Hundreds of NWT residents crammed into the DND gym at the Yellowknife Multiplex on Friday morning to lob questions at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The prime minister held a town hall meeting similar to ones he’s hosted across the country in recent weeks.
The idea is to hear feedback from Canadians from all walks of life.
Trudeau was accompanied by Northwest Territories MP Michael McLeod, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett on the trip.
Making his first visit to the territory since early 2015, Trudeau fielded questions from roughly a dozen people during the one-hour event.
They covered a wide range of issues, including electoral reform, Indigenous education, the need for responsible economic development in the NWT and Trudeau’s upcoming visit with US President Donald Trump.
Trudeau defends Arctic drilling ban, decision on electoral reform
One of the first questions Trudeau answered came from Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Darrel Nasogaluak, who asked how Ottawa would help stimulate growth in the region in the wake of a controversial Arctic drilling ban.
At the time of the decision, NWT Premier Bob McLeod said it could create uncertainty for one of the country’s least developed jurisdictions.
On Friday, Trudeau said the decision to restrict offshore licensing for the next five years was made based on science, adding that it’s never been determined that Arctic drilling can be done safely.
“We need to do right by building a strong economy while protecting the environment at the same time,” he said.
“We’ve closed one door of potential economic opportunity. We need to make sure we are working together to open many more doors.
“We shouldn’t have to put at risk this extraordinary Northern ecosystem and the people who live here in order to make jobs happen in the short term.
“We should be building sustainable economic opportunity and jobs for the medium and long term.”
The prime minister also fielded a question from Yellowknife’s Eli Purchase about electoral reform.
A couple weeks ago, Trudeau angered political opponents and Canadians when he turned back on his promise to ditch the country’s first-past-the-post system in favour of something different.
He justified that decision Friday, saying no true alternative presented itself and that he wasn’t prepared to divide the country on the topic.
“It does really matter to me that we improve our democracy,” he told the crowd. “I also know that it’s really important that when it comes to changing our democracy, we do it right.
“I know people will be disappointed, but this was my choice to make and I chose to make it with full consequence of the cost that is possibly going to come to it.
“But I will not compromise on what is in the best interest of Canada.”
Improving access to education, upcoming meeting with Trump
The prime minister was also asked how the federal government plans on making post-secondary education more accessible for Indigenous youth.
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Trudeau didn’t make any excuses, saying Canada has a long history of neglecting and mistreating its First Nations population.
“We have failed as a country in giving Indigenous young people the opportunities that are there for non-Indigenous young people,” he said.
“That’s quite frankly not the kind of country we like to think of ourselves as. It’s certainly not the kind of country we want to continue to have.
“Until we change the way the system operates so that it is driven by Indigenous leadership … we’re not going to be where we need to go.”
Trudeau says he’s committed to changing that, and hopes $2.6 billion in funding for First Nations education in last year’s budget will help make education more accessible.
The prime minister also visited Joint Task Force North, Ndilo, the snow castle and Mildred Hall School on Friday.
On Monday, he’s scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump in Washington for the first time since Trump’s inauguration.
“I’m counting on having a good working, constructive relationship with the president,” he said. “We’re going to talk about all sorts of things we align on like jobs and economic growth.
“But we’re also going to, I’m sure, talk about things we disagree on and we’ll do it in a respectful way. But Canada will always stay true to the values that have made us an extraordinary country.”