James Lawrance sees Great Slave as an “education-scape” with its schools, families and the prospect of a university campus – though he says he needs to learn more before deciding if Tin Can Hill is the right place for that.
Lawrance, with significant government experience, says the territory is going to need to adapt in all kinds of ways in the years ahead and needs MLAs ready for that – and possibly prepared to change their own processes, too.
“Adaptations to change are the issue. We all foresee change, we’ve talked about change, some better than others. The pace and the type of change we’re facing across society is pretty challenging. And we are still on the frontier, we’re still in the outskirts,” he said.
He wants a government that can better communicate with residents, and has ideas for ways in which regular MLAs can form a more effective opposition – or “challenge function” – that results in higher-quality legislation.
Lawrance had no campaign website at the time of publication.
This interview was recorded on October 24, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: In the opening 30 seconds, give us a sense of who you are and what voters should know about you outside politics.
James Lawrance: I have lived in Yellowknife – in fact, in the riding – for almost 40 years now. And in that time living in Yellowknife I’ve worked for the newspaper, Aboriginal governments, the territorial government, the federal government – mostly the territorial and federal governments – and I feel I have some of the skills, experience, knowledge and now the time to devote to contributing to the assembly and representing the riding.
What was it that made you decide to put your name in the hat?
Having worked with government and being seized with politics, I suppose, like many of us, I’ve had lots to comment on about governments over time. And of course, when you comment, other people should say, “Well, did you put your money where your mouth is? If you think you have something to contribute, should you?” And I suppose I’ve contributed to civil society in my own way with my work and with my volunteer activities, but it’s been in on my mind, potentially, if the opportunity arose, running for office wouldn’t be a bad thing to do. It’s part of the process, part of pitching in. And if you get elected, you contribute some more.
Over the years, timing was the biggest issue – raising a child and whatnot. The fall is a wicked time for an election, to get ready for one. It’s never been a reality in my life, but now it is. I had to drive my son to university, that was my plan this year. So I hadn’t thought about running, because once again, it didn’t mesh. And with the delay, I got to thinking: I have the time. And I have the time to serve now, too, because I quit working about three years ago.
What is it that you hope makes you stand out to people when they come to vote in a field of four candidates?
The one thing I do have to offer is my experience, my knowledge of government, the ins and outs of it, and my knowledge of the territory having participated in it for all these years. So experience is a big one. And I think the time I take now and the time I will take to try and understand the riding, the people that live in it, and what their needs are. I think those are the main things that make me stand out from the other candidates as far as I know. So far, I don’t know them that well. I hope to get to know them better during the process and understand the issues they’re bringing forward as well and see what I can contribute on those.
What are you bringing forward?
With some of the Yellowknife ridings, it’s maybe hard to distinguish issues the same as some other ridings. I don’t think that’s the case with Great Slave riding right now, because of course, there’s a rather large project in the name of polytechnic that looms on the horizon. It’s sort-of very education-centric, my riding. It’s got two daycare homes that I know of and the Montessori school, which I used to be on the board of for many years. We’ve got Sir John, two of the other schools just across the boundary from us, and a lot of families with children both in the multi-family developments and in private residences.
So there’s a bit of a theme there, I think, in terms of what we’ll be facing in the riding in the next four years. I think we will probably want to contribute and stay the type of close-to-downtown community that is friendly to families, friendly to children, friendly to the education-scape here in the city. And by extension as a territory, because a lot of the students at Sir John come from elsewhere. So I think that’s a bit of a highlight with our riding that we need to look at.
Do you think a university campus on Tin Can Hill is a good thing or a bad thing?
I haven’t formed any solid positions on it yet. I’ve followed the issue a bit over the last few years. One of the things I find about running for office and these questions, a lot of them – if I get elected, I’d very much enjoy the ability to then see the briefing notes and the information and the material that really exists around these issues, to get a good handle on it, to begin forming a more notable position or a plausible position, hopefully a good position for the territory, and the city and the people. So I don’t have a hard and fast position on it. There’s a lot of good things about it at first blush, there’s a lot of challenges to it second blush, before we even get to the idea of whether it’s Tin Can Hill or whatnot.
