Moose FM sat down with each candidate ahead of the territorial election day on November 23, 2015. Here’s what Yellowknife South’s candidates told us.
What have you done in the past four years for the constituents of Yellowknife South?
We’ve done a lot. I’m very proud of our record for the past four years. My campaign last time around was to have a strong economy and also to invest in a number of areas so we could have more and better education for our youth, business opportunities. We ask our children to stay in school and we have to keep our end of the bargain by making sure there are jobs and opportunities for them. We said we would do things a little differently. I could list off a whole host of projects: the Deh Cho bridge, passing the Wildlife Act, starting to build a brand new hospital. All of these things will benefit those constituents.
A lot of those are things you achieved maybe more as the premier than as MLA of Yellowknife South. When you talk to people door-to-door, how do you convince them you’ve been able to work specifically for their needs?
In my riding it’s important for them to have a strong economy. We have a lot of double-income families with large mortgages. We promised we would continue to develop the economy and I believe we’ve done a very good job, especially here in Yellowknife.
When you were elected four years ago, by your own admission this was a territory that faced a big cost-of-living challenge, infrastructure difficulties and unsettled land claims. In those four years, how much has changed.
We’ve made a lot of progress on land claims and it’s now one of our priorities to conclude and complete land claims, and make good progress on self-government. It provides for greater certainty and more investment opportunities. We’ve had to invest a lot of money to try to maintain an acceptable level of cost of living. Infrastructure – the increase in our borrowing limit has given us a greater capacity. For the first time in a long time, we have a government of which our MP is a member, and in the correspondence we received from Justin Trudeau, he showed he’s very knowledgeable about the North. A lot of his commitments are consistent with what we’re trying to achieve and what the people of Yellowknife South want as well.
Why do you want four more years as premier? It’s unusual for that to become public before an election.
I’ve always said I’m running as MLA for Yellowknife South.
So you don’t, necessarily, want to remain premier?
We don’t have a process for becoming premier.
But it’s been reported that you do want to remain as premier, is that true?
The reports that you’re referring to were fabricated. I never talked to those reporters. They just made up the stories.
So it’s not true.
Well, those stories are not true. But I am running for MLA for Yellowknife South.
Do you want to remain as premier?
If I get elected, as I’ve said to you before, I would talk to my colleagues. That’s the way the normal process is.
OK. What do you want the next government to achieve? Where do the absolute top priorities lie?
We have a tight fiscal situation. The economy is going down. The cost of living is still a big issue. I’m very confident that, with this new federal government, they have committed to being a full partner with our government to address these issues – developing the economy, doubling the infrastructure money available, creating low-interest funds and green bonds that will allow us to develop some of our infrastructure and clean energy, and promising to increase the Northern Resident Tax Deduction. We have a government prepared to do so. The previous government told us we would have to get nine northern jurisdictions on side in order for them to look at that.
You’ve done a lot of work to attract investment from outside the NWT – both federally and from outside Canada. How do you balance that with a concern from some quarters that the NWT could see far too much control handed over to foreign interests?
If we can’t get national investment from Canada, we have to look elsewhere to see where the money is. I’m confident that with our investment strategies and constitution, working with the Government of Canada, that we have enough protections in place so that we’re not giving away the farm.
In your role as Minister Responsible for Women, what steps have you taken in the past four years?
As you know, I’m not in the fortunate position of the Government of Canada where the Prime Minister had 50 women to choose from to have a balanced cabinet. I don’t choose the ministers, they’re chosen by the caucus, then I assign the portfolios. When it came time to assign responsibilities for women, we didn’t have any women in cabinet but I took it upon myself that by being the minister responsible, I would try to be the best Minister Responsible for Women ever. I had regular meetings with the Status of Women Council, I worked with the Native Women’s Association. Nationally, I took a very strong role – I attended every meeting involving women and was very honoured when the five national Aboriginal organizations asked me to chair the first roundtable on missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. I think, going forward, the Liberal government has made it a priority to hold a national inquiry and so we’re looking forward to working with them and trying to assist them in whatever way we can.
Through everything you’ve described, what has been achieved for the NWT’s women in the past four years?
We’ve done a lot of work on family violence. We’re working with men who are taking counselling to reduce in those areas. The Status of Women Council has done a lot in trying to get more women to run for office in all levels of government. In our government, at the deputy minister level, we have 50 percent of our deputy ministers are women; 64 percent of our government workforce are women. What we have to focus on is getting more women into senior management, in particular Indigenous women.
