IQALUIT, Nunavut – The government of Nunavut is projecting a sliver-thin surplus in a budget tabled Wednesday that also promises a significant spending shift to attack some of the territory’s persistent social problems.
Finance Minister Keith Peterson announced plans to create a new Department of Family Services to focus on food security, homelessness and poverty.
“These issues of hunger, poverty and homelessness are serious,” he told the territorial legislature in his budget speech. “They are exactly the issues we need to resolve if we are to fulfil our vision of Nunavut.”
Peterson projected a $22-million surplus on spending of $1.48 billion, slightly less than last year’s spending. It’s the territory’s second surplus in a row.
Revenues increased by about $70 million. Nunavut gets about 90 per cent of its revenues from federal transfers. Ottawa collects all royalties from the territory’s resources and most of the increase came from changes to the territorial funding agreement.
Peterson used much of his speech to outline the planned activities of the new Family Services ministry, which will take over many functions from the Health department.
One priority will be a Nunavut Food Strategy to ensure Nunavummiut have access to healthy, affordable food. Many communities in the territory saw large public demonstrations last year protesting both cost and quality.
The territory recently passed legislation making it easier for hunters to donate food to community groups. It is also spending more money to improve the distribution of “country food,” which includes seals and whales.
The new department will be expected to complete a homelessness strategy and prepare poverty reduction legislation.
The new Family Services will get a seven-per-cent increase on top of its share of the budget from the old Health and Social Services ministry.
The territory is also planning to build homes again after a year of no new social housing. The budget includes $13 million for 30 homes in Arviat and Cambridge Bay. That remains a drop in the bucket. 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.
“Housing remains a serious challenge for this government,” Peterson said.
Peterson, who was presenting his fifth budget as finance minister, said the territory’s economy is slowly improving.
Gross domestic product is predicted to grow by 3.5 per cent this year. Just over half of working-age Nunavummiut are employed in the wage economy and Inuit now make up just over half of the public service.
The territory’s accumulated debt sits at about $203 million, just over half the $400-million debt limit imposed by the federal government.
Peterson said most of that room will be used up by expansion plans for the Iqaluit airport.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton