Yellowknife lawyer Caroline Wawzonek has become one of the first NWT residents to go public with their plan to run for territorial office this fall.
Wawzonek plans to stand in the constituency of Yellowknife South, currently represented by NWT Premier Bob McLeod.
McLeod has in the past declined to say whether he will seek another term as an MLA. In 2015, he defeated challengers Nigit’stil Norbert and Samuel Roland.
Wawzonek, a resident of Yellowknife for more than a decade, says her work understanding complex issues, gathering evidence, and taking decisions makes her ideally suited to the work of a territorial MLA.
If elected, she hopes to focus on striking the right balance between the NWT’s resource-based economy and the territory’s position “on the front lines of climate change,” she said.
Her approach would include a thorough re-examination of the regulations governing exploration, development, and environmental protection in the NWT.
Wawzonek also wants more to be done to provide mental health aftercare in the North, and wants the NWT’s planned polytechnic university to position the territory “at the front of studies on climate change, on northern agriculture, on Indigenous relationships.”
While speculation about who intends to run in October’s territorial election is mounting, Wawzonek joins a very small club of people to have publicly declared their intention to run.
Ministers Glen Abernethy and Wally Schumann have confirmed to Cabin Radio they will seek re-election in Great Slave and Hay River South respectively.
Robert C McLeod, the finance minister, is stepping away from politics and vacating his Inuvik Twin Lakes seat after 15 years as an MLA.
Wawzonek spoke to Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News about her desire to run for office. Below, you can listen to the interview in full or read a transcript (which has been lightly edited for clarity).
This interview was recorded on April 29, 2019.
Ollie Williams: What possessed you to want to be a politician?
Caroline Wawzonek: Well, it’s the desire to make this a better community. I have two young children born here and being raised here. And I would like to know that they will have the same kinds of opportunities for a life that my husband and I have here.
Why did you pick Yellowknife South?
That’s where I live.
It’s currently the riding of Premier Bob McLeod. We don’t know whether he’s going to run again or not. Have you given any thought to that, are you at all concerned about who runs against you?
That’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing this because, as I said, I care about where I live, I care about my kids. Whoever decides to run, that’s fantastic, but I’ve already taken a lot of work and a lot of steps towards talking to people in the community, talking to my neighbours, and trying to get a sense of the issues that matter. And if someone else decides to run in Yellowknife South, so be it.
A lot of people obviously care about where they live, and they care about the future of the children. It doesn’t necessarily mean they end up running for politics. What is it that flipped you over from one side to the other and made you think, actually, you need to be doing this?
Interesting that you say one side to the other because as a lawyer, I’ve spent my professional career kind-of on the other side, where I help individuals, I help businesses, solving problems, whether it’s using the law to solve the problems, or sometimes the law is the problem. And having done that for as long as I have in a lot of different areas, I think I’ve finally come to the point of saying that I’d like to give it a go from the other side.
What skills do you think you’re going to bring to this when we actually see you, in a potential future, on the floor of the Legislative Assembly doing that MLA thing, or actually sort of helping to shape the Northwest Territories?
As a lawyer, one of the things you have to do is understand issues. So that means gathering up information, being aware of the broader context of making a decision, and then helping a client to actually make the best-possible decision using all that information, which is exactly what I would like to hope our politicians would be doing: making decisions based on all the best-possible evidence, all the best-possible information, and then making a decision with that that’s in the best interests of the community.
What are the priorities for you?
I think we need to have sustainable economic growth. And I’m sure you’re gonna hear something about that from everybody, right? But there’s a balance between knowing that our economy is resource-based –that that’s been the foundation of our economy for a long time, and there’s a lot of concern right now about the future of that – at the same time, we are on the front lines of climate change.
So I think we have to be making these decisions within the context of both of those things, and balancing those things to the best of our ability, so that we can actually move forward and really, truly grow
The government already has that balance in mind when it makes those decisions, doesn’t it? Is it getting those balances right, right now?
One would like to hope that they’re doing that.
Do you think they are, from the decisions that they have made?
There’s a lot of concern around, for example, the regulatory system. And in some ways I think it’s an interesting problem, because we have a really good regulatory system in the sense that it goes to the communities, we have community members on the boards, we involve traditional knowledge.
Then at the same time, we have a lot of regulations. Wouldn’t it be an interesting thing to have a 360 review of every single regulation in the North? Every single one of them. And figure out where are the redundancies? Where are things being repeated? Where are things not the most efficient that they can be?
So not taking away any of the protections that we have, but making it efficient, so that you have all the interesting and forward-thinking protections, but in an environment that’s actually efficient and functional for the people that have to go through those processes.
OK, so that’s one area that you’d look to focus on. Next?
If we’re going to have a strong economy, you need to have a strong human capacity to actually take advantage of those opportunities. So I would say growing the potential that we already have. We have so many people in the North with great ideas, and it’s resilient, and it’s a strong community. But we’re also really struggling with mental health challenges, addictions. And our education system, people are often perhaps not sounding always very satisfied about that.
I think there’s a lot that can be done in mental health, for instance, more aftercare. So maybe we are going to send people south still for treatment or for supports, but when they come back to their community, when they come back home, there must be aftercare here, or else we’re really wasting our resources.
I’m definitely in favour of having the polytechnic, I think that’s going to be an exciting thing for the North, perhaps overdue. Growing the knowledge economy in this century and in the future, I would say that’s something that is really important, and something that we can really capitalize on some unique northern things to be at the front of.
