Moose FM sat down with each candidate ahead of the territorial election day on November 23, 2015. Here’s what Great Slave’s candidates told us.
You’ve been the NWT’s health minister. Talk us through what you feel you’ve achieved as a minister and an MLA in the past four years.
First and foremost, I’m always an MLA. I’m always working on constituent issues and I’ve had a significant number of constituents come to me over the year. I continue to work for them. I’ve been the minister of health and social services for the past two years and I’m quite pleased by the amount of things we accomplished. We knew there was a big problem with child and family services. I was one of the committee members who reviewed the Act and its implementation, and we provided the government with a number of recommendations. When I became minister, one of my priorities was to take action on that. As a result, we now have a completely new take and process around that. It’ll take a couple of years to roll out but we came forward with Building Stronger Families, providing families with resources and skills they need when they’re struggling so they can maintain family units as opposed to having to apprehend children. We’ve come out with the action plan and it’s rolling out now. Another thing I’m pleased with is the completion, finally, of a new territorial Mental Health Act. This is significant: it provides tools we’ve never had access to so we can support people with mental health issues. The Act itself is not the solution to all of the problems we’re facing. We need – and it’s part of my platform – a comprehensive youth mental health strategy as well as strategies for adult mental health. We need to get it done early in the life of the next Assembly and roll out actions to address those challenges.
Another thing I’m excited about is the transformation of health and social services from eight boards of management – competing each other for resources and staff, and creating a disconnect for residents – to a system that’s focused on the client. We can do that by bringing the authorities together so they work together in a collaborative way so they have the same clinical standards, purchase together, lots of opportunities to control spending. But also, more important, to focus in on the people and the care they’re receiving to make sure it’s streamlined and seamless. We’re well underway. The legislation passed. The next steps are huge. It’s going to start phasing in on April 1 but it’ll take a couple of years to fully transition.
The – for want of a better phrase – superboard that is proposed there…
Don’t call it that. It’s not a superboard, it’s a collaborative effort between these regional bodies. These regional authorities are going to continue to exist in a certain way, in an advisory capacity.
How do you preserve the individual voice, the identities of communities, within that?
The bottom line is the health system in the NWT is not going to work without input and support from people throughout the territory. Rather than eliminating all the boards, we worked with communities and Aboriginal governments – I travelled and talked to people – and what we landed on, with support from the Assembly, communities and Aboriginal leadership, is wellness councils with more of an advisory capacity. They’ll have members from communities and regions providing advice on how to tailor programs to meet different needs around the NWT. The chairs of those councils will form a territorial board, which is the one management board in the NWT. In our old system, the auditor-general reviewed it and said there was a distinct lack of accountability. This helps clarifies that, maintains a regional voice and lets the regions have a say in territorial programming. The Beaufort Delta, for example, never really had an opportunity to provide input into medical travel or services provided at Stanton. They will now. Funny thing is, neither did Yellowknife. Now they will.
We only have so much time. I will move on. Away from health, what are the things you hear from people in Great Slave and the solutions you want to see brought forward?
I’m hearing a number of things on health, to be clear. The Mental Health Act and strategy for youth and adults is something people bring up, it’s clearly a challenge. I’ve already directed the department to begin preliminary work on a youth mental health strategy. I want the new government to have some information to make informed decisions. I’m hearing an awful lot about cost of living. Things are happening – we have a new federal government who’ve promised they’ll do a review of Zone A territorial tax credit for NWT residents and that’s a great opportunity to help. But we have to work on things where our residents are facing difficulty. The cost of power is huge and with our increased reliance on diesel to replace hydro, we need to do something different. I believe we need to look at infrastructure, funded by the government, to help us produce power to offset the demand on diesel. Solar is a great opportunity. In the summer, if we increase our solar use in a community like Yellowknife, we can reduce the amount of diesel we’re using and not use hydro, so the hydro can build up. If that helps us control the cost of power, it’ll benefit every resident in the NWT.
Are you frustrated by the pace of change? There are some residents who feel this has been an issue for years and yet there’s been much talk, and little action.
I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily been little action. We haven’t been able to roll out a number of things that the government has been working on. I feel the frustration, I’m a ratepayer, I live here and own a home, I’m heating with diesel and trying to offset with wood as much as I can. It’s hard to afford. We need to take action. The last government attained a higher borrowing limit and that took a bit of time. Now we’re poised to start rolling out some changes.
