Moose FM sat down with each candidate ahead of the territorial election day on November 23, 2015. Here’s what Kam Lake’s candidates told us.
You have two very large briefs. What on earth compels you to want more of that?
I’ve really enjoyed the last four years. I’ve been in politics for a number of years and I had the ambition to become a cabinet minister and have the opportunity to sit around that table, ask questions and make decisions on behalf of my constituents residents here in the NWT. It’s been very rewarding. I think our government has accomplished a great deal.
As a member of cabinet there can sometimes be a worry that it’s harder to represent your constituents. How do you feel you’ve been able to do that?
Folks were used to seeing me ask questions on the other side of the house as a regular member for eight years. I still ask a lot of questions, people know that. They’ve put their trust in me to ask those hard questions at the cabinet table – it’s just not done in a public setting but believe me, I still ask those hard questions. I’ll continue to do that.
What questions have you been asking?
With my portfolios I certainly go to bat for jobs, opportunities, the economy, promoting the NWT, trying to find dollars for infrastructure. Looking at the justice system: a new facility for women in Fort Smith, trying to get capital dollars, policing plans, for communities around the NWT, working closely with the RCMP. I’ve been able to help steer a number of things. Given my experience and my ability to ask questions and get things done, I’m happy to let my name stand again.
Would you want to keep the same portfolios?
It will depend on who the premier is. The premier assigns the portfolios. It’s kind of like chess – you can’t play unless you know what the pieces do. After all these 19 members are elected, we’ll get a better indication of who does what and how things are going to work together. It’s important for me right now to concentrate on reaching out to voters and discussing their priorities. From there, we’ll see where things go but I’ve certainly enjoyed my time as justice minister and ITI.
What do you see as being your priorities for Kam Lake if you’re returned as an MLA?
I can be a conduit between constituents and City Hall – a lot of issues about there are municipal issues. We have regular meetings with council and the mayor and I have five years’ experience as a city councillor, so I can help in that regard. Also, Kam Lake is home to many small and medium-sized businesses so ensuring we have a business climate here in the NWT conducive to getting programs and services to businesses, and also having a look at tax rates – how we can spur the economy. Sam Lake is the economic engine of this city. What happens there is very important and representing those businesses and the residents out there is something I’ve fully enjoyed for the last 12 years. I want to continue to do that.
Indeed, you are the man for those businesses – the industry minister, someone who can actually have an impact on what happens to those small businesses. What specifically have you told them you’ll do for them?
We’re just getting into the campaign. Tax relief is important. Being able to work with the new federal government in Ottawa on some of the promises they made, including money for infrastructure and tax deduction. Also, from the GNWT’s perspective, given the change in political climate in Alberta it’s important for us to sharpen our pencil when it comes to tax rates here in the NWT and see if we can attract some of that corporate filing back to the Northwest Territories.
You are at the head, if you like, of one of the most divisive issues in the NWT right now: fracking. There have been many months of discussion and debate. You have more freedom to talk about this during the election period: what’s your view?
If you listen to the public, you can never go wrong. We got to the end of the 17th Assembly and didn’t have a conclusion on where we take the draft regulations. It’s important to get out and continue to talk to people in an effort to get it right. We want to ensure we have a climate here where we can do things right. Given that we inherited the filing requirements from the National Energy Board, hydraulic fracturing is an allowable activity in the NWT. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the falling price of oil. That’s had a direct impact on exploration here – we believe we’re at least two to three, maybe four or five years away from a return to exploration and applications to hydraulically fracture wells in the NWT. We’ve got some time. We want to ensure we get this right and that we have the right regulations to protect the environment and give people peace of mind.
Fair to characterize you, then, as pro-fracking – but fracking done right?
That’s correct. Given the fact that we do have a tremendous resource base here – close to 200 billion barrels of oil in the central Mackenzie Valley – it’s important we don’t close off opportunities for business and jobs for our young people. We shouldn’t be too quick to say no. It’s done in other jurisdictions, especially in western Canada, without incident and technology continues to advance. While we’re waiting for that investment in exploration to come back, we can continue to invest in infrastructure that will allow us to attract those companies back. A road down the Mackenzie Valley is certainly something that’s a big priority for the GNWT and the people in the valley. We have to continue to invest in ourselves.
