MAC: Mines and Communities

N.w.t. Has Unique Way Of Managing Boom

Published by MAC on 2007-02-14
Source: Edmonton Journal

N.W.T. has unique way of managing boom: Communities have a say in charting the future path of the economy. And when the people speak, cabinet ministers pay attention

by Paul Boothe, Edmonton Journal

14th February 2007

Many Albertans were shocked and a little horrified when former premier Ralph Klein confessed that there was no plan to manage the energy boom in Alberta.

More recently, Premier Ed Stelmach has vowed not to "touch the brake" on oilsands development -- in effect, declining any responsibility for managing the growth of Alberta's economy. As a result, Albertans are faced with runaway government spending, widespread skill shortages and rampant inflation in a dangerously overheated economy.

This is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by our neighbour to the north. Faced with growing economic activity from the Northwest Territories' diamond mines and the prospect of the Mackenzie Gas Project (MGP), Finance Minister Floyd Roland has launched an impressive, community-based planning process to chart the future path of the territories' economy.

The process began in November 2006. Full-day workshops were held in Yellowknife and Inuvik to consult with business and community leaders. Three University of Alberta professors, Mike Percy, Joseph Doucet and I were invited to act as facilitators, and this gave us ring-side seats to observe genuine, community-based economic planning in action.

The process the finance minister used to do his planning was simple and easy to understand.

N.W.T. finance officials first prepared a workbook that presented the basic economic data and projections for the future. The workbook laid out some of the key choices that northerners face and the implications of different scenarios. Finally, the workbook posed questions to business and community leaders to focus their discussion. The workbook was made available on the Internet so that all northerners could see what was being discussed and contribute their views, either through workshop participants or directly using e-mail.

The workshops were a breath of fresh air. No suits, no political posturing, just honest discussion of the challenges to be faced.


Northerners are not shy about expressing themselves and there were some vigorous debates among participants. However, at the end of the day there was an impressive amount of consensus about where they wanted their economy and communities to go and what needed to be done to get there.

Roland spent the full day at each workshop doing what politicians rarely take time for these days: listening. At the end of each day, he summarized the discussions to show participants that he had heard and understood their ideas.

What goals did northerners set for themselves as they prepare to manage their economic boom? The results will sound familiar to many Albertans:

-- Northerners want to be the primary beneficiaries of economic growth. They want to use the boom to strengthen their communities and make the N.W.T. less dependant on the federal government.

-- They want to prepare to manage growth. This means having goals and a plan and the infrastructure, skills and community supports in place when they are needed.

-- They want their economy to be balanced and sustainable. This means that the benefits should be shared among aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, big and small communities. Northerners want their economy to grow in a way that preserves the natural environment and permits the people who choose to the ability to continue with their traditional way of life.

Business and community leaders didn't just talk about their goals for the N.W.T. economy. They also focused attention on strategies to achieve them.

Here are their top five priorities for government action:

-- Both the quality and quantity of education must be improved for northerners to participate and benefit from the economic boom.

-- Investments in transportation infrastructure will be critical to open up areas for development and to reduce the cost of living in remote communities.

-- Strong regulations must be in place to protect the environment. The process for gaining environmental approval should ensure that the full environmental costs of development are considered.

-- Communities must have the capacity to benefit from economic growth. Different communities will have different needs, such as transportation infrastructure, schools, health care, and the basic building blocks need to be in place.

-- Decision-making must be streamlined. Government departments need to work together to ensure that good decisions are made as efficiently as possible.

In the territorial budget tabled last week, Roland began to implement the plan. Whether it will be successful will depend on a number of factors.

Will industry, aboriginal groups and the federal and N.W.T. governments reach an agreement on the pipeline? Will the federal government agree to a devolution agreement with the N.W.T. to provide the resource revenues needed to fund investments in infrastructure and education? Will northerners be able to remain united and focused on their goals?

Only time will tell.

But it will be a fascinating experiment to watch -- one from which Albertans could learn a lot.

[Paul Boothe is professor and fellow of the Institute for Public Economics at the University of Alberta. In the past, he has served as Deputy Minister of Finance for Saskatchewan and G7 Deputy for Canada]

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