Katrina Nokleby is seeking a second term in Great Slave, promising a more “realistic” and practical approach to what the NWT can get done – with the Mackenzie Valley Highway a priority.
Nokleby was briefly a cabinet minister in her opening term before being replaced by Julie Green following her colleagues’ vote to oust her. She recently made headlines for returning to Yellowknife mid-evacuation.
But she says those incidents don’t define her work as an MLA, not only for her own constituents but also for people across the territory – and she takes pride in her belief that, by the end of her four-year term, she was “one of the strongest members” of the legislature.
Nokleby wants to use a second four-year term strengthening smaller communities, getting Yellowknife’s university campus built in the Capital Area rather than on Tin Can Hill, and building Indigenous-led wellness and treatment centres.
This interview was recorded on October 19, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: In 30 seconds, tell us a little about your background that you’d want voters to know, if they don’t already, outside politics.
Katrina Nokleby: Thank you for having me, Ollie. In my background, I am a professional geological engineer, currently non-practising in this role, and I have a huge background in project management, transportation and logistics, environmental and contaminated sites, geotechnical investigations, ice engineering – so basically, I’ve spent a lot of time in my 17 years in the North travelling around to various communities and the other territories, and really getting a feel for how the North truly lives. Not just what’s seen in Yellowknife.
You’ve been an MLA for four years. This time around, knowing what you now know about what is achievable and what needs doing, what is different about your pitch?
I think this time around I have a lot more of a realistic expectation, like you said, of what I could actually get done. I’ve always sort-of been a person where I had lofty goals and then worked as best toward them, but I feel like in doing that, we actually set ourselves up for failure in the last assembly. So for example, we had picked three strategic infrastructure projects. Now, I think I would have just pushed for the Mackenzie Valley Highway only. That is a part of my platform going forward now, is that I want to see that get constructed in the next four years, or at least on its way. Other things that I think I realize now is not so much maybe my philosophies of leadership and such, but people want to see tangible, actionable items that can be achieved. They want a leader that is practical, who has vision for moving forward, but is not lost in this champagne dream on the beer budget, which has really been a problem I think over the years in the North.
There are some things we’ve got to discuss here. You were kicked out of cabinet by a 16 to one vote. Almost the last act of your colleagues was a unanimous vote to fine you for returning to Yellowknife mid-evacuation. Is it them, or is it you? What has been going on there?
First of all, I’d like to say that I’ve more than discussed everything that’s happened over the four years and I really would like to just move forward and chalk that up to experience and the fact that I have learned a lot from it. I’ve learned a lot about relationships. I think my style has been something that has never been seen in the assembly before. I am a very direct person. I’m the only the second engineer that’s ever been in the assembly. We are taught from the day we get into university that we are straightforward, we speak to the truth, and we generally just – we don’t sugarcoat things so much. And I recognize that that has not been always well received. However, I do know that one of my strengths is that people appreciate that I speak the truth and I walk the talk. And so if I’ve messed up, I’ve owned up to it. And I’ve learned from it and I’m moving forward,
What would you say to people who worry that other people in territorial politics didn’t really seem to want to work with you much over the past few years?
I would disagree with that. I actually got along quite well with a lot of my colleagues. It’s just that the papers and such don’t tend to report on us all getting along and having great, productive meetings. Instead, they would rather choose the more salacious topics and understandably so.
Do you think that’s an unfair reflection of the assembly as a whole? Do you feel as though, broadly speaking, everybody did get along?
I think so. I think we got along more than anybody really realized, and I actually take a point of pride that I felt very much the outcast of the 19th Assembly in the fall of 2020 and, by the end of it, I was one of the strongest members. I received notes from my colleagues, Indigenous colleagues during my goodbye speech and my Truth and Reconciliation Day speech, telling me it was some of the best they’d ever heard. And so I think it actually speaks to my ability to create real relationships that I’ve been able to come from so far behind, to actually building really meaningful relationships with my colleagues – and I have their support. I know there are people in that house that will come out to endorse me once things get going.
Appreciating your characterization that you’re an engineer, that you are a direct talker, how do you hope to change and evolve in a second term as an MLA? What are the lessons you’ve learned about actually getting things done?
I think that I’ve learned that I don’t always have to weigh in on every thing. And I actually believe that I’ve walked that talk in the last two years. There are many options and issues where everybody feels they have to get their 10 minutes in of speaking, and I’m not that kind of politician. If I don’t need to add to the conversation, I don’t, and that’s a way that I feel I can speed things up and make things more efficient in the assembly. I’ve also been a huge contributor to the two largest committees in the assemblies, social development and ec dev and environment, and we created some great legislation. We reached out to communities. We built bridges, I think, that haven’t been seen before, particularly around social development. We did our consultation much differently, and I’m proud of that.
Do you ever see yourself being a member of cabinet again?
Perhaps. I’ve never been a person where I’m looking 20 years down the line and this is my goal of where I want to be. Life evolves and I evolve with it. I do not want cabinet this time around. My plan is to stay a regular member if I’m re-elected. That being said, you know, I have had some constituents say: “Please don’t rule it out.” And I wouldn’t. It would depend on who comes into the assembly. But at this point, I’d like to provide leadership on the regular side that I think was missing.
You touched on some of the things you’ve worked on. From a territory-wide point of view, where do you think your most important contributions have come over the past four years?
That’s a good question. I think bringing the science and engineering and logistics background has been key. A lot of people come into the government from a government background and not a private sector background. So I’ve always been a strong advocate for business, industry. I know with the Forest Act, I provided a lot of good input and feedback there. But my biggest part that I’m proud of is the advocacy that I’ve done and the people that I’ve helped. I didn’t read out my statistics, I wouldn’t know what they are. But I know that I’ve been called the Honorary Member for Sahtu. Anybody that reaches out to me, they get a response and they get help if I can.
Give us an example or two of what that looks like.
So for example, medical travel was a huge issue in the Sahtu. A lot of people would reach out to me if they were being bumped on flights to get into Yellowknife for their health. I have helped a woman who was in a high-risk pregnancy from Norman Wells when she was in town. I have helped look after teenagers who have been in town so that they can go to high school and have more opportunity here in Yellowknife. I’ve put people up in my home when they’ve come through. I support people financially. And I bought a lot of earrings from across the territory.
What would you point to in terms of specifically the Great Slave district? What have you done on behalf of those constituents as a bloc over the past four years?
I struggle at times to pinpoint what are Great Slave-only issues. But maybe I’m lucky – or not lucky – to have had two that have popped up that are really significant to the riding. And of course, that’s the Tin Can Hill selection for the polytechnic site. I’ve spoken to that in the house. I’ve lobbied the minister to consider other locations, I’ve reached out to the advocacy groups and supported them. The other one is the Robertson Drive dock upgrade. I’ve been lobbying with the ITI minister to ensure that my constituents are informed and that their voices were heard. I had a special constituency meeting just for that. So those two are sort of the more very-specific ones. But to me, we’re only going to be strong in Yellowknife if we strengthen our communities. And when you look at the issues facing Yellowknife, it’s often due to the lack of resources in the communities. So the bigger picture is that we all need to be doing well everywhere, not just in Great Slave.
What needs to change for that to be the case? How can a government over the next four years achieve that strengthening of smaller communities?
Well, the first issue I think is employment in the small communities. We had made it a priority to decentralize operations for the GNWT and I haven’t really seen that significantly happen. Now that we’ve had a more virtual assembly – I mean, we were in the Dark Ages when Covid hit, they were still using the same call-in cabinet number until I said, “How many people have the passcode for this?” So we’ve really come a long way in the four years. Now that things can be done a lot more remotely and a lot more virtually, we need to reimagine our job descriptions so that community members can get those jobs and Indigenous people can get those jobs, so we can sort of break down some of that systemic racism in our departments.
I know you have a 20-point plan that we can touch on in a second. We did mention Tin Can Hill – is there a way to have a university campus on Tin Can Hill that works for everyone? Or should that be abandoned?