The word ‘diversification’ leaps out from your list of key concerns and priorities here. What have you done to really diversify this economy beyond minerals, oil and gas into other avenues?
I’m glad you asked that question. Early in the 17th Assembly we struck out on a course to get an economic opportunities strategy put in place that would get us away from the resource extraction part of the economy and focus on tourism, the traditional economy, fishing and agriculture. We’ve done a great deal in that regard. The NFTI in Hay River is going to be world-recognized and it’ll take knowledge back to NWT communities. We’ve got community gardens and greenhouses in every NWT community. If you look at tourism, that’s been a big winner for us. We’ve promoted and marketed the NWT not just in North America but globally, and we’ve seen some big numbers – especially on tourism from Asia. I believe we’ve only scratched the surface of our potential. We’ve got a Korean tour operator now, more Chinese tour operators, and Yellowknife was recently recognized as the fastest-growing tourism destination in Canada. That’s a testament to our government’s ability to get more marketing dollars and to our world-class operators. We’re very excited about the future.
A commercial fishery – we continue to try to build up the brand and the domestic market. We have money for a new export-grade fish facility in Hay River and we’re looking for a partner in developing that. The industry itself is a far cry from what it used to be – our goal is to get it back to what it used to be and I think we’ve made good progress. We’re moving other sectors of the economy forward. Diamond mining is the backbone of the economy and really we’re fortunate to see the advancement at Gahcho Kue. Mining will be a mainstay for us as we go forward but diversification is very important and our strategy will be the foundation for that.
Lastly, I want to talk about your role as minister of justice. Yellowknife has its fair share of crime: a police chase across town in April, a hostage crisis this time last year, a sex offender back on the streets without anybody knowing earlier this year. In your list of key concerns and priorities, crime isn’t mentioned. Why not?
The RCMP have been doing a great job policing the NWT. We’ve made good progress in putting together community policing plans to look at bootlegging, illegal drugs. Here in Yellowknife, and I mentioned this in the legislature, I haven’t seen so many big drug busts in Yellowknife in all my time in politics. That’s a testament to all the good work the RCMP are putting in.
It could just be that there are more drugs in Yellowknife – there are two ways of looking at that.
I grew up here, I’ve been here for 35 years, and I really do believe it’s the crackdown and police work the RCMP are putting in. It’s been great and I’ve really enjoyed working with the RCMP.
But not a priority? Not a key concern? The fishery’s in here… I mean, crime? Justice?
You can look at it both ways. It’s not a real positive thing.
It’s an important thing, though right? You’re the minister of justice. It must be a priority.
It is a priority. But the police and RCMP are allowed to do their work and I believe they’ve done a great job at it. Having grown up in this community I don’t see crime – some people like to make it out to be a big thing but you’re going to have some of that regardless. I just think the RCMP are doing a great job.
You have a straight fight in Kam Lake. In 60 seconds, how do you differentiate yourself? Why should people pick you and not the other candidate?
For me it goes back to experience. I’ve got an education in political science, Aboriginal law and self-government. I’ve been working with Aboriginal leaders and communities across the NWT for the past 12 years. The last four years I’ve been the attorney general, the minister of justice and the minister of industry. Also, I was the first NWT politician elected president of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, a post I held last year. Really, I’ve spent the majority of my 12 years in politics promoting the NWT as a place to invest, talking about the opportunities here. No-one knows more about those opportunities than I do and no-one knows my riding better than I do I’m looking forward to another four years but it only comes through hard work. I expect my challenger to get out there and work hard, and it’s going to make me work even harder. I’ve got to earn the right to represent the riding again and I fully intend to do that.
If people haven’t heard your name before, who are you?
I’m a life-long northerner. I’m very proud to be from the North. I’m a single father raising my son here as well. For the past few years I’ve been working for the government as a deputy sheriff and then as a policy analyst. I’ve been involved in politics my whole life, in some capacity – mostly at the federal level. Through that work, I learned a lot of issues northerners are facing can only be addressed by their territorial government, and that’s one of the main reasons I’m stepping up to put my name forward: northerners need some results, some action, on long-standing issues that haven’t been addressed very well.