I think there’s a lot of hurdles to cross in terms of getting to a polytechnic and what it will do and where it will be and who it will serve. I’d say we take that question probably function before form, and then once we get to form – place is part of form – let’s see, It’s a big issue for the riding because it physically will be there, it’ll affect the riding if it was there, and I think we need to get all the factors out on the table, all the pros and cons, all the possibilities, and make decisions going from there.
It’s pretty early in the process as far as I could tell. I think people were pretty seized with it with the recent work the city began and whatnot, and I think they should be seized with it. It’s a huge decision for the territory and for the city and for that riding. The vision and the intent behind it all is obviously laudable and a direction we need to take one way or the other, in terms of developing our education and developing the city, developing the territory. And I think I can play hopefully a positive and contributory role in that discussion as an MLA for that riding, particularly.
My father, incidentally, taught at Sir John for many years. That’s another education-themed connection for me to all of this.
You mention that often running for office, people aren’t privy to all the facts and it’s more about how might you approach it when you get into office. How would you describe your approach? If you were elected, what are the boxes that would need to be checked for you to vote for something? What are the things that make you tick?
Well, it’s government, so money is number one. How you raise your money and how you spend it is the first consideration. You have to have that crossed off. And hopefully, you’ve got a long-term picture on that, because a polytechnic university is a long-term project. I think you want to look carefully at what are the phases? How does the project get implemented? That’s going to be important. Does it work, timewise? Does it work for the population? Does it work for the city, physically, in the timeframe that you want to do it? And all of that is, again, about the money and design. And, obviously, there’s going to be a lot of talk more about input: who should input? How will that input happen?
All of those steps are typical of a large project. I try to take a project planning approach to many things and it’s kind-of a bit of a linear, somewhat linear approach where you try and tick off the most important boxes and implement what you’re putting together.
I think it’s a very in-depth subject, and obviously in a short interview like this, we can’t get into it. I mean, you’ve got to balance your basic job of government expenditures with the enduring and dying need for adequate education facilities – not adequate, more than adequate education facilities, because that’s obviously a jump we need to make in our society for people. Lots of things to measure in it but I think finances versus serving the needs of people are always the questions in government. And if we tick those two off, that’s the first part.
Moving beyond education and beyond the boundaries of the district, territorially I’ve heard plenty of people these past few weeks – outgoing MLAs, candidates – say we need to pick two or three priorities and focus on those. Do you think that’s the right approach? Do you think that’s practical? And if you do, what two or three things would you pick?
I’ve obviously been thinking about this question a lot. Not just because of this election, I think about it all the time as someone who’s participated in doing the things that we’ve done to try and build a territorial society, particularly with land claims, Aboriginal rights, and how we engage our political processes, particularly at the legislative assembly level. First of all, they have a priority-setting exercise when you get to the ledge – that’s already set out for you.
But the number of priorities is not.
I don’t know whether that priority exercise should be focused on a number. I don’t know if picking a number and starting with that number… in essence, I would say no, I don’t accept that approach. I accept an approach where we discuss all of the priorities, all of the needs, do some real strategic thinking on what things are most linked and where we can, I guess, gain the most advantage by following matching priorities or integrated priorities. Education is clearly a huge priority and it’s not just education of children in schools.
I’ll take it out further: I think we have one priority and that is adapting to change, and getting ready for change. We have change facing us on many fronts. Obviously, climate and environmental. Now we’re faced with some pretty serious geopolitical changes in terms of what flies and what doesn’t, in terms of getting your needs served in the larger picture. For instance, within the nation. We’ve got huge issues probably coming up, even more than people realize, with markets, consumers, product stability, both in pricing and availability. And that matches very much to food supply issues we have in the territory and people moving off a traditional diet as it becomes less available. And this is linked to climate change.