There isn’t much more of a senior management position than being an MLA. There aren’t many Indigenous female candidates at all in this election. Do you believe that more candidates like Nigit’stil Norbert should be elected as MLAs?
More women should be encouraged to run. At the Dene Nahjo forum, it was primarily a group of young Aboriginal people and they were very forceful. They understand and they want to make a difference. We’ll see the results of that as we go forward.
It must feel unfortunate to you – as the Minister Responsible for Women and having just advocated for more Indigenous women in positions of power – that you’re standing against one.
I don’t find it unfortunate. I welcome the fact that people are running against me. The fact that one of them is an Aboriginal female candidate – I don’t see anything wrong with that.
How would you urge voters in Yellowknife South that they should elect you and ignore your two rivals. What separates you out from them?
I’m promoting the fact that I have the experience, the commitment and proven leadership that will allow us to address all of the issues that we’ve identified.
A lot of candidates are running on a platform calling for more transparency and accountability from the GNWT. How do you think the process of government should change?
We work with all of our colleagues – we have a caucus and we work through that for things to get done. We have protocol agreements that outline how we handle ourselves and make information available. Being a consensus government, it’s often difficult on how we deal with confidentiality because it affects the way things are done. Certainly I’m willing and able to work with colleagues in that area.
One step some candidates are suggesting is that every MLA should publicize who they vote when it comes to voting for a Premier. That’d be a simple step to take, wouldn’t it?
In our system it would be difficult if we do that. We all have to work together. I know at the last leadership forum, some members who felt I didn’t support them were upset about it and it affected the way the system worked.
I want to get more into your policies and priorities going forward. Education and health are broad areas – where should the NWT focus its attention?
In education and health there are two of our largest departments. In health, we spend a lot more on a percentage basis than our budget is growing. One of the biggest complaints we hear is about education in the smaller communities. In larger communities, students can graduate directly into whatever post-secondary education they want. We need to focus on the smaller communities and Aboriginal students so we can bridge the disparity. Healthcare, we have a very good system. There are some areas we need to improve on in health delivery and we’re working on that. Mental health and addictions is a big problem – with the new Mental Health Act we’re starting to lay the groundwork to improve on those areas. Building a new hospital will certainly improve everything as a territorial facility.
I want to offer the remaining time up to you, to talk about issues I haven’t raised or explain one moe time to people why they should vote for you.
I’m very excited about the next four years with the new Government of Canada that’s prepared to engage. They understand the North and realize we need a full partner at all government levels to fully develop the North. I’m prepared to commit, redouble my efforts to make the NWT continue to be a very good place to live, work and invest. My record? I have experience, I’m committed and I’ve shown I have proven leadership abilities. I want to continue to work over the next four years and I think there are a lot of challenges to overcome. We also have some unfinished business I want to get done working with a new federal government partner.
Tell us a little about yourself and why you’ve chosen to run.
I’m Nigit’stil Norbert. I was born and raised in Yellowknife. I’m Gwich’in First Nations. When I was 18 I started travelling around the world, working and volunteering with different groups. I did work with the United Nations. I spent a good two years, from 18 to 20, understanding what the world looked like and getting a sense of my place within that. Coming from a small place and graduating out of Inuvik, that’s an eye-opening experience. I realized I wanted to be some sort of communicator, be a voice, be someone who spoke to a general, large public. I was drawn to art and culture and so I ended up going to university in Toronto, at Ryerson University and OCAD University, and I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in photography. My art, now being a nationally recognized contemporary indigenous artist, focuses on difficult and complex issues surrounding colonization and residential school, and how the Idle No More movement in 2012 had a ripple effect across our country. It allowed people like me, young, indigenous women, to find their voice and rise up; have a call to action. That’s where I’m at right now and I’m taking up that call.
You have decided to stand against the incumbent premier. Why?
That was a really direct and pointed message that I believed I was making and am making. There’s a lot of talk about secrets and shady deals and the process has become less transparent and less accountable. It’s become about personal agenda. We have a whole territory of people from a wide range of different backgrounds – some people come here to live the ideological kind of life, others were born and raised here and they have roots. This tapestry of people is all asking to be represented by somebody who has vision, passion, who cares deeply. The strength that I get to make this action possible is directly received from the land that I grew up on. The land strengthens me, it’s worth protecting. The people are also worth protecting, making a change for the better for them. This is part of that change, you’re going to be seeing young, indigenous women uprising and having a voice, so get used to it.
The phrase ‘secrets and shady deals’ is powerful. What are you thinking of when you say that?
