After four years spent listening to his community’s needs, Wally Schumann says he is ready for a second term representing the people of Hay River South.
Schumann was the district’s MLA from 2015 to 2019, also serving as the NWT’s minister of infrastructure and industry. He lost to Rocky Simpson in 2019’s election but is now campaigning for a comeback, saying his priorities will be improving mental health supports, education and the economy.
He says his time away from politics has made him a better candidate this time around.
“When you get to take four years off and reflect on what’s possible and what could be done differently, I think you come back with a whole different attitude,” Schumann said.
If elected, Schumann says he will focus on solutions that address mental health and addiction while decreasing the stigma around getting help. He also says he’ll promote education reform that improves graduation rates and better prepares students for post-secondary studies. Schumann’s vision for the economy involves supporting local mining activity as well as other northern industries.
Schumann says his focus is on the people of Hay River, talking with them directly and hearing what they have to say. He says this will inform his work in the legislature.
This interview was recorded on October 19, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Simona Rosenfield: You were elected to represent Hay River South in the 18th Assembly but you lost in the last election. Can you tell readers why you decided to run again?
Wally Schumann: That’s a great question because I just answered this last night with a group of people. The day that I lost the election, I knew I was already going to run again. The day that I lost – and my team was very mad at the whole situation, because we believe we had a great opportunity to do back-to-back terms – now, it didn’t work out that way for a number of reasons but we lost, we stepped back, we had four years to reflect on what happened to us. What we did right, what we did wrong, and what can we do better. And I think we’ve learned from that.
I’ve said this to my wife and a number of people: as I sit back and reflect on what I did as a minister, as a high-profile minister to be exact, and being able to step away for four years, coming back this time, I will be a better member of the Legislative Assembly than I would have been back-to-back.
With that being said, that’s because you’re so busy. I was extremely busy with the two portfolios that I had. And you just get caught up in the day-to-day business of what’s going on with government and trying to get your files done, and legislation and policies, and dealing with industry. When you get to take four years off and reflect on what’s possible and what could be done differently, I think you come back with a whole different attitude towards how you’re going to want to manage things in the Northwest Territories.
Can you share a bit more specifically what you plan to do differently this time around?
I believe I was very successful in my first term. Coming back this time, I’m very focused right now on Hay River specifically. That’s what the campaign is all about. Listening to our local leadership, different individuals, and get out there talking to people. And there’s a lot of things that surface that are very similar in lots of communities, but every community has their own unique situations.
I think the biggest difference is: I was the first MLA in the Northwest Territories that actually did Facebook Live for my constituency meetings back in the 18th Legislative Assembly. And the reason for that was, the first meeting I ever had for a constituency meeting, nobody showed up beside me and my dad and a couple of friends and the reporter. And I’m like, how is this acceptable? You learn as you go that people are moving forward with their lives and not necessarily totally tied to what’s going on in the Legislative Assembly. And as we move forward, we found out that to engage people, you’ve got to really work at it.
The biggest thing that I’m approaching this time around is, even though we were successful with Facebook Live when we started doing it that way, you have to really get out and communicate with people and tell them what’s going on, and what the challenges are with their territorial government. And lots of times, it’s a very personal story that people want to share with you. But it’s all about getting in front of people. That’s the biggest difference I think, this time.
What are people telling you they want addressed by the next Legislative Assembly?
I’m hearing a number of things already. The key pillars to my platform are based around mental health, education and the economy. But that doesn’t mean anything else is left out.
And the reason I say that is, let’s go back to our assembly as an example. Our mandate was like 200-and-some items, which is crazy. As a government, that document that we, as a group of 19 members, say these are the priorities of the Legislative Assembly… you can’t have 200-and-some things because, all of a sudden, everything’s a priority. But that being said, nothing is going to be left unturned.
Constituents come forward to their MLAs. These issues are brought forward, and the government doesn’t just say, because they’re not on the priority list, we’re not going to look at them. We have to listen to the residents of the Northwest Territories.
My top three are mental health, education and economy. But as you go around door-to-door, talking to people and hearing what they have to say, there’s various different things that you’re hearing from each different community.
But Hay River-specific, it could be anything from NGOs not getting timely funding, to the District Education Authority and their issues around education, the drug problems in our communities – all sorts of things. You’ve got to be very open and up-front and listen to people, what they have to say, and try to help them in a meaningful way that’s going to make an impact on their lives.
Moving on to mental health. What is your plan to promote mental health for residents, especially for those navigating addiction?
I did an interview with CBC, we lost my son to opioids a couple years ago. But he was a big advocate about mental health. One of the things I learned after my son passed away, from all his friends when we had a celebration of life, is what an advocate he was for them. One of them said they never would have made it through school without CJ’s input and helping them support mental health. So, I’ve really become an advocate for it.
People ask me, what do you think was your proudest moment in the 18th Legislative Assembly? People would think it’s something specific around money for the Slave Geological Province or the Taltson project or something like that, but my proudest moment, I think in the 18th Legislative Assembly, was when Minister Abernethy stood up and said that he got money from the federal government for mental health, for every worker and every school in the Northwest Territories. Is that enough? Absolutely not. But that was probably a proudest moment for the 18th Legislative Assembly, because it’s the first time we ever got that type of funding.
As a society and as a northern community, you look at the type of models that are out there, like Better Help, which is an online application-based one where you can pay for different types of services. I would love to have a conversation about some type of Better Help model that’s an Indigenous-led one that helps all northerners.