So I think these adaptations to change are the issue. We all foresee change, we’ve talked about change, some better than others. The pace and the type of change we’re facing across society is pretty challenging. And we are still on the frontier, we’re still in the outskirts. The outgoing premier I think maybe spoke about this a little too blithely, perhaps, but we are on the frontier. We live on the edge in many ways, literally and figuratively. And every one of those challenges is becoming more acute with the adaptation to change that’s required. I would like to think that instead of setting a number of priorities, we think of some larger themes – and financial is a large theme in that with changing markets, changing priorities of governments. The national government’s not doing the greatest financially, the economy isn’t, we’re certainly at the end of our rope territorially, with the budget, I think, in many ways.
So I’d rather see that we talk about those larger forces in strategic directions and the challenges that face us – the challenges mostly being the rapidity of change and the uncertainty of change – and identify within that, what are the key areas where we need to move forward in light of that reality of change? From that you’re gonna have a number. What’s the number, six, seven, eight? Do they break down into three?
I’ve participated in them, I’ve read them and I’ve drafted them and I’ve fought against them – how many government plans have we seen, and action plans laid out in numbers and pillars? You know, the bureaucrats and politicians will find a way to communicate it the best we can with those numbers and pillars. But I guess my point being: that’s a messaging exercise, not a strategic exercise. And I would go in there with a strategic exercise of adopting major trends.
Can the government do more than three or four? That’s the question. I think that’s a good question. Have they proven themselves capable of doing more than three or four? Let’s see what this next ledge can do.
Give me an example of a solution you’d like to advocate for – something that you think will make a difference that maybe we’re not doing, or not doing well enough right now.
One thing we’re not doing well enough is communicating the reality to people through the standard process of communication. Do people really understand what the fiscal drivers are of this territory? Do they really understand that without further mineral development, exploration, our economy is going to suffer even greater challenges? Are we communicating that properly?
I guess one of the things I’d like to see us do better is get the population on a similar songsheet with similar facts and similar things that they can consider, so we can get the right feedback from them. I don’t know that the government achieves the right feedback, because it generally designs a feedback loop. MLAs can participate in that in a great way, which I don’t see them doing currently. I don’t see them coming out with a sort of common songsheet that’s been agreed to, so that they can be messaging along with the government the same thing.
That leads to another thing that I’ve set myself to working on: there’s been a lot of talk for a long time, particularly recently, about the effectiveness of consensus government, the effectiveness of this legislative assembly in the way it formats itself and the way it acts. And what I would like to achieve in my time is to… while people think about other systems, other things, party politics, partisanship, I think we can institute some changes now – either formal or move towards formalized – to make a more structured opposition in the legislative assembly to the cabinet, as opposed to just cabinet and a bunch of ordinary MLAs slicing away and dicing it as they choose.
I think there’s a lot of inroads we can make to more formalized system, to provide the ability and resources for MLAs to play a more opposition-type role. And I wouldn’t use that term in a consensus government – probably a challenge role, a challenge caucus or something like that, so we can hold cabinet more accountable. And the crucial votes on legislation aren’t quite a free-for-all. You move towards legislation that’s adapted itself to the challenge function more thoroughly and more seriously than it can now, when it’s only a bunch of ordinary MLAs with no real resource or function behind them as a challenge function. I know we have committees, I know there are systems but in the House, what people miss – what people talk about is accountability.
That should then inform people about what they want to do with partisan politics. Because the other side of it is what are we going to do with self-government and the Aboriginal governments? We haven’t crossed the bridge yet again in talking about constitutional development of the territory, and when you draw in those governments and make them collaborate more effectively, in official ways, including in decision-making with the territory, that’s another force that should inform us about how and if we do partisan politics, for instance, or other reforms to the legislative assembly structure.
Again, this is a discussion that leaps out into a bigger discussion. As I say, I would work at forming a more workable opposition now, and engaging people in that – going back to that constitutional development discussion of how are we going to integrate successfully Aboriginal governments and the territorial government? We’re a small territory with a lot of governments. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, if they can work together.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.