Our premier went to China and he sold our main tributary, the Mackenzie River, out to the Chinese for 31 years through FIPA. That is a major deal done very quickly, very quietly and in the usual hush-hush manner. That river is the lifeblood of not only North America but of all the people in the territories that reside along that river. When you think about industry coming in, they’re going to take those royalties, the resources that come from that land, through industry. Part of where indigenous communities fit into that is that they have the right to say who, and when, and how industry is done. I want to empower those people to hold on to that.
The premier isn’t here to defend himself. In his place, it could be suggested that the territorial government has been quite proactive in signing water management and protection agreements, and that the premier is looking to China because the territory needs economic development, it needs investment, it needs money to function, and China is prepared to step forward where others may not be. How would you better drive that vital investment in the NWT?
Before we talk about money, let’s talk about why the land and the water is important. We’re talking about tradition, culture, language, and how all of those have already been under attack through forms of colonization. Only within the last number of years are we actually starting to – I don’t like to use the word ‘reclaim’ as much – but we’re starting to reclaim these very important aspects of how we identify as indigenous people and Canadians in general. I can’t really talk about money because money, for me, doesn’t feel as important as the importance of the land. But, on a side note, I do believe there is room for communities to be sustainable and to develop their own economy. Some of that process comes through finalizing land claim agreements and I think we can move to a much better system of finalizing those and not bullying those communities and those bands to settle their lands, if they’re not comfortable with what’s being offered by the governments. It’s important to have respect for them.
As an MLA, you will have to talk about money. It’s something that constituents will expect. In terms of the cost of living, what would you propose as an MLA? How do you think the territory should tackle that?
For one, I think we need to have wage reform. I think there is also room to have income assistance reform. I do not think we are getting enough of a wage. I don’t know if I can answer that. I’m not sure.
Let’s look at Yellowknife South as a district. What do you feel are the constituents’ specific concerns and how will you address those?
Yellowknife South – a number of constituents feel very left-out. They haven’t been able to have a voice for eight years and a lot of the comments I’m hearing are around job security. A number of people I’ve met work for De Beers and they’ve been let go. Now their whole family is being asked to move to Calgary. That is a direct deal Bob McLeod made. This is what’s happening, we’re losing our jobs to industry elsewhere, where we should be keeping jobs here within the territory.
When you say it’s a direct deal that Bob McLeod made, can you explain more?
From what I know – and there’s lots I don’t know, because it’s done in secret, behind closed doors – what I’ve gathered is that the deals Bob McLeod has made within this past Assembly, they haven’t necessarily kept jobs here. For example, it’s stated in a lot of agreements that indigenous people are supposed to be able to keep a certain percentage of jobs. But those are usually the low-rung jobs, not necessarily the high-up jobs. People from the outside come in, take those jobs, then leave with those jobs. There’s never quite a job position that is going to stay here, it’s always going outside of the territory, then the royalties from industry go outside of the territory. We aren’t necessarily keeping the money that we get from resources and that’s a huge, huge issues. If we aren’t keeping that money, how are we going to reinvest and build healthier, more sustainable communities?
That is an important issue and private companies – like De Beers – have been taking decisions to move jobs elsewhere because they see it as more cost-effective. So it comes back to how you make the NWT a more attractive place for companies to come, and companies to stay. What do you think?
I really believe in a tourism base. I think there’s a lot of room to build that up. I also believe in art and culture. It we were to funnel our youth to learn about art and culture and what that looks like, they may not be funnelled toward trade and other jobs in industry if they have a natural calling to art, for example. I found my voice through my art career and it has reached thousands of people. There’s something really powerful about that, and about choosing a career that you are in love with and passionate about – that wakes you up in the morning and makes you want to live a healthy life and be with your family. We can talk about big issues but I also think that, in this election, it’s going to be really important to talk about everyday people and what drives them, what pushes them, what they want to see as change. If youth had a different option to go towards as they get older, that might lead to healthier communities and a healthier North, further bringing tourism. What if a whole bunch of people came here because they knew that art and culture were super-important and really pushed by the government system? The Yukon does a really great job of promoting that and it’s become a huge part of what brings people into the territory. It’s impressive to watch and I think we could make room for other industry. We’re very, very government-minded and industry-minded but we’ve kind-of dropped the ball when it comes to the youth and using that power to form the next generation of leaders.
Health and social issues – where would you like to see this territorial government go next? What should the priority be?