In terms of getting more money in – there has to be a balance between the economy and the environment. What should the priority be there?
If you look at some of the maps of the NWT, much of the land is tied up in interim land withdrawals as a result of land claims. We need to conclude land claim agreements in the NWT that benefit the Aboriginal landowners and governments as well as the people of the NWT, so that when industry does come north looking for resources, they know which areas are available. Right now that certainty doesn’t exist, which I think is a disincentive for businesses.
There are a number of candidates and voters who say this government feels too secretive, and there is a disconnect. You’re inside that government, how does it feel to you?
I see my job as an MLA, but also as a minister, as working with the people and getting input from the people. When we were talking about health transformation, I went out to every community in the NWT, I talked to leaders and the public across the North, I got their feedback so we could make informed, thoughtful decisions. To me, this is consensus government, working with MLA colleagues and ensuring they are constantly informed. I vividly remember what it’s like to be a regular MLA, to sit in committees, to ask questions and not always feel you’re getting the answers that you want. I’ve done my best to make sure when I’m in committee I’m providing them with answers. I’ve also been forthcoming with the media and constituents. It’s about sharing information when you can and discussing things. There are going to be some confidential meetings – some issues are time sensitive, some information can’t be released at a particular time. I know why there’s some frustration but both sides have to work together or consensus government can’t work.
There is the issue of cabinet solidarity as well. How many times in the past four years have you voted with cabinet on something where you, yourself, were not necessarily sure?
Cabinet solidarity is a reality but it doesn’t mean cabinet agrees on everything. I have fought against issues that have been discussed and at the end of the day, a consensus is reached that may not be exactly what I want, but I have to support the decision of government.
Can you give examples?
Difficult, it would be perceived as breaking cabinet solidarity. I’ll give you an example. There was a lot of concern about junior kindergarten. I had concerns. I believe in junior kindergarten and believe it needs to happen, but it was clear from members and the public that it wasn’t right. I raised those concerns in cabinet on a regular basis and ultimately the decision was made to put it on hold. We acknowledged that it needed to be rolled out in a different way.
There are many other issues out there. In the last minute, you can cover whatever you feel we overlooked or whatever you want to say to the people of Great Slave.
A huge number of issues need to be addressed: the economy, cost of living, mental health and addictions. There’s a large amount of work to be done. I’ve been an MLA for eight years now and worked hard to get input from my constituents and NWT residents. I’ve worked hard to take action and get answers. I’m committed to doing the same. We’re only here for four years. It’s not a lot of time. My history, as outlined, demonstrates that I’m prepared, willing and ready to take action – not sit back and wait for things to happen but move forward and make them happen.
For people who don’t know you, tell us about yourself.
I’m a longtime northerner. I was born and raised here – I was born in Hay River, I grew up in Pine Point, Fort Smith and Yellowknife. I’m Dene so we’ve been up here for aeons. My family is mainly from the Taltson River between Lutselk’e and Fort Resolution. Back in the earlier days the school burnt down and our family had to move – we all originate there and my family has been living in Yellowknife for a long time, using this place as traditional hunting and fishing grounds. I’m very happy and proud to step forward and work for my people – the people of the North.
Why run in Great Slave specifically? What can you offer that the incumbent can’t?
Being a person of Aboriginal descent who’s lived in the North my whole life – I know Glen has as well, but he doesn’t have that aspect of that cultural thing. I was considering where to run, I live in that riding, and I was considering either running there on in YK Centre. I chose to run in my own riding as the incumbent was going to be acclaimed. For fairness and democracy, we need to have some choice. People in my region haven’t been heard – I’ve heard that from so many people so far. That’s why I stepped forward.
If you were elected, what different voice would we hear through you that we haven’t heard through Mr Abernethy?
Being part of the community is my strong suit. The families around here go back generations. I really have that connection to the place and to the people. I also really want to look at more opportunities for people around the North and in particular Yellowknife and the Great Slave area – more options for work. People also leave their home in the small communities to come here for work, as the employment rate in those communities needs to be remedied. There are problems with employment, a lot of problems with housing – I’ve worked for the housing corporation and I have a degree in environmental science and architecture. I bring a lot to the table in terms of how to create different, sustainable industries in the North.
How do we create those industries?
