Stacie Arden Smith would become one of the few First Nations MLAs ever to represent a Yellowknife district if she successfully makes the leap from municipal to territorial politics.
Arden Smith says her background in business informs her top priority of economic regrowth and sustainability, while she’d also focus on Indigenous wellness.
A single mother, she described feeling representative of Great Slave residents and the struggles they’re facing.
“I’m not going to know everything and I’m not going to boast that I do, but I’m very good at learning. I love being able to have conversations with people who are in the know, that have experience, that have that expertise,” she said. “And that would be my job as an MLA, to make sure that I listen and I carry forward that expertise from those areas.”
This interview was recorded on October 19, 2023. The transcript has been lightly ed
Ollie Williams: In 30 seconds, tell us a little bit about your background that it’s important for voters to know.
Stacie Arden Smith: I’m a lifelong Yellowknifer, born and raised, raising my own family here as well so I’ve invested into the community. Prior to being a politician on city council, I was a business owner on multiple levels, not only within childcare, I ran my own day home, but I also ran Flowers North. I was heavily involved with coaching, martial arts specifically, but I’ve really dedicated myself to this community.
What are your top two practical priorities if you’re elected?
Definitely economic regrowth and sustainability. After the wildfires, we’re seeing a lot of businesses are really struggling. So that is my top priority, making them a priority. The other one is Indigenous wellness. So we’re talking about rehabilitation, we’re talking about our vulnerable sector, but not only our vulnerable – we’re talking about everybody because it affects everybody.
We’ll come back to both of those. When you announced you’d run, you said Yellowknife “hasn’t had a strong advocate in the legislature.” What did you mean by that?
I’m talking more on the Indigenous level. As a woman, as a single mother, I understand the struggles, definitely. And to be an advocate – I advocate for that on my city platform – but I want to take that just a little bit further, because there’s many of us women like myself throughout the NWT.
Yellowknife has had very few First Nations MLAs. How do you think that would shape your priorities, and also the kind of job you do, compared to other Yellowknife MLAs if you were elected?
I think having me on the next assembly will definitely show that Indigenous people need to be at the table. Again, talking about fire mitigation, emergency measures, all governance needs to be at the table that includes Indigenous governments, Indigenous communities, because we all rely on one another.
What do you see that’s lacking in terms of how Yellowknife has been represented in recent years?
What I see as lacking really is representation, a true voice of Indigenous people and their concerns. I mean, I personally haven’t really dealt with or had to struggle with alcoholism or addictions, but my family has. So I’ve seen it first-hand. Residential school as well, my grandmother went to residential school, and you can see the trickle effect from my mother’s generation to my generation. And the goal is to make sure that for future generations, we can improve on what we do for family.
You also said you wanted the legislature to “get back to work on what really matters to northerners.” What has it been doing that didn’t matter to northerners? What are you talking about there?
Because of a lot of what happened with Covid, a lot of what happened with the fires, these are unknown territories that the government has not had to deal with and see. So making sure that we have preparedness measures in place so that communities can be able to receive food, transportation,… we saw during the evacuation that there were a lot of students, because it was close to going back to school. They weren’t able to go to school, because we’re the hub. And that was kind-of something that was an oversight. We are reliant on one another. We’re only 44,000 strong here in the North, and we are reliant on one another.
The last legislative assembly spent a lot of its time essentially being a crisis assembly in a way that I don’t think anyone necessarily expected to happen. This time around, do you enter this race with an expectation that a lot of your time as an MLA would be taken up in some sort of emergency preparedness measures?
Well, because of my time on city council, we had to deal with the same thing, definitely, as a municipality. So we have about 20,000 here, which is half the population of the NWT. So I was well-versed on some of the emergency measures and what we had to deal with, because we were in the same mode. We were in crisis mode. We were trying to help NGOs. We were trying to help the vulnerable sector. We were trying to help the GNWT and we were trying to get funding from the federal government, just like everybody else. So I’m versed and I’m prepared to put in that hard work.
And from a councillor’s perspective on the wildfire season and the evacuation that we’ve just had here in Yellowknife: had you been an MLA at the time, what would you have been saying to the GNWT, advocating for, in terms of how that could have happened differently, and how cities and communities need to prepare differently?
Definitely supporting NWT residents. There were a lot of people that felt like they were abandoned. It’s all about community. It’s all about being there for one another. And I really appreciate how, you know, a lot of residents went above and beyond for one another. We saw so much love and tender care for each other. That’s why we ended up with the slogan #NWTStrong, because we worked really hard for one another.
But I think what I would do different is definitely have those Indigenous governments and communities at the same table when we’re talking about emergency measures, because they didn’t get to have a voice at the table. And we need to have them at the table to be able to make sure that… it’s not Yellowknife being evacuated, it’s not just Hay River or Fort Smith or Enterprise, it’s all of us talking at the same time to make sure that all of our ducks are in a row and everybody’s taken care of.
The territorial government, or at least the outgoing set of MLAs might argue that in recent years, a lot has happened to better include Indigenous governments within the GNWTs processes. They might point to things like the Council of Leaders, which is a group of many different Indigenous governments sitting alongside the territorial government. Or they might point to the way they’ve just changed how legislation is created to better incorporate Indigenous views in some aspects of that. What do you think the next steps are? What needs to be next in terms of how the GNWT evolves its relationship with Indigenous governments?