What form should that university take? It sounds right now as though the government is moving toward a kind of a gradual facelift of Aurora College so that it becomes a polytechnic university. Is that the right approach?
I’m certainly in favour of a polytechnic and as far as the speed of that? Well, certainly, you want to make sure that it happens in a way that is done right. But I wouldn’t necessarily delay it. I’d say look at the perspective of students and is it something that they need today? I’d suggest yes.
And there are a lot of partnerships that I think are ready to be had between businesses, with Indigenous governments. This can be a place where we look at being at the front of studies on climate change, on northern agriculture, on Indigenous relationships.
There’s so many things that we could be doing, so that it’s in the North and for the North. And I would like to hope that there’s not an unnecessary delay in getting there.
Where do you think its central campus should be?
Well, from the perspective of students, where do you think most students would like their central campus to be? It seems to me that Yellowknife might well be the best place for it.
That doesn’t mean you take away distance-learning opportunities, and it doesn’t mean you take away having campuses in other communities. There’s absolutely no reason that with our populations being so interconnected that we can’t find a way to move this forward for everybody.
Over the past year or 18 months, there has been – by previous standards – significantly more attention than there was on the number of female MLAs in the Northwest Territories. Do you expect there to be some advantage to you in the fact that there is now a clear recognition that there is a deficit of female MLAs?
I would like to hope that the best-possible candidates are still the ones that get the recognition. It’s just that there may be more women who see it as a viable option that they can add their names to that ballot. Does it help them at the actual ballot box when people are marking their ballot? I guess I don’t know.
As I said, to me, it’s about having the best-possible candidates at the end of the day. The more candidates that are aware of the possibility, the more people who can give that thought and say, ‘Maybe it should be me,’ well, then the better chance that you’re going to get the best candidate at the end.
I know you watch the legislature relatively closely. You’d expect any potential candidate to do that. When it comes to openness and transparency, do you believe the territorial government has made the steps it said it would and is doing the right things now?
They have done taken steps to make it easier to access information. Whether we are able to access more information, I’m not certain. And as far as accountability, which was another, I think, related element in that area, I would say there’s still a lot more that can be done. We’re getting better perhaps with accountability for process – so saying, ‘I was going to produce a framework or a strategic plan.’ I think we’re getting better at saying, ‘We delivered the strategic plan.’
What I would like to see is an accountability for results. So when you actually get to the stage of implementing the plan and monitoring the results, if that’s not achieving the goals, if that’s not actually improving mental health services, making healthcare more preventative, having better results for elementary school scores? Well, then that’s the point of accountability that I think we should be looking at: how do we then take those things, report back, and say, ‘Well, maybe we need to tweak our plan in the first place.’
You’ve mentioned mental health care a couple of times. We all know that more can be done to support mental health care in the North. However, we all know there are incredibly finite resources and already something like two-thirds of the territory’s budget is spent on health care of some shape or form. What more, realistically, do you think the territory can do that it isn’t doing to improve that situation?
I don’t know that it is about money. Yeah, we are spending a lot of money already on health care. And at the same time, I think there’s a movement toward looking at health care from a more holistic perspective, that determinants of health aren’t just about, you know, the outcome at the hospital. It’s about a social context. So perhaps we need to be looking at where and how the money is being spent.
So as I’ve said, for mental health, it’s not just continually treating and retreating and retreating the same problem, but looking at what kind of aftercare is there? In terms now also of the health care system – the more traditional, the physical health care system – what can we be doing on the preventive side? So again, rather than looking at someone and sort-of retreating a problem over and over again, is there a prevention step that can be taken? Whether that’s more public nurse outreach, for example, midwife programs… sort-of catch them while they’re young, literally, as infants when they’re being born.
I don’t know that it is about more dollars, but it’s more about effective dollars, so that we are preventing the front and the back end with the aftercare,
How interested are you in being a member of cabinet?
That’s not something I’m really worried about at this point. At this stage, I’m really focused on just talking to people. I mean, it’s still pretty early days. I’ve had wonderful opportunities so far to talk to people in Yellowknife South, and I really look forward to doing more of that between now and October.
Let’s say you were to be elected and candidates, broadly speaking, like you were elected. What shift would we see in how our government works? What kind of differences would we notice between the government of the 18th Assembly, the one we’ve got now, and the government of the one coming up?
I mean, I suppose I could wave a magic wand and try to figure out who might get in there…
No, but let’s say, if it’s a government shaped in your image as a candidate, how different is it to the one we have now?
I would like to help it be more accountable for results. So that we would actually… when we say we’re going to make a change to something that’s going to affect people, that the end result is what we’ll actually be accountable for, not just the process of getting there.
And that when decisions are being made, that we can understand the whys and the hows of it, so that when you go out to consult – and a lot of committees are out right now, looking at a variety of bills – were people given enough information at the front end to properly be consulted on that? Were the Indigenous governments given enough time and heads-up to be consulted on that?
And then once they are consulted, what happens with that? The ‘what we heard’ reports, maybe they need to be more than just what we heard. We want to make sure that when we make those decisions, we are truly taking the best possible ideas.
So I’d like to think that if a decision gets made, if I were to be involved in a decision being made, that it would be after taking in all the best-possible information and truly using it, and being able to show people – as you go through that process, through transparency – how you’re doing that.