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NWT election: Hay River North candidate Q&As in full

Moose FM sat down with each candidate ahead of the territorial election day on November 23, 2015. Here’s what Hay River North’s candidates told us.

More: Candidate Q&As from other districts

Robert Bouchard

Robert Bouchard

Talk us through the achievements of your last term in office.

The last four years have been very interesting – a steep learning curve to learn our government, all the processes involved, the roles and responsibilities, and the concerns have with different departments and how we deal with the public.

Some of the achievements? Midwifery has been good in Hay River, we’ve been able to put Hay River back on some brith certificates recently. We’ve had some success with decentralization of positions in the government. We’ve moved the BIP office here, some parks positions, some health and social services positions – we recently got another 11 positions for the new health centre coming forward. I’ve been trying to boost the fishing industry and we got commendment for $1.5 million in the capital budget, so we’re hoping we’ll build the new fish plant over the next year with the business plan they’ve developed to sell fish throughout the NWT to all our institutions, seniors’ facilities and to the public. When I came into office, the new health centre was being built but the 10 extended care beds weren’t in the plan – we had to coerce the government to put those 10 beds back into Hay River’s system, which people were very upset about. They’ll break the ground here in the springtime to extend Woodland Manor so we’ll have the extra beds there. I’ve worked with town council – I try to have monthly meetings or every six weeks with them – and quarterly meetings with the DEA. I’m building that teamwork between the MLAs and all the other organizations, it’s one of the things I strive for.

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What do you consider the real priorities to be for Hay River, heading into the next four years?

I look at my platform from last time and a few things are still there: dredging hasn’t been done. Hay River is the hub of the North, we need to make sure that gets done. The Department of Transportation is committed to having a meeting – we’re hoping to get the feds onside to give us some funding to do some of that dredging. Decentralization should continue – there are a bunch of opportunities to expand that for the community. Those jobs are important and we’d like to see some more. And I’ll continue to work on that teamwork I’ve talked about. We’re trying to figure out ways to make it affordable to stay here and to attract people here. The cost of power and utilities is increasing – I was discussing this morning with some constituents the cost of food going up. The solutions are not easy. We need to keep working on them. We’re debating whether we invest in large infrastructure like hydro grids to the south or expansion to our Taltson system in the South Slave here. Health issues? We definitely need more consistent care. We know there’s a shortage of doctors in the country – we’ve had success with nurse practitioners but we’re not getting the funding to support that. It’s not just in health where column funding is provided where you can only spend the money on that specific thing, and we need to break down some of those barriers.

We know we’re in a fiscal restraint situation and we need to find reductions, but in education we have teachers asking for donations from the community to put crayons and colouring books into the schools. I can’t understand how we could cut back any more. We need to find better ways to spend the money and more money for our education system. We need the student-teacher ratio to be better than we currently have. And obviously, economic development is key for everybody. Mining continues to be one of the key drivers – we just met with Dominion here yesterday to see how we can promote their new Jay pipe and get some employees to move to Hay River. There are some key issues there and, going into a second term, I’m hoping to put my name forward to go into cabinet. Hay River hasn’t been on cabinet for nearly 20 years and I think, being the second-largest community, we need to have that representation. I think I’m approachable and would communicate well with everybody in the NWT. Some of that communication has broken down in our consensus government.

There are various portfolios in cabinet, do you have one in mind?

I don’t have anything specific. For Hay River’s interests, obviously ITI and transportation – dredging is key. I would be keen to work on a project to make that happen. We have education, housing and health as well. I would be putting my name forward to basically see what projects get going. Health and education are big portfolios and may go to more experienced ministers but I’ll take on any challenge.

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Bob McLeod is interested, unusually, in remaining Premier for a second term. Do you support that, or is it time for a change?

I’m not sure. It depends who gets there. Bob’s done some great work and we’ve been able to work with some of our Aboriginal groups, had Devolution which was a big project. The rotation is it comes to the South Slave so it depends who comes out of the South Slave. Is it the South Slave’s turn or do we stay the course? I’m going to constituents and asking that question as well.

Do you feel like this last four years has been a successful territorial government?

Yeah. It’s been challenging with Devolution. We’d hoped to do a whole bunch of decentralization of positions then, at the 11th hour, the federal government said those positions had to remain where they were for two years. I think we’ve had some difficulties: borrowing limit issues which now have been extended. I think there’s been some good work there, and on the Hay River front like I indicated, but we need to continue. The question mark out there is what consensus government does versus party politics? I’m a supporter of consensus government but consensus government that communicates. Most regular members and the cabinet, we have to involve our public in some of those discussions.

You mention involving the public – fracking has been one of the most divisive issues of the past four years here in the NWT. There were plenty of calls for a plebiscite. Where did you come down on that?

I’m not sure about a plebiscite. I think we need to do way more public consultation. We have a natural freeze on the process because we know oil and gas companies aren’t coming for the next couple of years, so we have to have that discussion with the public as opposed to jamming regulations down the throat of the public. It’s a fine line. There are definitely economic requirements and needs in the Sahtu and the NWT. Somewhere in the middle we need to ensure that those regulations are the strictest in the country, if not the world, where everything is protected and we’re doing it safely and securely.

In the NWT there are a number of well-documented social issues. Do you believe that education or health should be the priority in tackling those, in Hay River and across the North?

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A good question. The two go hand in hand and represent a large percentage of our budget. A lot of our people are not ready to go to work and I think we need a drug and alcohol treatment centre in Hay River, or in the NWT. Obviously, I’d promote it for Hay River seeing as we had one on the reserve here before.

The territorial government says that was unworkable before – it was too hard to attract staff, the take-up was too low and it was not as cost-effective, perhaps counterintuitively, as sending people down south. How do you see that?

I still have trouble swallowing the fact that we need to send people south. Let’s look at a pan-territorial concept – we know that in Nunavut and Yukon they have issues as well. Can we build something that makes sense in the North? I have difficulties sending people south all the time. It may help some people but in the long run I think it’s better to be closer to home to get that benefit.

To finish, can you explain what separates you from the two candidates you’re up against in terms of what you’re able to offer your constituents?

I’ve built that reputation of wanting to get stuff done, promote Hay River and learn what our government currently does. I’ve had that experience. It’s one term’s experience but if we start over again, we’re going to be that much further behind. It’s very difficult for a new individual to walk in and want to be on cabinet. I’m looking to take on that next term now that I’ve learned the ropes and understand the process, to get more done. Especially with our fiscal position, we need to have somebody that’s up to speed on where we sit, what the issues are, and we need that experience to go forward. We need a voice that’s been there before, somebody that’s still keen to help the community.

Karen Felker

Karen Felker

Tell us more about yourself and why you’ve decided to stand.

I’m 50 years of age. I’m a mother of three, a grandmother of three. I was born and raised here in Hay River. I was raised in the community that everybody knows as the West Channel. The reason I decided to run is I think there needs to be a change. The little people’s voice needs to be heard and I’m hoping I can do that.

What kind of skills are you hoping to bring to the job?

My working relationship with all levels of government. I’ve done many things and I’ve always had good communication with all levels of government.

What have you done in the past that has helped that?

I was a former chief and, in that capacity, I sat on different levels of committees. We negotiated the Deh Cho process, that’s in progress. I sat on the executive committee and worked with local First Nations and Metis.

You said the little people’s voice needs to be heard. What is not being heard right now?

The high cost of living here in our community and right across the North. There are families, from elders to young families, struggling to try to stretch their income to benefit themselves. It’s tough. It’s not getting any better.

Do you have any ideas to tackle that?

There’s a few things I’ve been hearing. One is the high cost of food – we do have the food mail program and I think that program should be implemented where the consumer is benefiting. That could help. And also affordable housing. If a program could be developed where someone applies for a home, a training program could be attached to it and the homeowner could gain credits for building their own home.

Our community is known as ‘the Hub of the North’ and as everyone is well aware, our water levels have been dropping. We have a vast river of transportation that flows out of here: the coastguard, fishermen, NTCL, the Rangers. The river needs to be dredged out for safe harbouring. The funding for certain programs isn’t sufficient. We’re the second largest lake in Canada and that’s unacceptable.

Dredging has been brought up by the current MLAs a number of times and it seems like not too much has been done. How would you achieve something where other MLAs haven’t?

In my capacity as chief I had a working relationship between the Metis locals and the local First Nation. There’s a program in Winnipeg where I think, if there’s enough support, we can push for more funding to get the work that’s needed done and utilize infrastructure we already have in place in Hay River.

Where do you stand on fracking in the NWT? Should that be allowed to go ahead or not?

I think the voice was clear when the legislative assembly brought that to the table. Everybody made their decision: more research needs to be done and the safety of our environment is most important. That’s the future of our children and animals. If and when we are ready, and we can do it in a safe manner, sure. The work could be done. But it has to be fully supported by everybody.

Where else do you believe the territory should be looking for extra revenue? What else can we do to diversify the economy?

There’s great possibilities for tourism. If we can find the strength in every riding for what our community can do to support tourism – that’s a place to generate more funding. Use capacities we already have in our communities.

Taking Hay River North as an example, what could the town be doing that isn’t happening already to support tourism?

I’d have to talk to the local organizations who have their foot in the door, and their thoughts and views on how we can benefit.

How best do you think the Aboriginal communities of the South Slave are represented? What should the priorities be for them?

Being a First Nations person, there needs to be more communication. Bridges need to be built to work with each other, to try to help each other along the way. It’s been tough, I realize. Everybody has been struggling for programs to run for their local organizations. If there’s more communication and the door is open, I think everybody can benefit.

On health and education, there are huge issues in the NWT. Where should the next territorial government’s priorities be? What should happen first?

There definitely needs to be an increase in funding for health and social programs. At the education level, they’re trying to implement new programs but they don’t have the staffing to do it or the funding to be successful. In the social area, there need to be solutions to the problems that already exist.

Where should the extra funding come from? As an MLA, you may be forced to vote on cutting funding somewhere. What does the territory currently spend too much on?

I realize that everybody is asking for funding. The territorial government is already planning on increasing its borrowing limit and this is a young government. If we’re already borrowing money, there has to be a look at how money is being distributed today. If one program isn’t running right, maybe the money could be shifted to a different program. Money has to be shifted back and forth to deal with the problems. The budget needs to be reviewed, I think.

You’re running against the incumbent, Robert Bouchard. He has experience already. How will you convince voters not to re-elect him and take a chance on you?

I can’t convince anybody. I’m hoping they will have faith in what I can offer our community. I commend Robert for doing the job that he did. At the end of the day, it’ll be the people who show their support for whoever’s running and I wish everybody the best.

Are there any other issues you want to raise?

I believe the young and the elders need to come out and vote. This is our territorial government and their voice is needed. And their vote is needed. In order to be successful in addressing your concerns, you have to come and see your candidates and talk to them. That’s the only way things are going to get done. I wish everybody who’s running well.

RJ Simpson

RJ Simpson

Why have you decided to stand?

I’m a lifelong resident of Hay River. I went away to university for seven years and graduated last year. Every summer, when I came back, there seemed to be less and less activity in the town: a store would close, there would be less projects. People aren’t happy with the way things are going, they don’t see any progress for Hay River. I feel this is a great time – I have the energy and the drive to go up to Yellowknife and make some changes for Hay River.

What would some of those changes be?

Hay River’s voice isn’t being heard in the legislature. One thing I want to do is find common ground with other MLAs and work together to make progress, not just for Hay River but for the NWT. The big thing we need here is to kickstart our economy: it’s a downturn everywhere and were feeling those effects. We can use it to our advantage. A lot of people in Alberta have been laid off and we’re lacking population here, which is hampering business. We need to be able to attract new, skilled workers to Hay River. We have to make the town more amenable to entrepreneurship and industry – we can do things related to shipping like dredging, which has been a big issue in Hay River. We can’t get the barges full, it’s becoming dangerous for commercial fisherman. We can help out entrepreneurs, removing barriers. We can give advantages to truly local companies – right now, some companies with just satellite offices are getting contracts and local businesses can’t compete.

Across the whole of the NWT, as an MLA, you have to have a grasp of the big territorial issues. On bigger topics like the whole territorial economy – mining, fracking and environmental concerns – where do you stand?

We have abundant natural resources and we can’t go away from utilizing those. But you have to live off the interest, you can’t live off the capital – you can’t destroy the environment. There has to be a balanced approach. When it comes to fracking, we have to be responsible with it. As long as the mines are producing, we need them, but we can’t put all of our eggs in that basket. We have to diversify.