Well, first off, talking with them is definitely key. Talking with Grand Chief Lafferty and Chief Sangris and Chief Betsina, they’re the most local to us. And definitely we’ve engaged with them, especially on a city perspective, we’ve engaged with both governments – but there are far more. And being able to have councils and committees are great, but we need to bring that a step forward, just like you said, in terms of always ensuring that there is an Indigenous perspective. Making sure that when we’re discussing these priorities for the NWT, we’re discussing them with everybody at the table.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission – I’ve always said that we are only grasping at the low, low fruit. The heavier, meatier ones are going to involve difficult conversations. And yeah, it’s going to be awkward, but they’re gonna be awkward until they’re not awkward. And that’s when we know we’ve actually gotten to the meat and potatoes of truth and reconciliation.
You’re a year into your second term on Yellowknife City Council. What would you point to from your time on council to demonstrate the kind of MLA you’d be?
I would point to my strength. I’ve gone through quite a bit in my five years of being a city councillor. We went through Covid and it was difficult, it was unprecedented. And we honestly didn’t know what we were coming up against most days. So it was trying to find solutions for our community to better serve them. And sometimes people aren’t going to agree with you. Sometimes you’re not going to have the same viewpoints as everybody else. But it’s making sure that you’re listening – and listening is key. I’m not going to know everything and I’m not going to boast that I do, but I’m very good at learning. I love being able to have conversations with people who are in the know, that have experience, that have that expertise. And that would be my job as an MLA, to make sure that I listen and I carry forward that expertise from those areas.
When you were running for council last year, you said there would be a need to whittle things down in terms of the city’s budget – things that aren’t necessary. Do you see that same need at the GNWT?
Well, I can tell you right now we’re going into a budget – into a government that is broke. I am not blind to that fact. So we definitely need to look outside the box and we need to take a look at what it is that we’re truly trying to accomplish as the NWT. Are we wanting to boost our economy and how is that going to look? Are we going to provide incentives? Are we going to provide more learning and skills for our labourers? Because we do have quite a bit of a population that is in need of jobs, and that’s going to involve us providing them with the training to be able to do these jobs. Instead of looking outside of our North, we want to invest in northerners so that they stay.
If the government’s broke, are you prepared to be the MLA that says to people: “The funding for these programmes and services is going, because we have to focus over here”?
Unfortunately, some of those conversations will have to be had. And I don’t want to sit and make promises that I might not be able to keep. But my goal is to be able to take a look at these budgets and to take a look at each department and make sure that we are responsibly moving forward in a direction that’s going to allow us to find the area in which we want to go. And I keep saying down a path, and I’m talking more about our next generation. I’m a mom and I’m looking at my children and my children’s children, and how do we want to look in the next 20, 30 years? Because the choices that this assembly is going to be making are really going to affect that, because of all of these struggles that we have gone through in the past five years.
You are hoping to represent Great Slave. On council, you voted against a university campus on Tin Can Hill. If another vote were held tomorrow, how would you vote and why?
I would still vote the same way. Not only because Tin Can Hill is where I grew up and I played, but I recognize that it’s going to take a lot of money in order to rebuild that area. You’re also going to have to blast, which also cost lots of money. I look at our downtown and I look at the vacancy rate that’s down here. Forty percent of our downtown is parking lots. The city has been talking about boosting up transportation and trying to encourage people to use public transportation to reduce our carbon imprint and emissions, so really being conscious because people are screaming climate change. So what are the things that we can do as northerners to aid in the fight against pollution?
But going back to that question, downtown we have a lot of vacant spaces, I would love to see the university being downtown. Students will be within walking distance of shops, shops will want to be back in downtown, restaurants will thrive. I remember being a student in Red Deer and it was quite a ways away to get from where I was to the grocery store. Trying to lug groceries in the dead of winter? It wasn’t fun. I keep that in mind as well, and we’re really wanting to revitalize downtown Yellowknife. And that’s one way we can definitely do it. If Waterloo and the University of Winnipeg can do it where they have multi-campuses, you know, we consider ourselves unique in the North. So why can’t we not have that option as well?
I want to come back just in the last couple of minutes to something else you mentioned earlier, and it ties into downtown. As a city councillor, you voted against multiple downtown shelter sites – at the risk of being perceived as getting in the way of supports for vulnerable people. And you said the GNWT had to “find better solutions.” As an MLA, what would those better solutions be?
Well, I had quite a few good conversations with individuals that work with the vulnerable. And we’re talking about rehabilitation, we’re talking about recovery, we’re talking about supports. Without all three, our vulnerable are not going to succeed. Those are facts. You can have somebody go to a rehabilitation centre but when they come back, they have no place to recover. And so they’re thrown back into the mix and they’re going to repeat, because they’re surrounded by the same people that they partied with, that are still in that mindset.
So we need to have recovery and then we need to have supports for these individuals, whether they’re life skills, whether it’s education… because a lot of Indigenous people, they dropped out of school at about Grade 10 or Grade 11. To get a job, to get something where you are able to live, you need to have that education and they need to have those supports. There’s a lot of individuals that because they haven’t had a home for quite some time, they forgot how to make basic food. And being able to do finances – you know, sometimes it’s boggling on the mind when you see numbers and I’m very cognizant of the struggles and the traumas Indigenous people have gone through. I want them to thrive. I want Indigenous people to thrive.
in our last 30 seconds, what else do you want Great Slave voters specifically to know about you as a candidate, and how you will represent their interests?
I would definitely love them to know that I’m community minded. I always have been. I have been very active within politics but outside of that, I know what it is to be a business owner and to struggle. I know what it is to be a parent and have day homes possibly shutting down and the uncertainties of what’s going to come and hit you. Job security, making sure that you know… sometimes just one income isn’t enough to be able to make sure that your rent’s paid for, that you can go buy food. So I really want Great Slave residents to understand that I know how they’re feeling and this is why I’m running, is to be able to represent, because I feel I carry on quite a bit of the characteristics of many of my residents.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.