We really need to do research in how sustainable industries are. There’s a lot of industry and forestry down in the Liard region that’s replenishable – we can use it for our own purposes for the North or perhaps even for selling outside the North. We can just have incentives from the government – I’d really like to push that – for the equipment that’s required, or subsidies. It’s difficult for a small business owner to put all that stuff in, in the beginning. I believe a logger in the Fort Smith area went under because he didn’t have a kiln, it was something that simple. In this region we have the possibility of a great fish industry, we have businesses selling fish out of a truck – why aren’t we selling that in stores throughout the NWT? I think a lot of those things can be pushed forward from the government.
On a larger industrial scale, how would you want to change the territory’s approach to industries like mining, oil and gas?
As an environmental scientist I think we need to maintain strict regulations around mining in the North. We have serious problems with caribou herds right now, which are the lifeline of the Dene people. We need to ensure those are kept whole and good, and we need to ensure we have the ability to make that happen. We also need jobs. We also need to ensure we can have the mining industry here, have the extraction of metals. People around the world need them. But we need to do that in a safe and responsible way. We need to have more people working in the mines and contributing to our economy. People working in the mines right now come in and work here for two weeks, then leave, and they don’t leave a cent here. In 15 or 20 years those mines will be gone and we’ll have nothing from it. There are incentives and transfer payments now, but they’re going to come and they’re going to go.
What could the territory change to make this a more attractive place for those workers to live?
The biggest thing is the cost of living, which is ridiculous and nothing is really being done about it. The prices keep going up. I understand there’s inflation but if you look at the world economy, we are one of the most expensive places to live.
So what do we do?
We need to be self-sufficient here. We need to start understanding how to grow our own food, our own agriculture and livestock. In northern Alberta they do it so there are ways, and we have the ability here – even incentives to have those things indoors, in greenhouses. Feeding ourselves is a big weight off the people for the economy. The cost of materials to get here is phenomenal and that contributes to the high cost of housing.
Where do you believe the territory’s education priorities should lie?
We’ve always followed Alberta’s curriculum and I think we need to deviate from that. There are some great land-based programs. We need to look into that for all students in the North. We have a different culture and that needs to show in our education system. Education starts young and we need to engage our elders within education. If we have childcare subsidies that might be possible, linked with elders’ long-term care facilities where we perhaps can engage and introduce those two generations together. I think that will help both: the elders have more to do and young children learn respect and knowledge of elders, and understand the culture, the different languages. Those things are really important.
In post-secondary, we obviously have some great programs here. I went to school for eight years and it was all paid for, mostly, which was great. A few things can be different. With the internet and other resources we can strive to have, maybe, a proper university in the North. We might not be able to offer all programs as soon as we like, but we can push toward having that. The Dechinta on-the-land university is fantastic – having that entwined with a northern university would be phenomenal.
Which issues do you believe your Aboriginal constituents, and those across the territory, would like you to raise?
Aboriginal or not, the cost of living is the main thing that needs to be addressed – quickly – and it hasn’t. The new bridge is fantastic and we can get out of here all year, but they’re putting tolls on that bridge. Who’s paying for that? The government says the people aren’t paying but obviously we are: people bring goods in, transfer those payments to the stores, and the stores transfer that to the consumers. Those things need to be addressed right away. Another big thing in my riding is housing – there are great programs but they are hard to either inquire about or get into. That needs to be more accessible to people and a lot of the government red tape that slows things down so much needs to be chopped away. It’s ridiculous the amount of time it takes to get anything done.
You take time, among your priorities, to outline support for holding the Canada Winter Games in Yellowknife. Why’s that important to you?
The new government of Canada wants to inject a lot of money into infrastructure. There’s a lot of failing infrastructure in our town. We have a great field house and a new arena but people are playing hockey at almost midnight because ice times are so packed. Those types of games, with injections of federal money, would really help the North and Yellowknife to get more infrastructure.
In the remaining time, is there anything else you’d like to cover or a summing-up you’d like to give?
I graduated from Sir John in 1995 then worked with Environment Canada for three years, after which I started my eight-year university career. The complexity of architectural projects on a large scale is really going to help me in organizing different movements within the next government. As an Aboriginal person and as a northerner, I want my constituents to have somebody they can approach. I’d like to have a constituency office that’s central and perhaps not in the legislature, which I think makes it difficult for most people to engage. I’m really excited that somebody like me, who is just a normal person from the North, can do something like this. You can’t commonly do this down south. I’m really excited about that.