Former Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart is hoping to become the next MLA for Yellowknife’s Range Lake district.
Testart said the 20th Legislative Assembly needs to focus its priorities and be accountable for making sure they are enacted. Healthcare, economic growth and public safety are the top three issues he wants to tackle over the next four years.
Testart said his experience as an MLA during the 18th Legislative Assembly, as well as his work for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and non-profits, make him a prime MLA candidate. He said this election he is a little older and wiser, with fresh ideas for positive change.
This interview was recorded on October 19, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Emily Blake: If elected, what will be the most important issues you hope to tackle over the next four years?
Kieron Testart: I’ve made healthcare, economic growth and public safety my top priorities for this campaign. That doesn’t mean other things aren’t important. But I think those three are the most challenging issues that face our future.
And the next government needs to prioritize these things to ensure northerners are safe, that their well-being is being taken care of, and that there’s a future for the Northwest Territories that’s not just determined in four-year chunks, but there’s an actual vision for economic growth and development that spans 40 years rather than four. And I think we need to change our focus and make it long-term thinking and build the kind of systems in place within the political realm that allow us to do that.
How will you ensure that those priorities are enacted?
Well, I have some experience doing this job. I was an MLA for four years. And I learned, through that, that the way to make it work is to build a relationship with your colleagues and build a relationship with the cabinet. Whether you’re on it or on the other side of it, you still have to work with the ministers to make things happen.
And when it comes to these big-ticket items, they need to be determined in the first 30 days before there’s cabinet and regular MLAs. When everyone’s equal, we figure out what we want to do.
And I think we heard the last Assembly, they want to bring down the number of priorities. Well, I’ve got three, and I think that’s a good place to start. There’s certainly other stuff, but we can fit those in. Things like housing, right? We can make that part of economic growth, we can make that part of public safety, we can make homelessness part of public safety too. It doesn’t have to be narrowly defined to police or emergency management, although those are things we need to focus on too, because I don’t think they’ve had enough attention in recent years.
Talking about those three big-ticket items, are there any specific outcomes or goals you would like to see within that?
Yeah, well, I was here during the evacuation. I was the incident commander for Ndılǫ and Dettah. And I saw first-hand how these systems work and how they don’t work. And I think northerners understand that there were some major issues with communication, in particular, and coordination across the board.
And that’s something we need to fix right away. These climate emergencies are not going to slow down, they’re going to speed up. And we need a robust system of emergency preparedness and response that allows us to effectively keep people and property safe.
There’s a lot of things we can learn from other jurisdictions. Canada Task Force 2 that came in to help the city and the GNWT was a huge resource. So we should be working with them. We should be learning from those jurisdictions that have those resources in place and bring them here to the North.
You mentioned you were previously an MLA in the 18th Legislative Assembly. What do you think your biggest successes in that role were?
We were able to do a lot, actually.
911 for the first time in the Northwest Territories. They told us it couldn’t be done, and we pushed back and we got it done. We have the best and most progressive access to information legislation in Canada, and maybe even in the world. We were able to stop austerity budgets that would have cut jobs and services for northerners, to the tune of I think $30 million. And we worked hard to bring legislation to the table and get it done.
On the committees I served on, we had all of our reports in and we got all of our legislation done. And that didn’t happen this time around. So I think we ran a pretty effective assembly.
There’s a lot of advocacy and some healthy tension between cabinet and regular members. I think that’s important, because accountability needs to be a focus. Because I think in the last four years, that’s become a big issue for northerners.
You ran during the last election in Kam Lake and lost your seat and are now running in Range Lake. Why did you decide to run again? What would you say makes this time different?
I think I’m older and wiser now. I’ve got a few more grey hairs. I have two more children. I have a beautiful daughter who’s three and a beautiful boy who’s one. And you’ll see him on my big signs, but I’m doing it for them. I’m doing it because I love the North. I grew up here. And it’s been good to me and I want it to be good to my children, too, and to everyone’s children. I think we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead that need experienced leadership with real vision to make real change a priority. And I know I can do that.
It’s where I live. I’m very proud to call Range Lake home, it’s a great neighbourhood. And it’s great to go out and talk to my neighbours. So it just made sense to throw my name in where I live and to work with my neighbours to build a movement for a brighter future.
You also mentioned your work with YKDFN and communication. We’ve seen a bit of tension between the GNWT and municipal or Indigenous governments over the past four years when it comes to making decisions and announcements. How do you plan to address that if elected?
This is a critical issue. I think we need to stop trying to invent new processes and bodies and start bringing Indigenous governments into the public government. And we need to look at things like how can we bring Indigenous governments into the legislature, to have an active seat at the table when laws are being debated and studied?
That’s something that is possible. We’ve seen that example in New Zealand, where the Maori were given guaranteed seats. I don’t think that’s the option here, but we need to explore that.
Perhaps it looks something like a senate where we actually have senators from the First Nations who can review legislation. But we can’t keep going separately, we need to be a confederation within confederation, respect the self-governments, respect the Indigenous leaders. But find a way to bring them into the public government in a meaningful way, where they have some say over what happens so we’re all moving into the future together.
