Moose FM’s Ollie Williams sits down with Niels Konge, a candidate in Yellowknife’s 2015 municipal election.
More: Niels Konge’s election website
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OW: Talk us through your main achievements during your last term as a councillor.
NK: One of the biggest achievements we’ve had collectively, as a council, is the way we’ve gone through the budget every year. I think we’ve done a good job balancing the needs of Yellowknife. We had three percent and zero tax increases, that was a big achievement. I do think that I provide the common-sense approach on council. We need to keep things to the basics, really, and ensure that Yellowknife can prosper for many years to come.
Do you see yourself as part of a bigger team or sometimes a lone voice of reason?
There are certainly lots of times when I feel I’m the lone voice of reason. But ultimately, nothing happens at council if you don’t have the support of four others – or three others and the mayor. It’s not like my day job, where I get to make the decisions and the buck stops here. At council, there’s a lot more negotiating and trying to get other people to understand your point of view, your vision for the city and how we should get to a collective point.
What are the issues where you feel like you’re out on your own?
I’m certainly disappointed that we purchased the 50-50 lot. I wasn’t the only lone wolf on that one, the mayor was the deciding vote on that. In my business you have to start with a foundation and a plan, and we don’t have a plan for 50-50. The foundation of our downtown really needs to be Housing First. Until we deal with the people that we have in the downtown – we walk by them, we see them, but a lot of people just hope it’ll go away and it’s not going to go away. We’re going to have to work hard and have some concrete plans on how to deal with this, and I think Housing First is a very good initiative. People in this town are working hard on that and I fully support it.
If you are re-elected, what will you look to do to push that forward?
If there are enough like-minded councillors we can make it a priority and give administration the direction that they need to work with other groups, come back and make it happen. One of the struggles I’ve had on council is I don’t feel we’ve been good enough, collectively, giving administration their direction. We need to be better at giving them clear direction on what we expect from them. Until we can do that, our results won’t be what they could be.
What are your other priorities?
In my first term, I really wanted to have a review of planning and lands. We decided that municipal enforcement should be the first one and were told we could have three reviews – we have not had that and I’m quite disappointed. We really need to get planning and lands reviewed. You’re well aware of the brewpub. Daily, as a contractor, I feel there are issues dealing with that department. If we don’t want the taxes to grow, we need to get our tax base to grow – and when the vast majority of people trying to get permits feel it’s a huge headache to do that, you lose out. The brewpub has been struggling for a long time and it’s not only the city – there are other levels of government causing delays – but the city should be in there, really helping these new businesses. We have an economic development department, where are they in all this? They should be holding businesses’ hands, getting through all this bloody red tape. It’s not necessary. A brewpub would be a great addition to the city, as would many, many businesses, but there are too many horror stories and it deters people from even taking the first step.
In recent months, the city has looked at assisting organizations trying to sponsor Syrian refugees. Is that something the city should be a part of?
Absolutely. Anything to grow our population is a good thing. Getting new employees is a big thing and here are some people that are literally putting their own lives, and their families’ lives, on the line to get out of a dire situation for anything that is better. Anybody that would do that in order to get away from someplace would be a welcome addition to any community in the world, I think. The city maybe has limited ability to do things with refugees but we could certainly work with the GNWT. They have an allotment of spots for immigrants to come to the NWT each year and we don’t fill those spots – we actually sell them to British Columbia for the most part. We have the ability to get people to come to the NWT and we should be using that.
Where do your ambitions lie, long-term, in politics?
I honestly didn’t even want to be a politician. This is not a lifelong dream of mine. If I don’t get re-elected I have a better job to go to every day, I like my day job.
Then why do it?
Really I did it out of frustration. I was so upset with planning and lands, and the dilly-dallying with permits and what I viewed as incompetence in the department. It’s like when you’re at your soccer game. You’re standing on the sidelines and you know what your team should do, but you can’t help them because you’re on the sidelines. If you get on the field, maybe you can help them. I decided to get on the field and help.
You show no sign of wanting to leave the field…
Yeah, who would have thought that, right? But here I am.