This is a personal issue to me. This is a pan-North issue. We talk about mental health and addictions – that affects not just my riding, not just Yellowknife, but it’s a huge issue across our territory. There’s room to build treatment programs that talk to the trauma that has happened because of colonization. There are a lot of times when we start to run before we can walk and we saw that happen with building a treatment centre – that was running before we could walk. We need real programs that deal with trauma. There are no such programs here, you have to go outside the territory. I bet you that if someone is dealing with trauma, they’re not going to have the funds to go to Edmonton or Saskatchewan. They might be just getting by, providing for a family. The mental health spectrum also deals with suicide. That is a major health issue within the territory and for me, personally, because I understand why these people feel so pushed down and where that oppression comes from; how it can affect you as you try to walk through life. The territory can make space for real action when it comes to suicide prevention. I don’t think we’ve done enough and I would like to see more programs surrounding that. I’d like to talk about it more openly. We’re losing our youth at a really quick rate and they are our future – if we don’t make that important now, we’re losing out on a generation that can bring strength and bring the economy back to where it needs to be.
Did we leave anything out? Do you want to sum up why choose you over the premier?
I speak passionately, from the heart, and I’m going to be a real person who can represent you within the legislative assembly. I’d like to funnel some of what I’ve learned within my life, and the passion that I’ve brought to my life, and the voice that I’ve created for myself – I’d like to use that as a conduit for the people of Yellowknife South and the North. I want to listen to what’s happening and understand the issues. I’m not going to pretend to be a politician, because I’m not. If you want to vote for a politician, you can do that. but if you want for somebody who is going to represent you on a real level and fight for what is right; fight for people and the land; keep the money here within the territory and build something from the ground up? I’m there. Whether this journey for me is three weeks or four years, I’ve committed to it. This is very serious to me. I hope people see that as we go forward.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Inuvik. For the past 12 years I’ve been living in Yellowknife and I guess I call this beautiful place home. When you’ve lived so far north and also so far south, you start to see the territory for itself – the challenges we face on a daily basis. Growing up in a family in politics – my father was the previous Premier – it definitely inspired me a bit to get into the political life, but I’m also creating my own path here. Growing up here brightened the atmosphere. The Beaufort Delta and North Slave are such different climates and lifestyles, and the costs of living are two different things as well.
Why did you decide to stand now, at the age of 20, in Yellowknife South?
I chose my twenties because I believe at a young age, you can make great change. It doesn’t matter your age or ethnicity. I chose Yellowknife South because in the last eight years, nobody has really had a vote or choices other than Bob McLeod. That’s not Bob’s fault – maybe nobody felt confident enough to step up. That’s why I’m here, I want to bring a change. Just talking to people, they’re not happy.
How will you convince constituents who’ve been represented by a guy in his late fifties and early sixties, that the time is right to elect someone in their early twenties?
As a territory, we’re going to face tough challengers. Do you want to put the team that put us in those tough challenges back in position? Or do you want new faces that are going to get us out of it?
I imagine the premier would argue those tough challenges aren’t necessarily the result of his government’s decisions alone. There’s a whole global economy at play here, and he’s the premier who saw in Devolution, who made a number of changes to the way this territory is run. He would argue the experience and know-how is on his side. How would you counter that?
Experience is one thing he does have. I’m not a bureaucrat, I’m a northerner, I get up to work, I go out and campaign and I know how hard it is to live in the North. I know making a living is almost impossible if you’re not making a good enough wage. Change is going to come either way – we’ve seen it at the federal and municipal level, and we’re eventually going to see it at the territorial level.
Speaking of change at federal level, your father was a candidate in the federal election here. What advice has he given you about running for Yellowknife South?
I made the decision to run back in March and my father didn’t find out until the beginning of October, in the midst of his campaign. He thought I was kidding. I said, ‘Dad, I’m serious. I want to run.’ He said: ‘It’s a tough battle. It’s going to be tough times and you’ve got to be ready for it. I’m not going to tell you no or yes, it’s your decision.’
He has experience in the legislature as well. What have you learned from him about how you would want to act as an MLA?
One thing I’ve always watched him do is get answers for the people. When he’s confronted and asked a question, he’ll bring home answers. When he did live here as a finance minister and premier, he would still come home at the end of the day with a smile on his face – he was able to separate work and home life, and it’s such an easy experience when you can do that.
Out of interest, if you’d been a candidate in the federal election this year, which party would you have stood for?
Right now? Myself, I used to be an NDP. When I started doing research over the last few years, I started following the steps of the Conservatives because you look at the policies and not much has changed. The NDP, in the other sense, has been altered. Things change as new leaders come in. Stephen Harper’s been there for a long time and him being the leader made it so that not much change was done to the party. That makes it more intriguing when you don’t see so much change in a party that you want to stand for.
