Longtime federal civil servant Matt Spence says he’s aiming to follow in the family footsteps by serving the public as an elected territorial politician.
Spence’s brother and mother served on Yellowknife City Council, he says. He also cites his experience on the Avens and United Way boards as examples of leadership.
Citing his work as a federal representative at the same table as Indigenous governments, Spence said he believes land claims can be settled – then used as a means to free up land around Yellowknife and foster the development of housing.
“I know the senior bureaucrats in the treaty and Aboriginal government directly. I have a good, robust relationship with them. I don’t understand why we can’t get this settled. I think we’re very close,” he said.
Meanwhile, he wants a rethink of the way federal $10-a-day childcare is being implemented, among a range of other priorities.
This interview was recorded on October 20, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Give us a little bit of background about you that voters might want to know, away from politics.
Matt Spence: One of the things I found when I go to the doors, is that we’ve got a lot of stuff about the platform, but not a lot of stuff about me. That’s a good start in terms of just talking to the voters about who I am, and why I’m doing this. And one of my motivations is that I’m a long-term Yellowknifer. I grew up out at Giant, my father was the exploration superintendent out there. But both my parents are very much into volunteering for the community and really volunteering for the community to make it a better place. So whether it’s the swim club, or the ski club, my father was a couple of terms chair of the YK1 school board, my younger brother actually followed in his footsteps and was also YK1 chair. I’ve got a brother and a mother who both served on city council here. So a long record of public service in Yellowknife.
I’ve also volunteered here, I was involved in minor hockey for years. I’m on the Avens board and I’m also on the United Way board here and, in all three cases, my interest was to see if there was some way I could help. With hockey, I wasn’t a coach, I was one of the administrators. So I dealt with the scheduling and parents, and I think the coaches really appreciated that.
With Avens, it was about getting the budget figured out and then, once we got the administration working over there, then we expanded our view, looked at how we can resolve the housing issue for our ageing population. We’ve got the 102 units in the back there, money we competed federally for, nationally for, and we got $45 million, so very successful.
And then with the United Way board, the board and I collaboratively decided that the flooding and wildfire stuff was – you know, there was a gap there, we needed to respond quickly to some of the people, whether they were evacuated or didn’t have food or other essentials. We were able to fill that gap and help out.
What do you think you offer that’s unique to you as an MLA, that no other candidate is offering?
Well, one of the things that I offer is that I spent the last 20 years working for the federal civil service in very senior positions, right? I’ve been in to see you with the Minister of Northern Affairs on occasion. And so you know, I work at a senior level. And so I’m able to understand how Ottawa works. And one of the one of the things that’s sort-of a bit of an issue with the timing of the election in October is that we miss a federal budget cycle. We’re not articulating a list of priorities to Ottawa right now, whether it’s more planning money for the polytechnic or additional programming for the new day shelter that we’re building, or other issues that affect the NWT. We’re gonna miss that cycle. And that’s important. Obviously, we get most of our funding from Ottawa–
So are you running on a platform of moving the election?
Well, I think that we need to certainly think about the timing of when the election occurs. It seems to be sort-of set in stone, and I don’t really understand all of the details there. So I’m not going to suggest that we need to do it. But I’m suggesting that there’s an opportunity.
We only have finite time, so why don’t we talk about your role with the federal government? How, with that lens, would you like to see the GNWT’s relationship to Ottawa evolve?
Well, I think one of the things that we need to do is we need to be better able to articulate our needs to Ottawa and understand them. And there’s a couple of issues that really affect the community. One is housing. And housing is really, in many cases, a lack of developed land. I think it was talked about either by you or CBC recently that a lot of the land here is held in trust for the eventual settlement of the modern treaty with the Akaitcho. We need to get that settled. I think the Yellowknives are very interested. I think Łútsël K’é and Deninu Kųę́ are all very interested in getting that settled.
We certainly see the model with the Tłı̨chǫ as a good model – you know, they’re self-governing, they’re looking after themselves. I think the Akaitcho aspire to the same thing. So modern treaty settlement would lead to more land development. More land development would also lead to better certainty for mining companies. Mining companies talk about the political uncertainty that they feel here.
