Former Yellowknife city councillor Julian Morse is hoping to become the next MLA for the Frame Lake district.
Morse said he believes the 20th Legislative Assembly needs to focus its priorities and set measurable goals. His election campaign highlights housing, healthcare and childcare among the top issues he hopes to tackle if elected, alongside economic development and diversification, and protecting people and the environment.
Morse said his record serving on city council between 2015 and 2022, and decade of experience working within the territory’s regulatory system, have readied him for the role of a territorial politician.
“People know what they’re expecting from me. I think I’ve shown that I can provide stable governance, which is something I’ve been hearing already at the doors that people are really looking for,” he said. “I think I’ve shown myself to be a considerate, thoughtful, well-researched decision-maker.”
This interview was recorded on October 18, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Emily Blake: If elected, what will be your priorities or the most important issues that you hope to tackle over the next four years?
Julian Morse: My top priority in my platform is housing. I really want to make sure that the assembly takes seriously and starts to address the housing crisis in the territory.
I think that we’ve been underinvesting in public housing. We need to increase the territorial budget for it and create a long-term plan in partnership with Indigenous governments for increasing housing stock throughout the territory. And to seek stable funding to implement it.
Another big one for me is improving access to affordable childcare.
That needs to be a priority for the next assembly. I think it’s going to be an issue that’s important to residents of the territory really quickly, in the first year of the assembly. That’s one we’re going to have to really focus on, ensuring we’re working toward increasing the number of spaces for childcare.
The next pillar in my platform is economic development and diversification.
I’ve been really big for years on investing in the knowledge economy and hoping to diversify our economy as much as possible and prepare ourselves for the coming closure of some of the diamond mines. The first one, that’s happening in 2026, and that’s been on my mind for a long time. It’s the reason I’ve been arguing for better diversification of our economy and so I want to continue fighting for that. I have a number of items within that section of the platform but I won’t speak to all the specifics.
The fourth area within my platform is protecting the environment and people.
That takes a couple of different forms. One of them is looking at response to increasingly extreme environmental changes and the various events that are happening related to that: wildfires, floods. I think the territory really needs to put an eye on being better prepared for those sorts of things, ensuring our infrastructure is prepared, ensuring our plans are in place. That would include a comprehensive review of the response to wildfires and the evacuations that happened this summer, and learning from mistakes that were made or things that didn’t go as well as they could have – and hopefully getting a better plan for the next time things like that happen.
The next one in environment is looking at how we can transition our economy away from carbon, particularly without impacting people who are least able to bear the brunt of those changes. What I mean by that is that we’re helping people reduce their cost of living and we’re implementing solutions that reduce carbon but also help people save money.
How are you going to make sure that those priorities are enacted?
It’s important to note, and I’m very realistic about the fact that, if I was elected, I’ll be one of 19 people bringing priorities to the table.
I’m in the same camp as others who have suggested that we really need to be more focused about our priorities. The premier mentioned that in some of her outgoing messaging. MLAs mentioned it in their transition report, which they’ve produced for the benefit of the next assembly, talking about spending more time setting priorities and ensuring that things are put in place.
So I’m aware that I’m not going to be the only person bringing them. What I can say is that these are what I think are really important. I think that there’s many people running who agree with at least some of them.
The first step is getting the priorities in place. The next step is attaching measurable outcomes that we can set as the goals associated with those priorities, so that we have a way of measuring, over the life of the assembly, whether we’re on track to meet those goals or whether we’re not on track and need to revisit the goal and see what needs to change. I think that having measurable outcomes attached to them is a really important part of this.
In terms of next steps from there – we’ve got priorities in place, we give the priorities to cabinet, they set a mandate, we ensure that there’s measurable goals – and then we get into the business of the assembly. And it would be a matter of tracking those goals as an MLA, holding cabinet to account and ensuring that we are really paying attention to the implementation of the goals that we’ve set.
You talked about housing as one of the main aspects of your platform and particularly increasing the territorial budget. Over the past four years we have seen lots of federal funding injected into housing in the NWT that hasn’t necessarily made much of a difference. How would you ensure that housing does get built and issues get addressed in a timely manner?
I feel that the territorial budget itself has been too low. I really do think this.
If you look at historical public housing, there was a time up until about the 1970s that the federal government was investing quite heavily in public housing and they were building a certain number of units every year. And then that kind-of dropped off and it dropped off right through the 90s and into the early 2000s. And it’s only recently that the federal government has started to kind-of look at the impact that that slowdown has had. And I think it’s part of the story as to how we got here.
The truth of the matter is that we have a pretty large shortage of public housing in this territory. Many of the communities in this territory are almost exclusively public housing and we’ve been underinvesting in it for a long time.
I’m not suggesting that we’re going to be able to fix the problem in a short period of time. But I think that we need to take steps to start addressing the problem. I would like to see the GNWT put a plan together, a long-term plan, which – at the end of the long-term plan – we see the housing stock catch up with the need.
As for exactly how long that plan would take, I think I’d want to hear back from various experts in the field. I’d want to hear back from staff at the GNWT themselves. The MLAs would be giving high level direction, “we want to see a plan in place,” staff would be bringing that back, and MLAs would be reviewing it and determining if they think the plan is strong enough.
