- Our Town
Nunavut tables stand-pat budget with $36M surplus
By The Canadian Press
IQALUIT, Nunavut - Nunavut has tabled a largely stand-pat budget that forecasts a sliver-thin surplus and focuses on the territory's continuing and interlocked issues of health and education.
"We will be well-educated and self-reliant within successful communities," Finance Minister Keith Peterson said in his budget speech Monday. "We will live comfortably in the modern world, guided by Inuit values and traditional culture."
There is, however, a long way to go before those goals are reached.
The anticipated $36-million cushion on revenues of about $1.6 billion will be the Arctic territory's third surplus in a row.
But the 15-year-old territory is far from self-sustaining. About 90 per cent of Nunavut's revenue still comes from Ottawa and 40 per cent of Inuit families depend on income assistance.
"It's too soon to say we've turned a corner," Peterson said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
There are small, positive signs.
The number of jobs in the territory increased by six per cent last year, fuelled mostly by construction. The Conference Board of Canada predicts healthy four per cent growth in the coming year. Nearly 60 per cent of the territory's working-age residents are employed, slightly better than last year.
And for the first time, Peterson said, their average weekly wage topped $1,000.
"With wages rising faster than inflation, Nunavummiut have more purchasing power," the minister said in his speech. "All of these are excellent signs for the future."
He acknowledged later that those bright spots aren't spread evenly throughout the territory — or even among people in the same community.
"I walk around Iqaluit quite a bit and it seems like everybody has a truck," Peterson said. "But then I go down to the Tim Hortons and I have coffee and I see a lot of homeless people come in and sit around.
"I know there's people out there that need help."
New spending initiatives are thin in the budget, Peterson's sixth as finance minister.
Most funding increases are modest and targeted at fighting poverty, keeping kids in school and addressing social problems such as the territory's increasing level of violence.
About half of Inuit students drop out before finishing high school. Nunavut's rates of violent crime and family violence against women are eight and 14 times higher, respectively, than the national rate.
The budget offers modest increases to early childhood programs, as well as to other programs to involve parents in encouraging their children to attend class.
The territory's new Family Services Department, created in last year's budget, is receiving a small boost. More money will also be spent on mental health and addictions treatment.
The territory will also introduce responsible drinking campaigns, funded by new regulations that allow money to be raised from booze sales.
Nunavut spent about $30 million on new housing last year out of $100 million provided by Ottawa, and expects to spend the remaining amount this year to build a total of 231 units.
Still, that won't be enough. Studies suggest that Nunavut, with Canada's youngest and fastest-growing population, has a housing deficit of about 3,600 units, with another 90 needed each year.
"I'd sure like to have some help on bigger infrastructure projects," Peterson said. "Housing, for me, is the one that's really caused a lot of problems for us."
But Peterson suggested the government has come a way in its ability to manage its financial resource. As recently as 2010, a government agency underestimated costs for social housing construction by $60 million, leading to deficit budgets.
"We've made tremendous strides in that area. And that gives us some leeway to things with limited resources."
This year's budget is just under five per cent larger than last year's. Because of the ongoing surpluses, Nunavut still enjoys a Moody's credit rating of Aa1, in line with most provinces.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton