Former city councillor Shauna Morgan is hoping to be the next MLA for Yellowknife North.
Morgan said if elected, she plans to focus on the foundations of a healthy community and economy. She said that includes prioritizing housing, healthcare, education and energy systems. She also highlighted the importance of supporting best practices in addiction prevention, treatment and harm reduction.
Morgan said she will bring to the legislature the lessons she’s learned from sitting on Yellowknife’s city council for two terms between 2015 to 2022, and a collaborative approach. She also pointed to her experience as a member of the Yellowknife Women’s Society board.
This interview was recorded on October 23, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Emily Blake: To start off, if elected, what will be your priorities or the most important issues you hope to tackle over the next four years?
Shauna Morgan: I focused my priorities on the foundations of a healthy community and a healthy economy. Because I think there are some pieces that we have to tackle first before anything else is going to work and before other initiatives can really prosper and move forward.
And so those priorities: I think it’s obvious to everyone that housing is a huge priority. That includes both affordable housing for our existing workforce and any new people that we might need to bring in to fill the gaps in our workforce. As well as public housing, where there’s huge waiting lists. Also, there’s a need for more supportive housing for people who may be involved in the streets or need a safe home, that has wraparound supports to help them succeed and move forward with their lives.
I also see education and building a skilled workforce as absolutely foundational to everything else. As well as ensuring everyone has better access to primary healthcare and mental healthcare. And then, certainly, we need to have energy systems that give us premium and affordable electricity and heating systems that will lead us towards both a more sustainable future financially and environmentally.
How would you make sure that those priorities are addressed as an MLA?
It’s one thing to stand on a soapbox during campaign period and shout our ideas from the treetops. But I know from my experience in city council over the previous two terms that it really takes getting to know your colleagues, listening to the different perspectives of other MLAs, and the staff, and administrators and experts that you’re working with in the government, as well as listening to lots of different perspectives from members of the public. Trying to understand the bigger picture of how different pieces fit together and then making decisions based on evidence, and based on the different perspectives and options that are presented.
I believe I will bring the lessons I’ve learned from city council and a collaborative approach to try to find common ground with MLAs who may come from very different backgrounds and perspectives, communities across the territory.
But I do think there are common issues to every community and that we can get over this mentality of Yellowknife versus the communities. And there are so many things that affect all of our communities, including Yellowknife, that we need to improve for everyone to improve services in all communities and infrastructure. So if we can figure out how we’re interdependent and how we can take action together, I think that will start to chip away at some of the conflict-type mentalities and allow us to move forward as a territory.
You mentioned your role as a city councillor. What do you think your biggest successes in that role were?
I think one of the biggest successes during my time on council was improving the relationship between coucillors and administration.
I often hear as a common theme within the GNWT that some people feel that the politicians need to be more assertive in telling the bureaucrats what to do. And then, I’m sure many people within the government bureaucracy – and I’ve heard from some of them, too – fear that politicians can go off in so many different directions and don’t really understand their work, and need to stop interfering.
And I think that was the mentality when I started at city council. That was about eight years ago. But during my time there, I think all of us worked hard to build a more respectful relationship and a trusting relationship between councillors and senior administration.
It wasn’t blind trust, but I think the key is to get to a point where each side can respectfully challenge the other, ask questions. Don’t just, you know, accept the first thing that you hear but say, “What do you mean by that? Does that really make sense? How does that fit with what we’re doing in our bigger strategic plan?” And have those tough conversations to work out a better path forward with insight from the political side, which has more of an ear to the public, and insight from – you know, we call it the bureaucracy, but really it’s a group of experts that you’ve hired because they have knowledge, training, background… you really need to hear that side, too.
One of your areas of focus is an integrated and comprehensive approach to homelessness, and preventing and reducing harm of substance use. What would that look like in practice?
We hear all the time about problems with silos in government. Different departments working on their own and having a hard time working together. And that seems to be an age-old problem.
We’ve also heard of government initiatives to try to address that. There’s initiatives like integrated service delivery. And these are great ideas. I think we have made limited progress in ensuring that, from someone in the public’s perspective, if I need housing, if I need income support, if I need medical help, if I have all these different needs… I think we haven’t come very far in terms of me being able to go through one window or one person who could help me with a range of needs that I might have.
That is where we need to go when it comes to people who are on and off the streets, who may or may not be struggling with addictions, substance use, insecure housing, poverty, discrimination, interactions with the justice system. We need to ensure that the resources and supports the government is offering are coordinated with each other and that they’re actually effective in helping that person move forward.
I’ve done volunteer work as a board member with the Yellowknife Women’s Society over the past number of years. We have learned through our programs that to really make a difference in someone’s life, you need to offer sort-of a full package of supports and services. So if you’re going to offer counselling or addictions treatment, that’s going to be way more effective if you can also offer someone housing, secure housing. And maybe help them face other challenges that they’re having, maybe around getting a job, or getting more training, making sure they have access to healthy food on a daily basis, helping to fill out forms – all these kinds of things.
Our most successful programs are supportive living, with all those supports wrapped in, and a harm reduction approach is the most effective one. That just means meeting people where they’re at in order to move forward, as opposed to expecting them to fulfill a bunch of criteria that make them acceptable enough to help, I suppose. And so trying to understand where someone is at and how some of the risks and dangers that they might face in their life, how some of those could be reduced. And you could start to stabilize some of the factors that are causing day-to-day turmoil in order to slowly build a life that people want.
There are many best practice models out there around harm reduction, and one of them has to do with a managed alcohol program. There have been little pilot programs around a program like that, but it’s never been fully resourced or supported in a sustainable way. And I’m concerned that the government might be wanting to just give up and move away from that. But I’m convinced that we need to further resource and support and expand best-practice models in harm reduction if we’re going to make significant improvements in serving the vulnerable population.
I’m curious about your ideas for issues that are directly impacting Yellowknife North, for example, the reduction of fire service on the Ingraham Trail.
I remember when I was in city council and we were discussing service levels for the Yellowknife Fire Department. I think this was a difficult and frustrating conversation for everyone involved. Basically, the Yellowknife Fire Department had to set standards that would be realistic in terms of being able to fulfill those standards every single time. Right? And up to then, on an ad-hoc basis, the fire department had been able to respond to calls around fires on the Ingraham Trail if they had staff available, if there weren’t other calls for service – ambulance, fire – within the city. But the concern was we don’t have the staff and resources to guarantee that that could happen every time. So we want it to be clear to the public about what the city could realistically offer or guarantee.
And so at that time, it was actually discussions with the territorial government, because the Ingraham Trail is within territorial jurisdiction, not the city’s jurisdiction. And there were promises at that time that the territorial government would look into working with people living on the Ingraham Trail to find new solutions for how they could have a more secure or solid system of fire response on the trail.
It sounds like there’s not been much movement on that in the last few years, which is super frustrating and disappointing. So that definitely is something I’ll want to address if elected, to follow up and really push on that, because we need solutions for people that are in various situations. People have homes, they have things that are really valuable to them, living on the trail, and certainly any fire’s going to affect neighbours, affect the surrounding forest. And as we’ve seen this summer, fires can spread wickedly quickly. So I think it’s a public safety issue as well as a safety issue for people living out on the trail.
In the last minute here, is there anything else that you’d like to say or clarify?
I want to explain why I’ve decided to make the leap into trying to be in the Legislative Assembly.
Before city council, I’d spent my time up here – I’ve been up here for 15 years – working in advocating for policy change from outside the government. Working with non-profits, having my own business around music and education for kids. And so I wanted to get into city council so that I could be in more decision-making roles, so that – as opposed to issuing recommendations from the outside – I could be more involved from the inside.
I really did enjoy my time on council. I found it challenging but absolutely fascinating and always enjoyed every day that I was working in that job. The interactions with people, the puzzles that you’re trying to figure out, trying to understand different perspectives and find a way through.
What I found frustrating about city council work was that it’s a part-time thing, right? It’s once a week and you have basically full-time work outside that. So you’re doing everything off the side of your desk and you’re doing it by yourself. You’re doing your research and background work yourself.
I decided I would like to dive right in and be a full-time MLA where I could devote all of my focus and efforts to that job and have access to research staff and other resources, where I think there is a real opportunity to make a difference on some of these huge territorial issues that affect us all like healthcare, education and housing. And so I’m excited to give it a try.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.