Let’s focus on Kam Lake first. What have you heard from people in Kam Lake and how do you propose to make a genuine difference to their lives?
Kam Lake is an interesting riding, it’s an intersection of business and people from all sorts of income levels. For a long time, it hasn’t had the kind of investment it deserves. I’m proposing a very bold plan that brings real investment to Kam Lake, to Yellowknife and to all of our communities. In the industrial park there’s substantial frustration from business about seeing their cost of doing business brought down, and having stronger advocacy from their MLA to resolve some of those issues. We need a new vision that can champion those issues in a meaningful way and provide them with more than what they’ve heard, which is a lot of talk and not a lot of action. My plan is focused on delivering immediate action: lowering our cost of living, creating more economic opportunities for Northerners and investing in our communities to build a more vibrant and healthy Yellowknife and Kam Lake.
You’re hitting some big things there. You talk about having a plan to lower the cost of living – please share it, because a lot of people would like to hear it. It seems no-one has found one yet. What’s yours?
One thing the territorial government can control is the cost of power. We’ve studied the problem for a long time but haven’t taken action on the solutions. We can invest in proven clean energy technology that’s affordable – we know we can implement it today and it will result in energy savings. We can also explore linking the grids to the south so we can sell the excess power generated and import power to offset a low-running hydro system. It can’t be done all at once – it’s a multi-billion-dollar project or perhaps a bit less, but it’s a substantial amount of money. You have to do these things sequentially. You need to stop worrying about the total cost and start worrying about giving northerners relief to their cost of living. Bringing down the cost of power has a benefit to business – because it’s hard to run a business when you’re paying so much – and of course to homeowners and renters. It affects us all and will result in an affordable NWT.
When you say proven clean energy solutions, what do you mean?
Solar and wind have a lot of viability in the NWT. For example, in Kodiak, Alaska, they have a hydro system leveraged with wind and solar – so when the hydro system is running low, they have a backstop. Those are the solutions we need to start looking at. Geothermal is another.
You say we should not really worry about the total cost because presumably you think they’ll pay for themselves later on. But where will the money come from to do that?
We’ll have to ask for help from our federal partners.
We already asked for $1.3 billion of help. We have a huge borrowing limit, federally. Do you want more?
No, I think direct investment from the federal government. We have a new government committed to doubling infrastructure expenditure. Plenty of money has been promised and the task is having strong advocates that can target those projects and use it strategically, so we can make the right investments for today and for our future.
Speaking of the last election, you of course wanted to be a part of that: for a period of time, you were seeking the Liberal nomination. How do you go about convincing people now that this, actually, is what you want to be doing politically, and it wasn’t being an MP in a Trudeau government?
My focus is on serving the public and helping northerners with their issues. It always has been, from day one. My involvement has always been about community service and supporting the needs of northerners. That process put me in touch with a lot of frustrated northerners who are tired of paying so much and falling further and further behind. That’s why I’m stepping up. I want to give back and that process was a different process, a different government. I realize that the solutions can’t be solved in Ottawa – it’s helpful to have a strong advocate in Ottawa but what we need is some action here, a territorial government that understands the needs of northerners and prioritizes those needs above other priorities that I think we’ve been pursuing, that aren’t all that helpful.
You worked very closely with Michael McLeod on his campaign to be elected as the MP of the NWT. Michael is the brother of Bob McLeod. That gives you quite a close link there to the current Premier. Do you think that helps?
No, I don’t. This isn’t about who’s in government or who has won an election, this is about the people of Kam Lake and my commitment is to support their needs and aspirations with a plan that speaks to exactly what they want to hear, making a real difference in their lives. Previous elections have nothing to do with it. I’m focused 100 percent on this election and the voters of Kam Lake.
Let’s look at your platform. The phrase ‘knowledge economy’ is in there to do with education, and you have specific measures you want to put in place. What do you want to do?