Particularly in smaller communities, with the stigma if we’ve stuck a mental health worker there. People don’t realize the stigma. You could be talking to a mental health worker about your issues, or you’re very reluctant to be doing that. You might be playing hockey with that individual that night. So, there’s a whole bunch of things around that. We need to build a case for it. But I went as far as I even put my name in to be on the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s board. I was not successful, but there’s a lot of good people on there. I follow the Mental Health Commission of Canada very closely and what their initiatives are. And it’s a very important issue to me.
Moving on now to education. What is your plan is to promote education in the district?
Like I said, I met with the DEA last night, we had a long conversation. My concern going into this next four-year cycle, around education, is our graduation rates are nowhere near where they need to be. And you start looking at the post-secondary with the people that are going either to Aurora College or southern institutes, where they’re not at the levels that they should be and have got to take upgrading. The money that’s been spent on upgrading people that came out of the K-to-12 system, I believe is causing us to spend an exorbitant amount of money upgrading people. If we were properly doing our jobs as parents, communities, and leaders to educate our people, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that feeds into that, but we have to do a better job of educating our kids from K to 12 and have them prepared, and get them into classrooms so they can go on to be productive citizens.
You recently spoke about the potential for mining activity and you also included the economy as a focus for your platform. If elected, how would you support the Pine Point mine and Enterprise’s Aurora industrial site, and where do they fit into your plan for the economy?
Let’s step back a little bit and go back to the 18th Legislative Assembly. I was the Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment and that has a lot to play with the resource sector. I have a lot of experience and leadership around that. The last four years, since I lost the election, I was advisor to Ekati Diamond Mine to bring it out of bankruptcy, and got it to a place where it was stable enough that we were able to sell it.
I think a lot of my leadership experience around the resource sector is already very useful going into the 20th Legislative Assembly. I’ve met with Pine Point a number of times. In fact, I even had a conversation with Pine Point yesterday and an investor group that came through town and saw the site. I fully support that project. Brad’s project out at Aurora, Enterprise, when you look at that project, that is going to be the future of mining potential across the Northwest Territories – how he can help bring down the costs for resource development and other economic opportunities that Brad is going to be doing at his site. Very grateful to CN that just fixed the railroad to his site so we can continue to haul fuel to all three of the diamond mines this year, and to help facilitate what we need to deliver on the winter road system to our communities. Because without his site, with the rail being damaged this year, that would have put us in a very tough position already going into this winter season, and put the diamond mines at an escalated cost of hauling their stuff from down south. Brad’s site also helps lower greenhouse gas emissions. His site is going to be the future of a lot of the mining industry. We’ve had the lithium guys actually tour his site. His site is very important to the future of the economy of the Northwest Territories.
Do you see any other opportunities for economic development in the district?
Well, there’s a couple of them. We have one missed opportunity so far. When I was there, we negotiated a 48-bed seniors’ extended care facility for the town of Hay River. The money was approved, it was sitting there. The 19th Assembly failed to execute on that. And now, as we look back on what happened in 19th Assembly, they lowered it to 24 beds, which takes away a lot of opportunities from our community because the 48-bed, based on the numbers that we had, would have brought 60 new jobs to Hay River.
The 19th Assembly decided to take 24 beds away, which would – let’s just go by stats – would lower it to only 30 jobs versus 60 families. They failed to execute on building it. So that’s a problem. We need to figure out what’s going on there and get that up and running.
The fish plant is almost done. That was through my tenure as ITI minister. That’s going to help the fishing industry – help them grow and do more local processing here, for them to create more revenue for the fishermen and grow that industry, and put a little bit more focus on northern sustainability around food. So, there’s a lot of different economic opportunities that are out there. In some cases, the government needs to get out of the way and let them do it, and in some cases, we’ve got to be there at the table to help facilitate it.
Chances are we will need a premier outside Yellowknife. If elected, is that something you’re keeping in the back of your mind?
You’ve got to get elected first. Trust me, I didn’t get elected last time. So you don’t worry about that stuff. You need to worry about getting elected and what’s important to your community. And once the 19 members are elected, they will coalesce together and figure out who the next premier is going to be of the Northwest Territories, to try to lead us through probably the most difficult times that we’re ever going to face as a territory, economically and socially.
I don’t necessarily buy into the fact that that person has to come outside of Yellowknife. I had that conversation when I was there as a minister and I had it outside of there. At the end of the day, we just want elect the person who’s probably the best-suited to lead us.
One last question. Why should voters support you?
I believe I have the leadership and the experience from the previous four years when I was in the assembly, based on the portfolios that I had. I am fully engaged. As I said, I lost the last election. I’ve stepped back in the last four years and done a number of things that helped moved the Territories forward, but I also had time to reflect on myself, what I can do better for our community.
And like I said earlier in our interview, the biggest thing is we’ve got to get out there and talk to the people. Even if you think you’re talking to the people as much as you are, you need to do a better job at it all the time. Because a lot of people are ill-informed on what’s going on. They’re busy with their lives. Hay River has gone through three big episodes with the flood and two fires. There’s a lot of concern and anxiety around that and getting ourselves back on our feet. So, we have to reassure people that someone like me can help us lead our territory forward in a more meaningful way with economic opportunities, and help us with our education, and our mental health, and anything else that comes with it.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.