Moose FM sat down with each candidate ahead of the territorial election day on November 23, 2015. Here’s what Yellowknife North’s candidates told us.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was originally born in the Philippines and came here when I was eight years old, in 1968. I’ve lived here for 47 years now – my dad got a job here in mining, with Giant primarily, and I went to school at St Pat’s. Then I went to the University of Alberta and got a business administration degree, and I’ve worked with the government ever since. I’ve been in public service all that time. I’ve been involved in various boards, including school boards, and more recently with the Stanton Hospital Foundation – also various sports organizations.
What has made you decide now is the time to stand in Yellowknife North?
It’s my kids, my family, that encouraged me to do it. Also, because of my 30 years of government, I decided I’d like to play a more active role in the decision-making end of things – really, again, for my children, the people I care for. If I can get a little more active in the decision-making process, hopefully I can do a lot better and do good that way.
Where do you think that process is breaking down?
I’m hopeful in terms of making sure that the future of the NWT – and also Yellowknife, the riding… it’ll be a positive, in terms of the changes that are going happen. If I get in, I can use the expertise that I have – I also have a CJA, by the way – in terms of transparency and accountability as it relates to decisions that are made.
In terms of those decisions though, where do you identify priorities? What decisions do you want to change?
Affordability and cost of living is really the number one on my list. I’ve heard a lot of people say the cost of living here is really high. The salary attracts a lot of people. In terms of trying to improve that affordability aspect, I’d like to see better infrastructure developed to open up a lot more. Education is also really important to me to ensure the capacity is there, and keep our students in the North.
Constituents want to see MLAs who can manage financially. Where would you move money around right now? How would you refocus it?
Because I’m a professional accountant, budgeting and… my last position was financial planner with the housing corp. I would like to see money moved around. You only have so many dollars. In terms of best value, I’m advocating a closer look at what is the most viable. Education, for example, is primary to me. I think that’ll get us out of a lot of our situation in terms of the poverty aspects. If we develop a positive infrastructure base we can have a more sustainable future. Promote our small businesses as well. Energy costs are also quite high so you want to develop infrastructure that moves us away from diesel and more to renewables. Also, growing our local economies in terms of tourism, fishing and the agricultural base.
Let’s take your education example. We only have so much money. Some candidates want to put that into post-secondary, improving Aurora College. Others want to focus on early childhood education. Where’s your focus?
Pretty-well everything. I would like to see investment in early childhood education and I’d like to provide support for daycares as well – there are issues now like the Yellowknife Daycare Association being displaced, and I’d like to ensure they do have an adequate home. There should be adequate funding for junior kindergarten. I’d like to promote the Dechinta learning centre toward university status. In terms of the university, ultimately I’d like to see a university here in Yellowknife and I think technology will encourage that kind of thing. It’s definitely possible if we partner with southern organizations.
Where do you think the territorial government is succeeding right now? What policies would you develop and promote if you were an MLA?
I find our policies at this time are a little bit outdated. They need to change. People find them confusing, at times contradictory. Departments, at times, work in their own silos when there should be an integrated effort. In terms of the social envelope – health, justice, education and income support – could work a lot better to address the homelessness situation in Yellowknife and work with the groups that are at there. Then someone who needs help can go through a single-window concept. I like the idea of the Homeful coalition but they need fair representation.
Looking at the economy, how do you propose we earn money for the NWT and support industry while preserving the environment?
We have to grow our revenue base, thats important. A lot of our funding right now is from the federal government but it’s important to support our local businesses and traditional activities. In my priorities I have affordability, balance and change – balance ensures stability, fairness and equity. There are also performance measures I’m advocating to ensure there’s fairness developing the economy, that preserves and protects the environment. The two can work together. You can have a viable economy in terms of growth but also work toward alternative energy sources for a sustainable environment. There’s a lot of uncertainty but also opportunities.
The mining industry is plateauing right now. Should we increase investment in attracting industries like that, or move away from it?
We can’t forget Yellowknife was built based on the mines. A lot of people rely on jobs that way. I would continue to support the mining sector. Commodities have been quite volatile but I would like to see still more exploration activities, it’s important. At the same time we need to talk to the Aboriginal groups, settle land claims for example, and protect the environment. In terms of the economy itself, I would like to encourage the small business sector. Mining plays a large role but I would like to move away from the things that are damaging to the environment like reliance on diesel fuel. I don’t think there’s a future in that any more. When we’re building infrastructure, we need to be cognizant of the environment impacts and the costs. The tiny homes concept I like, energy retrofits, biomass and hydro. There’s an opportunity there to realize some savings.
Yellowknife has just elected its first councillor from the Filipino community. What need is there for a Filipino voice territorially?
It’s very important. It’s important for there to be representation from all ethnic and cultural groups. There needs to be a lot more women, for example, also, and even more Aboriginals in management areas. Diversity, to me, is a plus. If anything, that’s what promotes growth, ideas and innovation.
You’re in a crowded district – five people running. How are you going to make yourself stand out?
I have the experience. I have the qualifications. I have that professional designation in financial management and I’ve been here quite a while. My passion is for my family and children. With that in mind, there are a lot of families that can appreciate the challenges of raising kids here in the North. With my experience and what I stand for, I can relate better to the constituents that I hopefully will be representing.
Give people an impression of who you are and why you want to stand.
It’s interesting. When I was first asked that, in a previous interview, I had to think about that. Who am I? I’ve been a resident of Yellowknife for the most part for 48 years. I came here as a young boy, dragged along by my father and mother. I lived across from St Patrick’s School and was raised and influenced by not only the Yellowknife environment but by all that is the North. I’ve worked in numerous fields over the years: I’ve been a land use planner, a part-time teacher, a bus driver, a truck driver, I’ve done policy work, I’ve worked for non-profits, and then I went away and became an artist in the field of theatre – graduating from the National Theatre School. My first degree was a Bachelor in Law and Political Science, which I’ve applied in little bits and I continue to apply that. I returned and set up my own independent theatre company to tell stories of the North for northerners and I’ve been very successful with that.
I then worked surveying constituents through three offices – one when Brian Lewis was the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, as his constituency assistant. Then I was asked to be the assistant to the Speaker of the House during division of the NWT. That was a fascinating thing to be involved with. Then, most recently, I’ve been the constituency assistant for the past MP, Dennis Bevington, dealing with all the constituency issues that have walked into the door there. I’ve been heavily involved with organizations throughout my life here, sitting on and starting boards, continuing my public service that way. Currently I am co-chair of the NWT Arts Council and that is a position I hold quite dear to my heart.
I want to focus first on your time working alongside Dennis Bevington. What, in the course of winning a couple of elections and most recently losing one, do you feel you have learned about how best you could represent people in Yellowknife?
It’s interesting. Dennis had a great saying: ‘The NWT is like the largest small community in Canada.’ And if there’s something to learn, it’s about being very personal. Not hiding behind anything. Being very open. Listening very, very closely to what people are saying and the general mood. What I’ve learned is really that it’s about eye-to-eye communication. Once you have the information, whatever it is, it’s being able to action it – saying we can do something about this and not taking no for an answer.
You’re running in a crowded field. What, in your platform, distinguishes you from the people you’re running against?
There’s a creative element I bring to not only the ability to put ideas on the table, but also to break down barriers. What is the potential for, let’s say, housing? For education? For investment? For going green in big ways? For our kids? I always operate from the what-if: what if we had Canada’s best education system? What if we had the highest graduation rates in North America? What if we had 100 percent employment and zero homelessness? That’s where I come form. My platform became about flow: what are the most important values that we have here in the NWT, from which we can look at concrete actions to be taken?
Under environment, you write: ‘Ban all non-conventional oil extraction.’ That’s very firm. Why that stance?
That’s interesting. If I can backtrack a little, the platform is built upon what I think need to be the priorities. Number one is environment. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water and walk on the same land. Number two is identity: who are we? We are tied very closely to health of land and environment. Then, how well are we? There’s all kinds of questions about that. Then, tied to that, is education: how well are we doing with our education? Are we actually reaching for the stars and realizing the best education for both our children and ourselves? Then we look at economy. If the land is sick, we have no sense of who we are – we’re not well, and we’re uneducated – our economy is going to suffer. We’ll be counting on big projects to come in but they’re for the most part boom-and-bust. Then there’s governance. How do we govern? Going back to the question, for me, the science proves – and experiences in many other jurisdictions prove – that fracking is disruptive to the environment. It is not safe. It is of such a high intensity that it forever changes the landscape. Looking at the global situation with the warming of the planet, we don’t need to add – out of this territory – one more barrel of oil or gas. We could do a major shift towards sustainable, green energy.
And yet, for the current territorial government, these are central planks of the economic strategy. What would you replace those planks with?
I think the economic strategy is flawed. There’s an old saying: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.’ If we continue to say there’s no way to branch out, diversify and develop small-scale localized economies, we’ll get what we’ve always got. Mining is important and I’m not pulling away from that at all. If you continue to say that without mining, oil and gas development we have no territory, I think you have to say, if we didn’t have mining, what would we have? We don’t have oil and gas due to a global situation. The cost of getting that out is exorbitant. I think it’s unrealistic and now is that window of opportunity to look at that situation and say, ‘How do we build a diversified, small, sustainable economy that can be done in small, incremental steps?’
How do we do that? Good question. Let’s look at all of the sectors. Tourism: we’ve got a huge amount of interest and an increasing tourism market. Identity: what makes us unique here in the North? We’ve got incredible resource in the imaginations, in the culture and in the artistic abilities of our citizens. We have one of the highest per-capita artist base in Canada here, underfunded and under-resourced. It isn’t huge and as fat or as fancy as oil and gas, but it is small, localized and, if done right, it can be solid. Food security: agriculture programs. It’s great to see greenhouses come up, people starting to take planting seriously, the schools starting to build greenhouses etc. There’s enormous potential and always has been. We used to have a beef and dairy farm in Aklavik. Now people are starting to take that seriously due to the high cost of living and also due to the fact it’s a business or co-op opportunity. Energy sources: we’ve got local companies saying they can do large district heating systems through biomass. Fisheries: we’ve got world-class fish. A lot of these whitefish out of Great Slave Lake don’t end up in the local market, they end up in the markets in New York City.
There’s an appetite for much more than oil, gas and mining here in the NWT. We need to reallocate our energies into saying small is beautiful, small can be big, small, incremental steps are OK – and realize that money in itself is just a tool by which you make something happen. If we have the will and the leadership will to make something like this happen, we have a small and dynamic enough population to make this work.
Why should you, and not your rivals, be elected?
I have great faith in the common, everyday citizen with their head down, working hard. They vote intelligently. Yellowknife North voters – all of them – they’re smart, they’re articulate, they’re intelligent, they’re well-travelled and educated. They will choose the best platform. All we candidates can do is lay out our ideas and communicate those in the best way that we can, then let the voter make the choice. In the hands of the voters I put the platform. Hopefully there’s a little light that gets lit and by the end of it we’ve got a big fire to sit in front of and warm our hands.
You’re known to many as a city councillor. How has that prepared you for a territorial job?
That’s what I’m taking forward into this position. For two terms I’ve been a city councillor and taken that experience as well as that I’ve had contributing to local boards and charitable committees – the Long John Jamboree is a good example. I want to take my 38 years living in the North, my time as a small business owner, and all of those experiences combined, and be the voice for Yellowknife North residents.
How easy are you finding it to make the mental shift from municipal politics to territorial issues?
That’s a great question. For the last six years, my mind and life has been inundated in concerns raised on the municipal level. There is a transitional period. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been going door-to-door and people have been informing me – I’m taking the time to listen and learn. In many instances I’m not the one with the solution, it’s the people I’m talking to at the door. That’s what’s important.
Let’s get into some examples of things you have heard. What are you starting to feel are the priorities of the people you hope would be your constituents?
A lot of people are talking about the economy but before we jump into that, in my riding, it’s people first. If we can’t take care of ourselves, there’s no point in talking about strengthening the economy or any other issue. People are telling me it’s time that we get rid of a lot this us-versus-them and start to unify in every regard. It’s important that we have efforts put behind poverty reduction and elimination – in a territory our size, I don’t think it’s an unrealistic goal to be able to attain that in the future. That includes many facets such as homelessness as well as mental health and addictions. The program I’m thinking of that’s headed up by Alternatives North, the Vote No to Poverty campaign, has five key pillars and that is programming I will get behind aggressively. People with disabilities throughout the NWT need a lot of support from us: they put out a program in 2008 with five building blocks, and that was updated recently. It’d be very important for me as an elected official to get behind and represent people with disabilities. I’m also a member of the NWT Disabilities Council – this is important to me.
Early childcare is extremely important, daycare programming as well as pre-kindergarten. I see no reason why we can’t get the territorial government to fund pre-kindergarten entirely. In terms of our general health, I quit smoking a dozen years ago – I lost my mom to cancer. I’ll be a strong advocate for the new territorial government strategy and work diligently for the anti-tobacco campaign. Also in my riding, another important aspect is support for the arts and culture. There are so many festivals and events in the riding that happen annually and are venues for artists. I’ve already alluded to the Long John Jamboree, an unbelievable winter festival that allows artists to showcase their skills and ability. We want to grow, expand and support those kinds of festivals: Ramble and Ride, Folk on the Rocks, NACC. They’re all talking to me about the need for core funding to keep the doors open, keep the lights on, that sort of thing. They can access different grants, sponsors and businesses, but it’s the day-to-day maintenance of an office and executive director that they need funding support for, and we can’t just rely on the city. We also need to find ways to show off our artists to the rest of the world. Leela Gilday is a good example of a Northern product that’s just world-class and we need to support that. We need to support arts growth in the school system, too. Having strong mechanisms injected into the educational curriculum to support arts will be a huge positive for our territory.
