable, and, if I were Dene, I am sure that I would have few nice things to say about our federal government. As a Canadian, it is my role to acknowledge our history and our present. In the face of this reality, I am not here to give up or feel guilty. I am here to take some responsibility and amend the wrongs. This is what reconciliation truly is. It is about hope for this nation and hope for the people of the North. It is not a hollow buzzword, but a reshaping of Canadian identity. Right now, all across this country, you can hear young Indigenous people on the steps of their legislature yelling, "Reconciliation is dead." This is because people in power failed to acknowledge our history and, in turn, failed their people. Mr. Speaker, you will hear me speak over the next four years about colonialism. I say this not for shock value, but it is the reality at the heart of northern identity. The history of Canada is one of colonialism by definition. Canada was a colony of Great Britain and, in turn, the French colonists were conquered by the British colonists. This land we are now in was given to some man named Rupert, who is even less relevant than that monarch on our money. In turn, that land was given to the Hudson's Bay Company, and finally, what is left is the Northwest Territories, a territory that was carved off, and is only northwest in its relationship to Ottawa. From where I stand, Mr. Speaker, it is exactly where it needs to be. Mr. Speaker, the introduction of resource extraction from the North, with profits sent to other territories, took an Indigenous way of life that had sustained itself for thousands of years and forced it into a commercial and industrial system, whereby a nomadic way of life was no longer sustainable. The taking of northern resources to benefit foreign corporate entities is something we are still reconciling with today. This land, the Northwest Territories, must find a path forward, must be a leader in Canada, Mr. Speaker. I believe we must also take a strong political stance to push all other governments in Canada to do so. Northerners, better than anyone, should understand the right not to be controlled by those who don't understand the reality on the ground. Now, Mr. Speaker, why am I speaking about all this history? It is because it is of fundamental importance that we all understand how we got here in order to understand how to move forward. For those of us who love the North and wish to move forward as part of a united and prosperous Canada, we must first remedy the wrongs of the past. That is done through our current land claim process, in which Canada, through the Crown, returns to the land to the Indigenous peoples to whom, in fact, it always belonged. It is my hope in time, Mr. Speaker, that all Indigenous people will be proud to call themselves Canadian and view themselves as part of this country and be able to comfortably walk with a foot in both worlds. Yet, that is something I have no right to ask any person until their proper rights have been restored. You cannot use the withholding of rights as a bargaining chip in reconciliation, Mr. Speaker. The only way true northern unity can occur is willingly and with a passion to progress forward together. Canada has often asked Indigenous people to join into this Canadian identity at the expense of their own. Mr. Speaker, reconciliation by force is a paradox. If one party remains unwilling or can't enter on their own terms, then it isn't reconciliation. It is assimilation at best. I want to emphasize that my goal in the small part I have to play is to build a strong North and a strong Canada that, in turn, builds strong Indigenous nations alongside of it. This is the complexity of northern identity that we all must reconcile, and the only way to do that is through trust, Mr. Speaker. I must also emphasize that we are together in the midst of a large social contract. As we settle land claims and self-government to give Indigenous governments more power to be free, more power to be independent, I also hope that through that independence will come unity. Now to the lawyer in me, Mr. Speaker. Reconciling with Canada comes with certain inalienable conditions, and this is the point where much of the tension will exist going forward. All Canadians, Indigenous and not, must respect the rights and responsibilities of our charter. All Canadians must respect the law and the institutions we use to enforce them. Mr. Speaker, I emphasize that respect does not mean one cannot be frustrated by them or work to change them. I myself am frustrated by the rigidity of many of our institutions and the resistance to change that they perpetuate. This is exactly why I stand here, Mr. Speaker, to bring about change to our institutions from within. If Canada is going to succeed and the North is going to prosper, and I am going to be proud to call this place home, I will spend the next four years and, in fact, the rest of my life building relationships so that everyone prospers and is truly welcomed on their own terms into this weird and beautiful creation called the Northwest Territories. Maybe we could change the name, but I'm not going to go there, Mr. Speaker. In this right, I would call upon this government, along with our Indigenous governments, to begin the push to once again enter into constitutional reform. For too long, this country has been tied up in disputes about federalism, with everything an argument about provincial or federal jurisdiction, a dispute that fails to address territorial or Indigenous rights. It is time for Canada to amend its constitution and rightfully place both Indigenous governments and territories in it. We are leaders in the North in this regard, and we must pressure Canada to do so. We are stronger united, we are stronger when we go to Ottawa with one united northern voice, and we are stronger when we demand the world take meaningful action on climate change, which disproportionately affects us, with one voice. Mr. Speaker, the North is on a precipice. When that monarch on our money dies, to whom we all pledged allegiance, will her son or grandson unite the North? When we speak of the honour of the Crown in negotiations and courts, does anyone other than lawyers really buy into such a concept? If the Bathurst caribou herd disappears, is that caribou on our money something to be proud of or just a testament to our collective failure? For far too long, the only reason Canada paid any attention to this place was one of resources, first furs, then gold, and now diamonds; but as our diamonds come to an end, and the NWT identity is not directly linked to resource extraction, some very pressing economic realities come into play. Firstly, Mr. Speaker, the NWT is a fake economy. Our economy is entirely dependent on federal funding, so when we live in a fake economy, where it makes more economic sense to just stop fighting a losing battle, pack up, and move down south, all of us must ensure we have a convincing answer as to why the rest of Canadian taxpayers are paying for all of this when there is no fur, gold, or diamonds for them in the deal. The answer to this, Mr. Speaker, lies in the inalienable rights of all Canadians, the right to be provided with adequate services wherever they live in Canada. If economic efficiency were the only factor in nation-building, we would all simply live in urban centres where the reality of economies of scale make providing services significantly cheaper. Yet, Canada, in exerting control over these lands historically, has an obligation to both reconcile Indigenous rights to the land and support those who call this place home with the same level of service that a Canadian anywhere else gets, regardless of cost, Mr. Speaker. This, Mr. Speaker, is the nature of public government. Given our small population, we may, in fact, spend millions of dollars providing services to a single person, but that is part of the Canadian social contract. We provide the same level of healthcare to all Canadians, no matter the cost. Mr. Speaker, I am convinced that the federal government has forgotten that this is the heart of the social contract. We took on devolution as an interim measure to undo colonial control from Ottawa, but such power must inherently be used to undo colonialism at all levels. The resources in our land are our savings for the future, and to only allow our continued existence to be contingent on the resources we send back to Ottawa is unjust. Canada needs to stop using the North and its symbols as a uniting cultural aspect without providing the people who live in the North an adequate level of government service. Mr. Speaker, I thank you all for listening to me. I hope this address can spur some larger conversations about what the NWT is and where it is going. I also ask any who may disagree to please come and speak to me. First and foremost, it is all of our jobs to listen more than we speak, something that is a little ironic, given that I just spoke for 20 minutes, Mr. Speaker; but I believe that it goes without saying that the only way to reconcile and build a united and prosperous North is through healthy dialogue. Thank you, Mr. Speaker."

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Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly

PO Box 1320  |  Yellowknife, NT  X1A 2L9