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Premier defends work heading into new year
Junior kindergarten battle just one of many issues facing Bob McLeod and MLAs in 2017

James O'Conner
Northern News Services
Monday, January 2, 20178

Premier Bob McLeod has something to say to critics of how junior kindergarten is being expanded.

NNSL photo/graphic

Premier Bob McLeod is facing down some significant challenges in the new year, including a federal plan to implement a price on carbon, along with rising costs and continued economic doldrums in the North. - Walter Strong/NNSL photo

"Think of the children who would benefit from it and then all these other things can work themselves out," he told News/North during a year-end interview Dec. 16.

"There are 11 communities that have nothing for this age group and we're trying to do what's best for this age group.

"Nobody will question that the period of time is very critical in a child's development."

The implementation of pre-school for four-year-olds free-of-charge to parents in all NWT communities has had rough start since expansion was halted in 2014.

The situation is no different this time around as junior kindergarten is scheduled for implementation in all communities for the 2017 school year.

When the numbers were rolled out in early December - the school boards would be given $2 million to run the program but would have come up with $3.1 million from their own budgets. There were howls of outrage across the territory from educators who already claim to have no meat on the bones of their budgets as it is.

So that is one major issue that McLeod and the 18th Legislative Assembly will have to manage as the new year dawns.

In a wide-ranging interview in a small meeting room at the legislative assembly building, the career bureaucrat - who moved to politics and is in his third consecutive term representing the constituents of Yellowknife South - points to economic diversification and clean growth as two of the main issues that need to be worked on this year.

He characterizes 2016 as a transitional year, as it was the first where the assembly was working under a mandate it had developed itself. Being a consensus government, it was also decided that a midterm review would be in order this fall.

It is easy to see that McLeod isn't a huge supporter of the pending review.

"Most of the members sort of signalled they wanted to review the progress of the mandate. This is the first time the government has operated with a mandate," McLeod said, in his trademark deadpan delivery. "We operate on a four-year term you should base the real reassessment on how well we've done after four years. But to do a midterm review, we expect with the reporting and tracking (being done) we will accomplish quite a bit by the midterm.

"But some of the focus might have to be changed."

McLeod, born in Fort Providence in 1952, is also watching as the federal government changes any plans the NWT had to exploit the huge natural gas and oil reserves in the Beaufort Sea.

This comes after Premier Justin Trudeau joined U.S. President Barack Obama in the latter's surprise decision announced Dec. 20 to stop issuing offshore oil and gas licences in the Arctic.

McLeod told media he heard about the new policy just two hours before it was made public and said he is disappointed by Ottawa's "unilateral" move.

"We live here, we want to protect the environment. ... In order to appease opposition to resource development in the south, they're looking at using the North to put in protected areas and stopping development."

Trudeau said the Canadian ban will come up for review every five years.

That bombshell came less than two weeks after McLeod took a leap of faith and signed a pan-Canadian framework on clean growth and climate change that forces the provinces and territories to come up with a tax on carbon pollution or have one imposed on them by Ottawa.

The premier said he came away with firm guarantees from Trudeau on funding for infrastructure to help the territory become a greener place - especially to wean itself off of diesel.

"Certainly my expectation in dealing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and (Environment and Climate Change) Minister Catherine McKenna is they have signalled they understand the issues in the North," he told News/North.

"(The prime minister's) prepared to work with us."

"We already live in a high-price area. We will take that into consideration when we design our climate change strategy," McLeod continued.

"We are counting on green infrastructure funding, so that we can convert to green energy on the community level."

McLeod said any monies raised in the NWT by a carbon tax will remain here and likely be turned around in the form of a rebate.

Jobs will also be created under a clean-growth strategy, as homes will need to be retrofitted and better insulated. Roads will need to be built to help communities reduce energy and food costs and infrastructure will be needed for green energy projects - of all sizes.

"We see ourselves as being part of the national solution," McLeod said. "We have hydroelectric power potential on par with James Bay."

McLeod noted Taltson River dam expansion could link up with southern Canada.

News/North asked McLeod if there was one federal program he was pleased that got into play. He pointed to the federal government increase of the Northern Residents Deduction maximum daily residency deduction to $22 from $16.50, an initiative to help draw skilled labour to Northern and isolated communities.

"I was born and raised up here, have grandchildren and I'd like to see them stay in the North," said McLeod. "And for the North to continue to be a good place to live, work and invest in.

"Some of the challenges we have in the North are very difficult and we want to (ensure) that people can continue to live here and to continue to practise their way of life and for people to continue to stay in the communities."

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