How will you balance the additional arts investment you’re looking for with the fact that the territory is facing so many other challenges?
We all know we’re not really growing in any regard as relates to income but we are in control of our own resources now. Those resources come with royalties. There are questions around what the heritage fund will start to look like, and I think it’s time we build up that fund and use it for diversifying and growing other areas – certainly the creative industry like arts, film-making and culture can be supported through that.
Let’s turn to the economy then. In your priorities you set out online, I found it hard to find mention of mining. Where do you stand in regard to developing mining in the NWT?
We are a resource-based economy and resource extraction is that economy – nearly 30 percent of our GDP right now comes from the diamond industry and another 20 percent is at arm’s length in support of that industry. We do have to recognize that that is our corner support mechanism. I support the ability to make exploration not necessarily easier – it has to be practical and responsible – but I support it taking place. It’s a necessity to grow the resource extraction industry in the sense of not having all of our eggs in the diamond basket – I see that as being very risky. We need to support other ventures by investing in the proper infrastructure: telecommunications, transportation, power supply. Those will be key priorities for investment to expand resource extraction in the coming years.
What do you believe to be the priorities for your Aboriginal constituents?
This is a very interesting question. I recognize that although we have gone forward with the Truth and Reconciliation process, and although Ottawa has given an apology and kindly written cheques, I don’t see that we’re fully there. As a city councillor and as the City of Yellowknife we have support a number of TRC recommendations – those are nice and good to have but, in many regards, I think we failed in that whole process. We, the white people who were part of the process of inflicting pain on these people, were really not there at the table to say our side of the story, so how much reconciliation has really taken place? First and foremost I recognize we are still in denial to some degree, and a lot of effort has to be made in creating positive partnerships with Aboriginal people again. The territorial government has to go to Ottawa, we have to talk to our new representative – Michael McLeod – and say, look, the Indian Act needs revision, if not scrapping. It needs a collective and collaborative approach with the people it most affects to revise it. Second, we have to institute the recommendations of the TRC panel. In the North, the Deh Cho and Akaitcho land claims ultimately have huge impacts on our future, not only for posterity but most certainly for prosperity and most importantly for advancing the culture, language and lifestyle of the Aboriginal people.
In a crowded field in Yellowknife North, how are you distinguished from your rivals?
I have a proven track record of giving the needed attention to all aspects; being strong on supporting components around the environment and our stewardship responsibility; for support on social programming, and reaching out and taking care of people; and, as a small business owner, as the person who has a very watchful eye for our fiscal responsibility. We must take care of our environment and people but need to make sure we’re in a financially strong position to do so. I’m the voice of reason with a strong, moderate approach on most issues.
You’ve been a city councillor. How has that experience informed your campaign?
At city council you learn how to compromise. Every year we sit down and do the budget, a week’s worth of meetings and a month’s worth of reading. We cut, we add programs, we defer projects. You lose some, you win some. Within the tight budgets we’ve had only one percent tax increases for the past three budgets, compared to the four percent average over the previous decade. We’ve been able to do some incredible things like kerbside composting. Going into the next legislative assembly and looking at the territorial budget, there will be difficult decisions made but I feel ready to do that – and compromise with other MLAs to get it done.
Why was now the time to make the move from municipal to territorial politics?
Definitely a tough decision. I love the work at city council but there’s a lot at stake over the next few years. People are hurting. They’re working hard but they’re struggling against rising costs. Others are struggling against homelessness and addictions. Revenues are flatlining, population growth is stagnant. There are going to be tough decisions. Climate change is real and happening now. I do believe we can address these challenges and make progress against them, and that’s why I’m running.
What solutions do you have for some of these challenges? What’s at the top of your list of things to achieve?
I have a full plan on my website. In a nutshell, we need to do three things: build a healthy community by fighting mental health and addictions, not the people suffering. We need to look at a Housing First model and bring a university of the North here. Clean, affordable power: we need to find a better way to make energy and ought to look at solar, wind and wood energy where they work. How will we sustain our economy? We were fortunate when the diamond mines came online as the gold mines were shutting down. Let’s find other ways to create jobs that are local, lasting quality jobs.