How do we do that?

Around Hay River there’s a new pellet plant being built – that’s a good renewable source. We’re harvesting trees from around here, that’s a couple of hundred jobs in this area. Northern agriculture is coming into its own and starting around Hay River, and that goes to food security and the cost of living. There’s also a manufacturing sector we have to look into, we have to build that base, market locally and also, we’re close to Alberta: we can access that market.

From a health point of view, a lot of people have problems with the fact that patients are sent south for treatment. Some people believe they should be kept in the NWT. The government says that’s too expensive and they can’t get the staff. How should that piece of legislation be handled?

We really miss the treatment centre here. We can make Hay River a place where people want to move to, and where they want to work.

So it’s about making Hay River an attractive place first?

That’s what the constituents of Hay River North are concerned about.

If you look at education, how would you change the way the territory approaches that?

One of the major issues here is that the district education authority needs to retain control over how money is spent. If they’re not being funded adequately, they need control over how the money is spent as they know their needs. There also need to be better programs to increase adult literacy – that’s a major barrier to jobs for a lot of people. We need better overall education to create a more skilled workforce – that includes not just holding schools and students to higher standards, but also retaining students who go down south for university. We have to actively recruit them and make it easier for people to get trades. Working with small businesses, I know it’s hard to find journeymen and hard to find journeymen who want to take on an apprentice. If you don’t have the hours to get the schooling you need, sometimes you have to wait an entire year. We need more flexible options for people.

How long do you imagine it’ll take to turn Hay River around? You and other candidates want to restore industry and attract more people. This could take time.

I’m not sure, but there are things we can do immediately to start attracting people. We need to make people realize the NWT is a place you can do business and a place you can live. We can grow our population relatively quickly.

Looking at housing and homelessness, how can the territory improve what it offers people?

One thing I’ve learned is the issue with seniors’ housing. That needs to be address. A lot of seniors want to stay in their own home but sometimes it’s just not feasible and, once they can’t, there are a limited options. We also have to think about fuel subsidies – the cut-off is almost arbitrary. We need to look at things like a prorated system or indexing that. We need to grow the economy so that people will need to build apartment buildings. Spur the economy and get the population here to increase demand for things like that.

If you were elected, how comfortable are you working in the NWT’s consensus government system? Is it broken?

It definitely has its issues. Part of the problem is the school of thought that exists there right now. One thing that’s exciting about this election is there are a lot of young people, and we can change the way they do business in there. As an MLA you have to find common ground and work together. What benefits Hay River is going to benefit the entire territory and vice versa. We can make consensus government work.

In the past, MLAs from Yellowknife and Hay River have sometimes found it hard to find that common ground. How would you ensure that does happen this time around?

The first thing that happens is people are looking for cabinet positions. We need to sit down and find common ground. It’s not impossible. The population isn’t that big, we’re not that far apart. There are things we can agree on. The first thing I’ll do is sit down with MLAs and sort things like that out. There’s a desire to work with each other and we can utilize that.

Two other candidates are running against you. How are you distinguishing yourself from them?

I’m going to bring a lot of energy to the legislature. Our voice isn’t being heard right now and that’s one thing I know I can change. I’m not afraid to bring up our issues and maybe annoy the other MLAs with Hay River concerns. I’m going to put in the work. I’m willing to put in the 16-hour days to make a difference. Things have been stagnant here too long.

Which other issues would you like to mention?

It’s time for a change. We need fresh energy in there, someone who doesn’t know how things are supposed to work – who can go in there and shake things up, and make Hay River a player again. We need to revitalize our local economy, things like shipping and fishing. We need to work on bringing those back and part of that is working on dredging. People say it’s a federal issue – we have to work with the feds and tackle that issue. We have to foster Hay River’s entrepreneurial spirit. There are successful companies here and a lot of entrepreneurs have great business models, they just need the barriers out of the way so they can grow. There’s no reason we can’t be a centre of manufacturing in the NWT. In education, we have to focus on bringing skilled people to Hay River and bringing people back who have gone away. We need skilled labour to make this economy a reality. I’m going to fight for those things in the legislature.

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