Ambe Chenemu says his experience working for Indigenous governments and his background will bring a fresh, collaborative take to the NWT legislature.
Chenemu, originally from Cameroon, has worked for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and Tłı̨chǫ Government. He runs a small business and has established a non-profit, the Black Advocacy Coalition, among other work.
“Growing partnerships with Indigenous governments is actually the gateway to selling some of our priorities to the federal government, and we can do a better job as the GNWT to partner up with our Indigenous partners,” he said.
He wants the NWT to pursue critical minerals as an economic driver while establishing a business incubation hub for entrepreneurs.
This interview was recorded on October 20, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Tell us a little about your background that you think it’s important for voters to know, outside politics.
Ambe Chenemu: I’m originally from Cameroon. I moved to the North 10 years ago, My education was through Aurora College in Fort Smith, I took the Natural Resources program there. I’ve lived in Fort Smith, I’ve lived in Behchokǫ̀ working for the Tłı̨chǫ Government first as a community planner and now as a policy and government relations analyst. I also used to work for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation as well as a lands coordinator. I run the Black Advocacy Coalition – I am the president of that, I started that back in 2020. I have also created a few other grassroots organizations, Global Shapers Yellowknife Hub and also Black Can. Most of my family is still back in Cameroon and I’m hoping that they might be able to join me here soon.
What do you think you offer that’s unique to you, as a candidate, compared to the other candidates?
I’m different. I think this government needs new ideas. This government needs the energy to deliver on those ideas. You know, I live downtown, I go through our downtown a lot, I interact with our unhoused population. I’ve worked with Indigenous governments and part of my job there was to find solutions around housing and how we can care for some of our homeless people. I am a different kind of candidate with a different kind of perspective. I think my experience is broad. I own a small business, I run a non-profit, I really believe in in grassroots solutions and delivering for people that need the help that we’re looking for here in the NWT, and my platform speaks a lot to that.
Let’s start downtown. What are the things you would advocate for in downtown Yellowknife, if you were the next Yellowknife Centre MLA?
Speaking to residents – I’ve been out canvassing – I live downtown, so I do know the urgency that our community needs with housing. We can provide a lot of wraparound services for our unhoused population. I’ve spoken to a lot of residents that live in Yellowknife Centre and that live downtown. Safety is a huge concern. I believe that the quicker that government can move to provide these housing supports for the homeless population, that will really help with revitalizing our downtown, creating opportunity for new businesses, and the incentive for more people to invest and live downtown. I’ve been here a few years so I know that these things take time, and maybe not a single government is going to achieve that, but I’m the right guy to get this job done. I’m proactive and I believe in real solutions that can bring change to people.
More than once your platform talks about expanding the capacity of street outreach. What more do you want to see that program achieve?
The street outreach program is effective not just in Yellowknife, I’ve seen these kinds of programs across the country. Right now, I know that the City of Yellowknife is funding the street outreach program. They are our front-line people that are dealing directly with our homeless population and I think the government should put a little bit more funding into this area – to expand the capacity of this team, to create access to specialized counsellors, to nurses that are ready for crisis intervention. I also believe in the safety of these workers, so I’ve also proposed we have something like a direct line with the RCMP, and if the outreach team feel the need to use that service, then they would have direct access to use it. Safety is important to me. But overall, I believe that front-line workers need support. We need to provide the capacity that is necessary and I think that putting more funding into that program will bring that change.
You want to explore rent controls to help with housing costs. You also want to allocate more government money to housing infrastructure. Tell me a little more about that. Where will that money come from?
That’s a really great question. We just got hit with an evacuation, people are feeling a little bit lost, we’re all struggling with our finances. But I do think that there is real opportunity to create efficiencies in this government. The last government was really all over the place and I think that this new government that’s coming in has to refocus on the important priorities that can be delivered for the residents of YK Centre but also for all northerners. I will say, for example, there are overlapping programs already within government. For example, within ITI and ECE, some of these programs can be put together under one department, and that will sort-of free up a little bit of room, hopefully fiscal room, that we can then put toward other services that are more important, like housing. Again, with industry, we don’t have an online staking process here in NWT. We keep relying on paper-based administrative processes where, if we’re able to transition some of our processes to online, it really cuts back on that administrative cost. And I think we can take that and refinance some of the areas that need critical support.
You said the last government was all over the place. A lot of those places were places I don’t think the candidates would have foreseen in 2019 – Covid-19 pandemic, dealing with floods, dealing with wildfires. You declared very early on that you wanted this job – you declared back in February that you were going to run in Yellowknife Centre. A lot has happened in the NWT and in Yellowknife since then. How has that changed your perception of this job and the challenges that would face you if you were elected?
