As 2021 begins, the Covid-19 pandemic has left no part of Canada untouched, with cases reported in every province and territory, though at press time only the Northwest Territories (NWT) and Prince Edward Island had reported no deaths related to the coronavirus.
However, the economic impact caused by the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in all regions of the country. And for jurisdictions like the NWT that rely heavily on the mining industry, support for the sector in the midst of the health crisis will need to be bolstered by plans for the future.
In the NWT, a heavy burden of responsibility in addressing the post-pandemic economic recovery falls on Caroline Wawzonek, who was appointed the territory’s Finance Minister in November 2019 and, since last September, has also become the Minister responsible for Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI).
Minister Wawzonek spoke with The Northern Miner from Yellowknife about how the territory hopes to move forward in 2021.
The Northern Miner: How important is mining for the NWT?
Caroline Wawzonek: Mining has been and will continue to be a foundation of the economy for the Northwest Territories. And we anticipate that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. So, it is a critical area for us to see growth and recovery as we look to after the pandemic.
We can clearly see the impact of the sector, in terms of the budget for the territory and in terms of the GDP more broadly. Of our private sector [revenue] contributions, definitely the mining industry is the single biggest contributor, in terms of jobs and in terms of GDP impact, and that’s not new.
TNM: What are the challenges facing the NWT in the year ahead, in respect to the mining industry?
CW: There are obviously some challenges relating to Covid-19, like restrictions on travel. But I will say that with my ITI hat on, I have had the opportunity to meet with some of the major companies that are doing work in the Northwest Territories, and all them have actually been very clear in saying that they have had a positive experience working with the government to ensure that, for instance, if a [travel] exemption is available, they are able to access it. Or if it is not, they are able to work through what the right protocols are to ensure safety of residents and ensure safety of their own employees.
Beyond that, the challenges that we face are the same challenges that we would have faced with or without the pandemic: continuing to work to improve our regulatory sector and make it ever more stable and predictable; and then also continuing to work to develop our infrastructure, to make the cost of doing business in the north all the more affordable.
TNM: How can the NWT differentiate itself from other parts of the country when it comes to the mining sector?
CW: I think we have a few areas where we are easily and very beneficially different from the rest of the country. We [are] right now Covid-free, in terms of active cases, which in the short term may well be a very significant factor for us.
But more importantly for the mineral resource perspective, and I’m thinking more long term, we have such a wealth of geology up here. People know about diamonds, obviously, and we have a history in gold. But we also have a strong sector in zinc, lead, and a tremendous amount of potential in some of the critical minerals, especially rare earths.
One thing we’ve been hearing, and I’ve certainly been hearing, over the last many months is around green technology and emerging industries. And a lot of those rely on critical minerals and rare earths, which we do have here. So, the geology itself has tremendous potential and is one that is, in some cases, only beginning to be explored.
A second one I want to mention is the stable structure of relationships that we have up here. If companies come up, work with pathfinders that we have available, I think they will see that is a place where they can have very positive relationships with the communities that they may be engaging. The relationships that we have here, with our Indigenous governments and with community governments, sets a high standard of how to do this.
TNM: How important is it for the NWT to foster international relationships?
CW: International relationships are very important. With the exploration level that we’re looking for, there’s a lot of companies across Canada that do that kind of work and it’s important for us to engage with them.
But as mines move forward from exploration to advanced exploration to, ultimately, large-scale development, that takes significant investment, of the kind that may well involve multinational level companies.
So, making ourselves available to those kinds of investors and those kinds of companies, is important, particularly in the critical minerals sector, which has a lot of geopolitical importance. I think that’s part of the strategy that we have to not only grow the sector short term, but also [attract] long-term investment in our resource sector.
TNM: What about your relationships with other territories, provinces and the federal government?
CW: That is also an important part of how we grow our sector, and I’ll give you a couple of examples.
I’ve only been in this role [ITI minister] for a few months, but I’ve already had more than one opportunity to speak with my territorial counterparts. And we all can see the challenges that we have in the north, particularly around infrastructure and the costs of developing and bringing a mine to production, are not dissimilar between the three [territories].
So, it gives us an opportunity to look for best practices across the three territories and also then to go to Ottawa, which from our governments’ perspectives certainly has more access to bigger funding than what the territories themselves alone would. So, we can all go to Ottawa and say, “What can we do collectively?”
There is a real recognition that there is tremendous potential in the north that would be beneficial not only to the territories, but also to Canada.
I think there’s also a healthy recognition that while we may be the source of, say, zinc, lead, rare earths, etc., we’re not likely going to be at a point in the near future where we’re doing the full-scale production. We’re not necessarily going to be the jurisdiction, at least in the short-term, that has the production facilities here. But my colleagues in the provinces immediately to the south of me may well be in that position. And therefore it starts to become a real national opportunity for us to be working together.
(This interview has been edited and condensed)