There’s unfinished business. I really want planning and lands reviewed. Businesses are succeeding in Yellowknife not because of the city, but often in spite of it. We need to change that. Yellowknife is a great place, there are great people here. We’re the end of the road. We shouldn’t have so much red tape here. It should be easier and I strive for that.
You’re standing against three IServeU candidates. What do you make of that system?
I’m very much an independent thinker. There’s a lot of moving parts to being councillor – you make a decision on something that would, at a brief glance, not affect anything else. But often our decisions affect a lot of things. The public votes for somebody to become a councillor so they do all the background, all the research. They expect us to be in the know. But to expect the general public to be in the know is, I don’t think, reasonable. That’s why they elect somebody.
But IServeU says their councillors would do all that due diligence, front up to everybody with the pros and cons, and wait for a yes or no.
We’ll see if it works. I’ve seen in the past – the bike lanes. The city does a public consultation, 72 people come out, and 68 say they really want bike lanes. But it’s such a small percentage of the city and the vast majority of people give us feedback that they hope councillors would know that we don’t want this. It could be easily swayed by lobby groups. If we’re going to do that, why even vote for councillors? Put it out there for the entire city to vote on every single issue and administration can tally it up.
Would you be uncomfortable on a city council alongside people who were using this system?
Absolutely not. I try to be innovative and this is innovative, it’s a new thing. If an IServeU candidate gets elected we’ll find out how it works and work some kinks out of it. I think it could be a good tool. But I don’t like being told what to do – I don’t think I would ever agree to that sort of platform. I do what I believe is right.
Hosting the Canada Games in 2023. Yes or no?
No. Two weeks of glory for the kind of money that would go a long way in our infrastructure. You can walk down 50th Street or 51st Street and the sidewalks are in disrepair – so many roads and streets need repair. We have over 100 services to houses that are leaking, that need repair. There are a lot of other priorities, for me, that are more important than holding a two-week party.
The argument may be that the party is a catalyst – it drives investment from other parties in Yellowknife and speeds up some of that investment, so that we get some facilities quicker than we would otherwise. It could even involve housing for seniors, for example.
Housing in general is a very important issue and housing for seniors is something we need to look at. But I’m not willing to play poker with the public’s money. I think that this whole, ‘If we say yes then the GNWT will pony up…’ – you’re wondering if the other guy is going to fold or if they’ve got four aces. If the GNWT really wants these Games to happen then they need to come and tell us what they are willing, concrete, to put into this. As a councillor, I can look at that and decide whether the tax burden for the population is too much.
Is there another topic you want to bring up?
I did mention the cost of living. We need to get innovative and do something big. When I look at my own personal bills – with all my construction sites and everything – I’m often paying three to four thousand dollars a month in power. We have one of the highest power rates in the country. In my research and talking with friends who know about power generation, I really do think that Yellowknife could be a great place in Canada – the first one – to go with a mini nuclear reactor. It would reduce our power costs from currently like 38 cents per kW/h to around five. That would be a huge, huge thing for the city to do for the cost of living.
That is a big ask in a city where a giant contaminated mine perches on its doorstep, and the word ‘nuclear’ carries such connotations regarding contamination and meltdown. How would you ever sell that to the population here?
It’s about research. There’s a lot of new technology out there that is not the same as what happened in Japan or in Russia. There’s a lot of nuclear power generation in the world and the technology is a lot better than what it used to be. We don’t need to worry. We’re sitting on solid rock. You talk about what’s happening with the contamination – well, we have a great way to deal with very dangerous waste. We’re doing it at Giant. We’re making a big ice block to hold all that stuff in there. In 20 years, when the small fuel cell expires, we can take that and drop it right into that frozen block. They actually do that in other places in the world.
So, just to be clear, you’re advocating dropping nuclear waste in alongside the arsenic trioxide underneath Giant Mine?
In the US, there’s a big place where they’ve done that to deal with their nuclear waste. They’ve done a very similar project to what’s happening at Giant.
One, last question – a very divisive issue and certainly new residents to Yellowknife are foxed by it on a regular basis. How do you pronounce your last name?
Most people pronounce it wrong. It’s Kong-ah. The E is a soft A. Kong-ah.