The Range Lake seat has been left open by the premier. How do you plan to fill those shoes or represent the district differently?
My focus is on constituency issues. As a regular member, that was the biggest part of my job, advocating for the needs of constituents and helping them navigate the red tape of the bureaucracy. And no matter what role I play, I will certainly bring those services to bear.
I think sometimes when you’re the premier or a minister, you can kind-of forget about doing that work. And my focus is always on people. And I’ll be out door-knocking every year, learning directly from folks.
We just need a little bit more hustle when it comes to getting things done. We can’t wait until the fourth year of the assembly to pass all the laws, make all the changes, and spend all the money. We need to get that stuff done early.
And I think that the last government had new leadership, not the kind of experience we’ve seen in other governments. And I think that showed in how the assembly was run, and ultimately how the outcomes were.
I’m very focused on results and delivery. And I want to see the public service refocused on that with some structural changes that really guide them to being focused on delivering what the politicians want them to deliver, and not what the bureaucracy wants the politicians to deliver.
We need to reverse that relationship because ultimately, what politicians are bringing to the table and MLAs are bringing to the table, is what their constituents tell them.
Can you maybe expand on that? Do you know what those structural changes and outcomes would look like?
We need to create some more structures within the central government roles. We need to beef up the cabinet secretariat and the financial management board to have real accountability over departmental spending and over departmental policy, so it’s not siloed across the board. And we need a deputy secretary of results and delivery that actually is looking at how can we get these things done.
And the mandate needs to be political. It can’t be written by GNWT senior management. It needs to be written by the politicians and political staff. We need to keep those things separate so there’s very clear leadership going on here and we depoliticize the public service.
What would you say differentiates you from the other candidates vying for this seat?
I think one of the biggest differences? I’m the only one who lives in Range Lake. And I think that does matter in territorial elections.
The experience factor, too. I’ve been through this.
Over the last four years I’ve gotten a lot of experience in different areas. As a father, as someone who’s worked for First Nations and understands their challenges directly. And working for non-profits as well and language advocacy.
These are all things I was able to do, and gain new perspective on how to get things done that aren’t just politics. And I’m really grateful for those opportunities. I think I’m a much stronger, well-rounded leader now than perhaps I was when I served in public office.
I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to ground on day one. And there’s a big learning curve to being an MLA. You can’t just walk in there and do it if you don’t know how to do it. And I have the really peculiar skill set of being in there before. And that really matters when we’re trying to get things done quickly and effectively.
You talked about the importance of the assembly focusing its priorities. Can you expand on that?
Yeah. I think that focus needs to not just be a document that the assembly creates in the first setting, and then we forget about it and just move on. And there’s mandate trackers and updates, fine. But no one’s really focused on that. That’s my experience. I think that was largely true in the last assembly too.
We need to start bringing those things into the legislative sittings. Like the mandate should be the commissioner’s address, right? And there should be a confidence convention as well. So if regular members don’t like it, and they vote against it and it fails, well, you’ve got to reset cabinet and start over. So there’s real stakes to get it right from cabinet’s perspective. And there’s real accountability at the end of the day.
And you can have multiple commissioner’s addresses over the years to show how things are changing. We don’t need a separate process, it’s all built into the legislature itself. We just need to use those tools and not be afraid to embrace them.
I’m curious about your top priority being healthcare. What tangible solutions are you proposing to address healthcare issues?
One of them is to bring accountability and transparency around how money is being spent. Giving more money to healthcare, it’s always going to happen, right? There’s always costs, especially in the Northwest Territories. But we’re not seeing greater results or bigger bang for your buck. It’s just kind-of plugging gaps. So we need to hold decision-makers within the health authorities accountable and also give them clear targets to meet, so there’s real efficiencies going on there.
And we also need to empower staff. I’ve been talking with nurses and allied healthcare professionals and others in my riding and they all say the same thing, that their voices aren’t being heard. So we need to do a better job of empowering front-line staff, making their jobs more flexible, giving them more resources to train and achieve more in their professional lives so we can attract more talent here. Because it’s not working, right? We have a huge shortage.
Another thing I’m proposing is a dedicated program to help northern students pay for their MCAT tests and incidental things that come along with healthcare training and education that aren’t currently being covered by SFA.
Is there anything else that you’d like to say about any of your priorities or your platform?
I’m very focused on the needs of the North.
And I think the last four years have been tough. It’s no one’s fault. It’s been a very chaotic world. And I understand those challenges, I’ve lived through them. I was at home with my daughter, my family during Covid. I was here during the evacuation. I know what people have gone through and I want to make things right.
And I don’t want to just talk about how hard challenges are. I want solutions to be brought to the table. And I’m going to be a voice for solutions, and a voice for leadership, and a voice for making our government work and making our government better.
In the last few minutes we have, is there anything else you’d want to say to potential constituents or clarify?
I’m your Range Lake candidate.
I’m very proud to live in Range Lake. It’s been a great home to me and my family, and I want to keep it that way. And we can all come together to make that happen by building a campaign that represents everyone’s interests, and brings change, accountability, and better government to the Northwest Territories and a brighter future to us all. So I’m looking forward to chatting with each and every one of you and getting to know the issues that really matter.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.