Let’s talk about some of your specific proposals. What do you think are the real priorities and solutions you can offer?
I do have priorities and I’m going to talk about those. I want to make this election about what the people want. You may not necessarily like it but if the people that put you in that position want that done, you’ve got to work for the people. Now, the one thing I see is we need to start making strategic investments – investing things that are going to benefit this territory and build this economy. It’s going to get tougher before it gets easier. Work within our means, then there is money to play with when you finish those projects. One other thing is look at the employment factor: a lot of jobs are taken by southerners. Maybe we should look after northerners first and strengthen those socio-economic agreements. The De Beers one is only 60 northerners – why isn’t it 100 or 200? For the Aboriginal side of things, why not add another 60 Aboriginal employees that have got to be hired? In corporations in general, when they want to come and get resources from the territory, to employ the North first would make a better benefit for northerners.
Is there not a danger of scaring away investment if you increase restrictions at a time when the industry may be on the verge of ebbing away?
You’ve always got to look at those factors. The cost of living, no matter what, is going to scare them away. The one thing I hear door-to-door is why their power bill is $200 one month and then $300 the next month, and they’re using the same amount of power. Cost of living here is going to scare away anybody.
Given your age, people will expect you to be a voice for youth in Yellowknife and the NWT. What do you feel they want to see happen?
The Mental Health Act was just passed and I feel it’s too generalized, not focused enough on the youth when 70 percent of mental illness and substance abuse disorders have their onset during adolescence. You’ve got a 3.9 per 10,000 people suicide rate for the age of 15 to 24. How many youth are going to have to die before there has to be a separate Act?
The flip side of this is some people will be skeptical of your ability to represent, say, seniors in the NWT. What do you believe are the issues affecting them?
In the small communities you’ve got Elder abuse going on that shouldn’t be happening and, locally, you’ve got seniors’ homes that are overpopulated with waiting lists. There are places we could be working with to make it affordable seniors. I read one story that Robert Hawkins dealt with, where a senior was paying a lot for power that they shouldn’t have been. There was a glitch in the program and they dealt with it. That was great to see, but they shouldn’t be suffering. We should be taking care of them.
But there are a huge number of priorities like this, aren’t there? Out of all of the issues, where should the territory’s focus be first?
Right now, we have an older population but the population is going to get younger. We’ve got to take care of our base and work our way up. Early childhood development improves the graduation rate – a child learns best between two and five. Whether it takes a complete overhaul of the system, it will need it.
Your father rose to become Premier of the NWT. How far do your ambitions extend?
I want to represent the people. I don’t want to go any further. I have no intentions of running for minister or premier. I want to devote all my time to representing Yellowknife South. Becoming a minister or premier is good but it takes time away from the constituents who put you there.
You grew up in Inuvik as well as Yellowknife. What lessons do you take from Inuvik in terms of how you would serve as a Yellowknife MLA?
The cost of living in Inuvik is much more expensive, especially when roads close. That makes it more challenging up there. We have a bunch of resources in the Beaufort Delta, why don’t we use them? People in Yellowknife South have said resource development is what needs to happen. That’s our priority.
How will you balance that with the environmental needs of the territory?
Everything’s going to need an agreement. You have to treat the environment properly before you can go ahead with producing resources, obviously. But you don’t want to scare away the businesses because it’s too hard or expensive to work here because they have to pay for so many different licences and tickets.
Do you think the territorial government has that balance right?
In my opinion, if they had that right, they’d have a lot more business here.
So your priority is to bring more business in?
Yes. The more business we have, it creates jobs for northerners and brings down the cost of living. If I had $100 right now and we had to split it, we’d be getting $50 each. Now, there are 10 of us in here. It’s separated so much more and less of such a big gap and big difference. I’m not saying it’s going to be that cheap. I’m not saying it’s going to be that expensive. It’s going to bring down the cost of living altogether.
It’s not just you and Bob, it’s Nigit’stil Norbert as well – a young, Indigenous woman. Why do you believe voters in Yellowknife South, if they are looking for an alternative, should vote for you and not for her?
I’m an Aboriginal myself. I’ve participated in many hunts, outdoor activities and cultural activities. We’ve got to work within our means and balance the whole, the government system – work with the economy, work with Aboriginals, work with all governments. And you’ve got to work together. I feel I’d be the best candidate because I am so young and I am ambitious to get answers. I am willing to sacrifice my time and devote my time to Yellowknife South.