Something else I talk about in my platform is we do receive a lot of federal funding for housing. It’s almost always project-based. It’s great to have these projects, there was just a very exciting project announced in Yellowknife, which is going to put 50 new units in the community, which is great. What happens with a lot of these projects is they have a very short timeline to be built. And so what ends up happening is, because the housing has to be built within a certain amount of time and there may or may not be capacity within a community to build that house, what often happens is outside contractors come in and do the work.
I think one of the benefits that we could have with a long-term housing plan is you can say, okay, over the next, let’s say 10 years, we’re going to build a certain number of units in X community. And in that community, we’re going to work on a program to build skills and get people employed and say that, hey, we can commit to a certain number of houses built in this community over this time period. And during that time period, we’re going to train people in construction and we’re going to work with them and they’ll know that they’ve got a certain amount of units that are going to need to be built. So there’s a stable job there in the community for a long period of time. I think that would be a better way to address the issue.
The Frame Lake district is turning out to be one of the more competitive ones during this election. What do you think makes you stand out as a candidate?
Experience. I’ve got experience on council. I’ve spent seven years working on many of the issues that I’m running on now. Some of them are a little bit different because at the territorial level, obviously, it’s a different mandate, different jurisdiction.
But I think the difference is that I have a track record that I can speak to. People know what they’re expecting from me. I think I’ve shown that I can provide stable governance, which is something I’ve been hearing already at the doors that people are really looking for. I think I’ve shown myself to be a considerate, thoughtful, well-researched decision-maker. What I’m bringing to the table is a mix of experience.
It’s important to note that I think the reason that experience matters is that you learn a lot of lessons in your first term as a politician, and you learn further lessons in your second term. I’ve definitely matured as a decision-maker over time. And I think that will serve me well in the Legislative Assembly, having seen a lot of different things, having seen and served constituents for a long time I think will help me to do the job better. I think that’s really what sets me apart.
I’ve got a lot of experience with the NWT’s regulatory system, which I think is something we need to be looking at in terms of how the government relates to the regulatory system and how the government works with it and how that may or may not jive with goals that are set related to economic development. I’ve worked in the regulatory system on both sides, it’s worth noting. I’ve worked now for a small exploration company and I’ve worked at the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board in the past.
So I’ve got that experience and I’ve got a lot of training, my education. My background is in conflict analysis and management. That program focused a lot on change management and modern theories of leadership.
These are things that I think will serve me very well in terms of being able to be effective, to be able to understand how complex systems work, analyze whether they’re working well and have input as to how they can work better.
What would you say your biggest successes as a city councillor were?
There’s a few things that I’m quite proud of, that we accomplished in council together.
I mean you never do anything on your own. But when I first ran back in 2015, one of the platform items that I set was, again speaking to economic development and diversification, I was suggesting that a university could be very beneficial to the economy of both the city and the territory. And I fought really hard to bring that idea to the forefront. I think that showed a certain amount of visionary thinking that I was talking about that years before the Aurora College foundational review was done and a consultancy that specializes in this sort of thing came back and made the same recommendation. And so during that time, I chaired the post-secondary advisory committee at the city, which produced a report speaking to the benefits that could come directly to the city from establishing such an institution and some of the pathways that we could follow to ensure those benefits occur in the city. I think that was a big achievement when we got to the point where council was faced with a decision from the GNWT wanting to pick a location, and it was controversial but council was almost virtually unanimous in saying yes, because I think there have been years of work going into showing people that this is a vision that could work here, it’s a vision that’s been proven in other northern jurisdictions, and it’s something that we can really do here and could be a huge benefit. That’s one of the big ones.
Other ones that I think I take a lot of pride in is, when we talk about social issues, when we talk about homelessness, I voted in favour of every single motion that came forward to council in seven years that spoke to those issues. And I was an advocate of us establishing a day shelter downtown. During the time on council, when I first ran in 2015, we were talking about programs like housing first, safe ride, all of those things were established during that time. So that’s something that I’ve taken a lot of pride in.
And I think that there’s a lot more work to do. People have been talking about that during this election. There’s still lots of issues downtown. So the work isn’t finished but we’ve been moving in the right direction, I think.
Another one that council did that was good, in the second term, was establishing the new zoning bylaw. That one, there was a lot of debate. It was kind of intergenerational debate. I’m not sure if you remember that, but there was a lot of debate over kind-of how we want the community to grow going forward. And there were a lot of young people coming to us saying that they want to see more options for housing and they want to see things open up so that we can reduce the cost of housing. And then the older generation was speaking about kind-of keeping things the same and preserving neighbourhoods. And I think that we were able to strike a good balance there and that was another achievement.
The last one that I am quite proud of is just when I was chair of the heritage committee, we kind-of identified at the beginning of that term, in 2015, that the committee had not done enough work to recognize the Indigenous history of the city. And so over a five-year period we worked to establish a permanent seat on the committee for a YKDFN member. And then through that committee established a plan to recognize a bunch of YKDFN historical sites throughout the city. And those ended up being established and the first time the heritage committee, in its history, had ever recognized Indigenous history in the city. And it was a long time coming, that we made that shift. And so I’m really proud that I was able to chair the committee through that change and kind-of set that as a precedent for the next chair that took over.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.