Candidates have sat opposite me and – I’ve not lived here that long in the grand scheme – for a decade-plus, now, and said, “We should settle land claims and that’ll solve a whole lot of problems.” Which is true, but it never happens. What do you think you can bring as an MLA that might move us a little closer to talking about some of the settlement that you want to see?
I know the senior bureaucrats in the treaty and Aboriginal government directly. I have a good, robust relationship with them. I don’t understand why we can’t get this settled. I think we’re very close. I mean, certainly with the Akaitcho claim, we’re very close to an agreement in principle. And I think we’ve got good people. You know, part of the problem is that there’s a transition in Ottawa and there’s also a transition at the community level. And sometimes that doesn’t mix well. But I think we can work towards a vision where we get this done.
Yellowknife Centre means representing downtown Yellowknife. How would you advocate for that area of the city if you were the MLA?
There are two things going on in Yellowknife Centre. One is the need to revitalize the economy, and whether that’s revitalizing the Yellowknife economy or the NWT economy, all of that will benefit the downtown core. So if we could see more economic activity… we’ve lost 1,000 people in the territory. We need to reverse that trend and get people staying here. So more people downtown.
One of the things that I’ve had a lot of discussions with people at the door – and I’ve been out every night since since this started – is the polytechnic and the whole idea of the potential of the polytechnic, not only from the perspective of educating northern residents, but also attracting international students or students from the south that want to come up and go to school here. A lot of people are talking about, do we really need a $500-million facility owed on the shores of Great Slave Lake? I’m a little bit concerned from a federal standpoint that, you know, austerity budgets – the federal government spent a lot of money on Covid, investing in people to ensure the economy continued, and then also wildfires – so I’m betting we’ll see austerity budgets. I’ll bet you that it’s going to be difficult to get $500 million.
I think there’s going to need to be some interim steps. And can we use those interim steps to help contribute to revitalizing the economy? The other issue is homelessness. And with the homelessness issue, it’s a complex issue. It requires a coordinated response. I’m known for doing that collaboration, coordination stuff, in terms of getting somewhere so that we can transition a number of these homeless people or unhoused people into transitional housing, and eventually into working and contributing to the economy here.
On the Tin Can Hill front, let’s say, “OK, too expensive out there on the shores of Great Slave Lake. Let’s not go with that option.” What should we do? What are the interim steps?
Well, one of them could be to look at the Centre Square Mall. Centre Square Mall doesn’t have a lot of shops in it now. We’ve got the 50-50 parking lot beside there. There’s certainly an opportunity to look at something. And then the Bellanca building’s empty. So you know, there’s opportunities to look at talking to the mall owners, talking to the Bellanca building owners – what could we do, collectively and collaboratively, to look at enhancing and expanding the school curriculum for the polytechnic in the interim.
The Bellanca building was bought by someone last year who said they were turning it into housing – I don’t know what the state of that project is. Let’s look at housing. In your platform you say the GNWT should set targets for the supply of affordable homes and rental units for middle-income Yellowknife. It’s one thing setting a target but actually supplying those homes means building them, it means persuading developers, it means finding the people to do the work. How do we achieve those things?
It’s an interesting cycle. So you can have a virtuous cycle or you can have an unvirtuous cycle, right? So right now in an unvirtuous cycle, we’re losing people. But if we can attract people to town that are professionals and are interested in investing in the community – whether they’re builders or developers or planners or architects or cleaners – I think we need everybody, right? We need to do a better job of marketing Yellowknife and then we need to either get the claims settled or come to some resolution with the Yellowknives about land development so that we have land available.
And then we need to ensure that the city and the territorial government are working collectively on a collaborative basis to work with developers. I’ve talked to some of the developers in town and they scratch their head at some of the obligations and requirements that they’re required to do, and they don’t really understand. And I think that’s an important element.
You’re proposing a $5,000 tax credit for people who move here and stay here. Is that the only way to get people to move here at this point, do you think?