Mental health and addictions – what, specifically, would you want to change about the current approach?
We need to take a serious look at getting a mental health transition facility here in Yellowknife. We’ve talked about a treatment centre for a long time. We have to be realistic about why that hasn’t happened and it may not be feasible right now – it’s difficult to get highly trained staff up here and it’s tough to do it all under one roof. We have specialized treatment options to refer northerners down to – the problem is they come back up here, and what happens? A transitional facility based on Housing First principles that does have some mental health supports will help these folks who decide they are ready for addictions treatment to continue their road to recovery. It can also be a place where people can come in right off the street and be stabilized – then, if they so choose, go to addictions treatment. Hope’s Haven, downtown, the new project for youth, is just an incredible facility.
How do you envisage a territorial government supporting an initiative you dealt with municipally as a councillor? Where is the line drawn there? How do those governments work together?
The territorial government has to take responsibility. The city has done incredible work given its small budget and major demands. We have the Betty House that’s come online and the Bailey House. We’ve done a lot with land grants and fundraising, and given staff time to make these projects happen. But the territorial government? Health, social welfare and housing fall to the territorial and federal governments. Money will be tight – it’s a matter of priority so let’s move Housing First up from priority number 15 or 16 up to the top five. There’s also optimism from the federal government that money will be flowing for these projects. You’re going to be paying for these things one way or the other: you either invest proactively in helping people to improve their lives, or you pay for the fallout with corrections, the hospital and income support.
You want to move housing up the priority list – what, therefore, moves down?
We do need an all-weather road up to the Slave Geological Province, that makes an awful lot of sense. But I think we’ve been heavy-chasing mega-projects. We have this road to Tuk that, frankly, to me, didn’t make a lot of sense. We’re going to have to be maintaining this thing on an ongoing basis. What has suffered is housing. Healthcare. Mental health and addictions. The things that build a healthy community – and we can’t forget that. If you invest in these things you can grow a strong economy, you create a place where people are well-housed and well-educated, which is a place where businesses can thrive.
Let’s turn to energy. Surely moving to renewable sources of energy, changing the way we generate energy, is another mega-project?
You reap what you sow and we’ve really dithered for a long time. We know these things work – look at the $30 million wind farm at Diavik, saving $5 million in diesel every year. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s take some risks. If we don’t win every one, that’s fine.
Is it fine? We only have a finite amount of money. Is it fine to invest a lot of money in something that doesn’t work?
We know wind works.
But you just said we should take risks.
Let’s keep an open mind about ideas. The other option is doing nothing, which we’ve done. The bread and butter has to be things we know actually work, and we know wind and solar work. But we’ve had so little success: it’s been Colville Lake, Lutselk’e and Fort Simpson. These are proven technologies and the prices have come way down. Doing this can create a new economy. We can create a whole clean-energy industry.
The economy: in 60 seconds, where do you think the territory should be going?
We need to look at what we can do to keep the vibrant and responsible diamond industry going. People are worried that the ice road this year might not be up to par, like it was in 2006 when $100 million had to be spent to fly the goods in. An all-weather road toward the diamond mines would be a gamechanger. Other than that, we need to think beyond the diamond mines. Tourism is our largest renewable sector and we had record numbers this year – that’s a big industry already. Local food production has massive potential. Film and digital media production are huge success stories over the past few years. Clean energy is an industry in itself – look at wood, the amount of companies we now have in Yellowknife and the potential to create jobs.
Focusing on Yellowknife North, you’re running against some people with vast political experience. How are you distinguishing yourself from them when you go door-to-door?
Any of the candidates would make a good MLA, I really believe that. I’m asking voters in Yellowknife North to ask themselves: what are their priorities and interests? Mine are fighting mental health and addictions, not people who are addicted; Housing First; a university of the North; clean and affordable power for folks’ homes; sustaining our economy through responsible mining and local, lasting, quality jobs.
How far does your ambition stretch in territorial politics? Are you looking at cabinet? What do you want to achieve?
As a cabinet member you’re handed a portfolio and have the ability to get things done. The real power lies on the other side. That’s where the numbers are, with regular members. However, they need to collaborate and we haven’t seen that in the 17th Assembly. That’s the single, largest challenge facing an incoming MLA. As a Yellowknife MLA you need to truly understand the challenges and aspirations of what’s going on in the regions and communities, and do the best for the territory as a whole.
Mr Erasmus did not respond to our request for an interview.