I mean, with unlimited dollars, resources and capacity, we could do an amazing job of preserving the the wildlife or nature in that area and use for that area. But given that, again, the budget is not going to be extraordinary, I really see that there will be a larger impact than I think anybody is trying to promise right now or reassure right now. Whenever you have to come in to do construction, you need to level, you need to blast, you need to clear trees. All of that will mean destruction of this area that’s really important to people. I don’t make up my mind until I look at facts – or I try to – and I haven’t seen a good case, really, for Tin Can Hill. And that makes me think, well, if you haven’t really explored it that fulsomely, how can you now say that this is the site, given the reaction from the public? Myself, I’d like to see it be explored at the Capital site as I mentioned in my member’s statement. I think it’s a much smarter place and it allows for future expansion with the Akaitcho being the landlords.
I’m sure as well though, as an engineer, you’re used to people not wanting there to be construction near them, come what may. We see that with housing in Yellowknife as well. How do you defend against the suggestion that really, this university has to go somewhere? And no matter where you put it, some people are going to say, “Well, it can’t go there.”
I agree. But again, when I look at the Capital site, the only people that say it can’t go there is some archaic part of our legislation or the federal government. So to me, it’s not a great argument for the not. When I look at the balance again, the pros and the cons, and I see the passion that people have for Tin Can Hill… the strategy of looking at, “Well, we don’t want to keep doing this every 10 years and having this conversation,” so now their conversation is not so much about let’s prevent the university there, but let’s preserve this location. I think that’s the future area forward, is to look at the preservation of Tin Can Hill and actually fulsomely explore other options. Right now, the downtown integrated model is not being explored because it won’t get us the $300-million funding from the federal government. And to me, that’s not a good-enough reason. It’s been proven that standalone campuses cost more in maintenance and such. I would like to see the government really lobby the federal government to look at that integrated approach or the Capital site.
Jumping through federal hoops is part of the gig, though, as you already know. You even have it on your platform here: “Let’s form a federal engagement strategy that leverages our unique consensus status with all parties in Ottawa.” So sometimes you do have to, frankly, do what the federal government wants you to do, don’t you?
I agree. But I feel that in the past, we haven’t been successful in actually making the federal government understand what’s going on in the Northwest Territories. I did only have a short time on cabinet, but I felt I was actually quite effective in explaining our situation to federal colleagues.
What are we not doing, then, when we talk to the federal government? What should we change about the way that we’re outlining the situation here? How do you get the feds to do what you want them to do?
Well, one of the things that I’ve learned in this role is that people come to me to get the territorial government to do what they want to do. So my strategy and why I included this is that when I was an MLA, I would be contacted by, say, Conservative MPs or people from the NDP. And when I brought that to cabinet or to the premier, I was told: “No, we can’t offend Trudeau, we can’t offend the Liberals, we’re not doing that” – including members of a standing committee not getting access to the housing minister, who were doing a task force report on housing in the North. So to me, that is a missed opportunity. We should be going to every party because first of all, we don’t know who will be in powered in the next election generally.
And second of all, we should be using the opposition parties to create more noise and talk about the North, including the Arctic sovereignty and the defence portion of it, so that they can pressure the sitting government to ensure that they’re actually taking care of our needs. If we’re just going to who’s there and our MP is from the Liberal Party, we’re getting nothing. We’ve gotten nothing, except for a little bit of an airport because of the DND.
Is it a fair summary for me to say that your advice there is to be less afraid to offend some people?
Yes, I guess that’s kind-of been my… if you’re going to put words in my mouth, a little bit of my term in office has been that. I think we really do tippy-toe a little bit too much around. And maybe that worked in the past when everything was prosperous and the money was flowing. But we’re in a dire situation right now, particularly with our economy. Every day a business reaches out to me and tells me pretty-much that they’re leaving. Or a resident does. Everybody is struggling. So now is not the time to be nice. I think now is the time to use our Indigenous relationships and go to Ottawa and get what we need.
Let’s very quickly look at the rest of “Katrina’s 20 for the 20th.” Let’s pick two. Which would you highlight as big priorities that have to get done?
Construct Indigenous-led wellness and treatment centres. I think we need one in each of the five regions run by the Indigenous governments of that region, and they would be all-encompassing treatment, aftercare, sober living, even people fleeing domestic violence – I think we’re making a mistake to only have infrastructure that supports one cause instead of looking at how we support all the people and provide the services there to them. And then the second one would be build the Mackenzie Valley Highway. Our supply chain is so threatened right now. We need that highway.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.