We have a lack of post-secondary opportunity for northerners. I’ve called for a 10-year plan to transform Aurora College into a polytechnic institute. This will allow northerners to stay in the North, work in the North and gain a quality education in the North. Right now, there are a lot of gaps and some students have trouble meeting their class requirements. That can have far-reaching consequences where their progress is delayed. We have to look at that. Many students have told me the current approach isn’t working. We need to invest in the college, turn it into a real generator for the knowledge economy, and build a new campus in Yellowknife. The current campus is old, we need a quality learning environment. With that comes an attached service economy that will create jobs and opportunities for our downtown core and bring more revitalization to Yellowknife. Our businesses are saying the labour pool needs to be expanded. Having those resources here is a benefit we can all agree the North needs.
Some of these projects will require a lot of cash. Other candidates have chosen in their platforms to put that money toward early childhood education. Why, for you, was this the priority over that?
There’s a lot of discussion we have to have about early childhood education. Junior kindergarten was a divisive issue for many and that needs to be a discussion we have in the next government. But we aren’t talking about post-secondary education. A lot of people assume northerners need to leave and then come back. But not all students do, and when they do it’s very difficult. We need to change the focus to investing in northerners and opportunity for northerners, where they can stay and find meaningful opportunities for education and future employment.
If you’re elected, what promises are you making about the way you will represent the Aboriginal community in your district and across the territory?
My commitment is a nation-to-nation dialogue. We need to embrace the principle of reconciliation as our guiding compass and recognize the past but build a future together in full partnership and full respect for one another. I want to work with our indigenous partners and governments to ensure we have a shared vision for our future and end some of the blockades holding us back. It’s in the interest of everyone in the NWT that we have a strong economy with adequate resource development and that can only come if we’re working in partnership, have proper respect, and acknowledge previous relationships.
What are some of those blockades you want to strip away?
Land claims need to be settled. They need to be given proper time and consideration to make sure it’s fair and respectful of that relationship – but there are things we can do in advance, such as land use planning. I think we can bring all sides to the table and come up with land use plans that will give certainty to exploration activities from industry and certainty to Aboriginal groups, governments and nations that their land and traditions will be preserved and protected with proper land use planning. That’s a priority for me and will help provide the certainty that companies have been lacking. It will help move our economy and our relationship with Aboriginal nations forward.
One pillar of your platform is democratic reform. What do you mean by that?
There’s a lot of frustration with how our government currently operates – at least, that’s what I’ve heard on the doorstep for many years now. I think northerners should have a right to be more informed about the decision-making process, how leaders are selected and how their money is being spent. The new hospital is a good example of a process that nobody really saw coming – it was supposed to be a renovation and now it’s a brand new hospital, right before an election. That’s the kind of concern people have about transparency and accountability. I’ve committed to launching a special committee on democratic reform, so we can have a conversation involving all stakeholders about what we want our future government to look like. We can explore options across the world about the best system for us.
The Premier of the NWT says he wants a second term. Is it time for a change?
Definitely. In terms of my riding, it’s time for a change: a new vision and a more accountable representative for the people of Kam Lake. To bring a representative who has a plan, like I do, to bring more accountability and transparency. That will have an impact on how government operates. I have an issue with how the premier is selected to begin with, and I’ve committed to make my vote public, to let people know who I will be supporting for cabinet.
It’s tricky though, isn’t it? When you get into the legislature, you need to work with people and work inside the existing system before you’re able to change it. If you go in ruffling feathers, for want of a better phrase, do you believe you can get everything done?
I don’t necessarily think it’s ruffling feathers. I think there is an interest in being more transparent for many of the existing members.
Why do you think it hasn’t been done?
I don’t think there’s been the political will to make it a priority. Devolution was the key priority. Now that process is done, it gives us the ability to look at what kind of government we want. What can we actually achieve to make our system better? Now we have the time to have that conversation while committing to build a stronger economy. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be a problem for other MLAs to support that.
What else do you want to say that separates you from your rival?
I have a plan that has a lot of priorities northerners are asking for. People say my plan speaks to their needs and that’s what it comes down to: a new vision, a bold and ambitious plan that focuses on what we can do. Northerners face challenges with boldness and hope and that’s exactly what my plan does. People are inspired by positive change, not more of the same and doom-and-gloom. I’m committed to possibilities and opportunities.