That’s a great question. Look, we’ve been hit with – I think, as far as I remember, we’ve been hit with a wildfire evacuation. Nobody expected this to happen in the way that it did. I believe that it has tested our systems to see if we are prepared for these kinds of crisis. Clearly, there’s a lot of things that our government could have done better. But you know, there’s always ways that we can adapt, we can anticipate some of these events. Climate change is a real thing. So, you know, reallocating some resources to this area is what I would encourage, I think that some of our leadership was really put to the test in this process. And the new government needs to start looking at people that can actually go and fight for them and bat for them. And so I think I’m a strong candidate to do that. I think I’ve proven myself with a lot of the initiatives that I’ve been involved in within my community,
What does fighting for them and batting for them look like, compared to what we’ve seen? What would change?
Well, I mean, transparency, accountability, the way that government communicates its priorities, I think those are three big things that we can get straight right now with leadership. And a lot of residents in the North, including in YK Centre, not getting that from this government.
And on the subject of climate change, how, specifically, do we evolve our response to the climate crisis? What’s the right way forward?
Well, the Government of Canada has put out a big plan on reducing greenhouse gases. My background alone, I was a conservation planner with the Tłı̨chǫ Government, I worked in conservation with the Yellowknives Dene. We need to trust the experience of our experts. We need to continue to rely that they provide us with good information. Clearly, I have some background in this, and I have a good understanding of what processes can be set in place. And you know, I think that we are on the right track in some form. But a lot could be done with bringing down our energy cost, a lot could be done with just making sure that we are better prepared for some of these disasters. And like I said, this has to be a priority moving forward for this government.
The Government of Canada has a plan. We are not currently signed up to that plan. Our targets in the NWT are not nearly as ambitious as the federal targets. Do you want to see the territorial government take more aggressive steps to reduce emissions? And how do you square that with the cost of living in some communities where you have no choice but to create huge amounts of emissions through things like diesel power?
Yeah, the NWT has a case to make. I think that our government can be more vocal in this area. We have to build strong relationships with our Indigenous governments. I think that’s where the power of our northern unity lies. I think that growing partnerships with Indigenous governments is actually the gateway to selling some of our priorities to the federal government, and we can do a better job as the GNWT to partner up with our Indigenous partners.
Is that the same solution for the economy in the Northwest Territories as well? How do you want that to evolve?
We all know that the mining industry is in decline. But the NWT has at least half of Canada’s critical minerals. Here’s a whole new market where we can tap into and bring new investments to the North. There are small businesses that we have around here – I think that there’s a lot of government programming that we can restructure to close the gap and provide real support for small businesses. I am a small business owner, I know what the struggle is for small businesses to stay open and serve the residents in the end, and provide the kind of service that residents need. And I think that there is a way that we can diversify our economy. I’ve always talked about creating an entrepreneurial business incubation hub – I believe that a strong economy comes from real ideas. But right now, we do not have somewhere where Ollie could take his idea, Ambe can take their idea and say, “Hey, I have an idea. What can I do about this?” I think we need something like that, where we can take ideas from infancy to product-ready.
I want to touch quickly on health. Getting more healthcare workers is a big part of your platform, Your solutions seemed to boil down to paying them more and offering more incentives. Is that a fair summary?
I believe it’s way more than that. I’ve talked about taking advantage of the new polytechnic that’s coming and being able to train people that are from here and keep them here to serve the residents here. I think that we can always look at our immigration streams, and be a little bit forceful with the federal government in order to get more competitive with other regions in getting our healthcare workers here. I also talked on my platform about looking at incentives for people that would like to move up north with their families and stay here and work. There is a critical need for work-life balance. And if you look at what’s happening at Stanton with the the talk about burnout in the hospitals, I think that the government can really find a way to create that work-life balance of workers so that they can stay here and continue to work.
You mentioned in passing the university. Is Tin Can Hill a good place to build a campus in Yellowknife?
It would be a disservice for me to make a solid proclamation on that. I think that the government still needs to do a lot of work in terms of engaging with residents and making sure that we have the right information to make an informed decision. I used to work for the Yellowknives Dene. There has always been interest in that area. You know, there might be archaeological sites there. There are a lot of things that we don’t know, right? So government needs to do its work and if I get into government, that is one of the things that I’m looking at, is to refocus our priorities to make sure that we are engaging with residents in a way that is acceptable, in a way that is meaningful. And at the end of the day, you know, whatever comes back from that engagement, I think is what should be the decision for the university or the polytechnic.
Given your experience working for and with Indigenous governments, how will you bring that to land claims and settling those issues?
I strongly believe that government’s role is not to decide when these land claims get settled. The outgoing government had it as one of their priorities to settle land claims. I’m a firm believer that that’s not a real priority. The role of our government is to work in a supportive mode with Indigenous governments, provide them with the capacity and the resources that they need to get what they need to get done in terms of land claims. Now, if that’s going to take five years, that’s going to take a little bit longer. I think that any government’s job is to make sure that it is being done right and it is serving the needs of Indigenous governments and Indigenous communities. So I have been working with Indigenous communities for the last seven years. I think that my experience is in bringing these governments closer to working with the GNWT. There’s been some friction out there. I believe with my experience, someone that can bridge that gap is of really important value to our territory.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.