I think if we start with that, then eventually, you know, the town starts to build and then hopefully we have some momentum. If we could attract people here that are in the healthcare field, then we can provide more healthcare services here. You know, I’m on the waiting list for hearing tests. It’s a year long, you know? I’m getting older. My people tell me I’m not hearing as well as I should. That’s a long wait. You can go to Costco – and in fact I did during the evacuation, I got a hearing test and hearing aids. So, you know, there are ways of improving health services here and I think a lot of people would say, “Well, that’s gonna let me stay longer.” And then if we can get more doctors here, you know, then there’s more family doctors, and then you have a relationship with your family doctor.
It’s funny, we talked to some of the people that moved to Yellowknife in the 70s and 80s, and they said the welcome wagon was one of the things that they really enjoyed about coming to town. There was this personal visit by somebody who brought them some gifts, and brought them a list of services that they needed to access. One of the things I’m finding is there’s new Canadians – some have lived here for six months or a year – they’re not registered to vote.
I mean, I’ve lived here for a decade. I registered about three days ago.
Exactly. But it’s, you know, you don’t necessarily – it’s not a priority. But if you’re brand-new Canadian, if you’ve lived here for a year or six months, then you’re eligible to vote, and I’ve met some of them. There’s some that are permanent residents that need to get their Canadian citizenship. But again, we need to keep them here long enough that they become Canadian citizens here and then they want to participate in the electoral process.
What you’re talking about there, the welcome wagon for example, how do you legislate for that? You’re talking about a culture.
You don’t legislate for that. What you do is you promote the idea that we as long-term residents need to make other residents, new residents feel comfortable and welcome. And that’s a cultural thing. That’s building up a vibrant, diverse community where the Muslim community feels valued, you know, the Black community feels valued in Yellowknife, the Filipino community feels valued – and not only valued but that we celebrate their culture and we incorporate them into Yellowknife and that we… you know, we know Diwali is happening here next month and they have the new facility, the multiplex, right? Four hundred people. It’s going to be fantastic, it’s going to be a great show of Indian culture. And I’m certainly hoping that I win, and then I get invited because I really want to go. We’ve got to celebrate diversity and then come together as a community and welcome people to Yellowknife.
A huge federal program right now is $10-a-day childcare. In your platform, you suggest letting some providers charge more. Why is that?
Well, there’s two things there. One is that the territorial government on the $10-a-day stuff, from what I’m hearing from the providers of daycare, they’re limiting – as a result of them having the $10-a-day criteria – they’re limiting the wages that the childcare association can pay their employees. What’s happening is many employees are getting trained and then finding that there’s more attractive opportunities for them, whether there’s teaching assistants at school or whatever. And so that seems a bit arbitrary, and seems a bit difficult. But there’s also the demand outreaches the supply of the $10-a-day daycare spaces in town. If your choice is paying a little more or not having daycare, I think people would suggest that they would be prepared to pay a little more.
But would the federal government be prepared? Because ultimately, they’re the ones paying tens of millions of dollars to the NWT government on condition that $10-a-day childcare be implemented.
Right. So again, I’d have to go back to the feds and talk to my friends over there and see if we can’t put together a compelling argument for either a bigger investment or some sort of an acknowledgment that maybe some of the spaces are going to cost more.
We only have a minute left. After the summer we’ve had, how do you want the GNWT’s approaches to climate change and emergency management to evolve?
Land use planning is very important. So you know, in addition to emergency planning, we need to plan… we live in the middle of the boreal forest. We know that Enterprise was doing Firesmarting. It wasn’t enough, obviously. The one part of the community that was very Firesmarted survived but a lot of the community didn’t. We can’t be running the bulldozers and the dump trucks in the middle of a wildfire. We need to be planning for that this winter and recognizing that it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen – it’s a matter of when.
I’ve lived here since 1964. Fire and smoke is just part of the environment. It was a bit smokier this summer, for sure, and it really affected me in terms of allergies. I’d like to see us reduce that, but we live in a vast area with a small population. We just have to recognize that there’s some realistic, incremental things we can do to improve that. And then I think we need a review. We need to do a review. We need to do an independent review and learn from this. The United Way is doing an independent review of its efforts to meet the needs of people so that we can do a better job next year.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.