Robert Hawkins, who spent more than a decade as Yellowknife Centre’s MLA, says he’s returning with practical, quick solutions to cut the cost of living.
Hawkins represented the district from 2003 to 2015 before losing his seat. After being defeated in Kam Lake in 2019, he says the time is right to re-elect him.
“I think it’s time we scrapped the payroll tax,” he said, illustrating one of his ideas. “The cost of living is so high. You’ll hear everybody say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna fight the cost of living.’ Experience tells me, and it’s taught me: I can tell you how we can fight cost of living.”
“Do you want someone who can go to work and who knows mechanisms of government and how to get these things through, and how to communicate with people?” He asked. “That’s the value I like to think I bring: somebody who can relate with folks and somebody who understands the challenge before us to get it done.”
This interview was recorded on October 20, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Tell us a little bit about your background, beyond politics, for anyone who might not already know.
Robert Hawkins: I presently own a small property management and pest control business. I live in the downtown riding of Yellowknife Centre, which is very important. I grew up in Fort Simpson and came to Akaitcho Hall and lived in Yellowknife since 1987. I’m married to my wife, who’s lived here since 1972. We have two kids and we love the downtown because that’s where we’ve always lived.
You’ve had three terms in office. You lost to Julie Green in 2015. More than two decades after you were first elected, what makes you think now is the time for you to come back?
Good question. I think I’d like to describe it as this: I want to come back from my sabbatical, OK? The reason I say that is because there’s been a really good public education and experience, you know? Being a politician, a lot of times, you come in quite green and you do different things, and you think you can do different things, and you find out you might not be able to ever accomplish them. So I was very fortunate enough to actually have 15 years of politics – that’s three at city council then three terms as an MLA – which really gives you the sense of the mechanism of how things work.
The last eight years, I’ve worked at an NGO, the John Howard Society. I’ve served on the Co-op board, I continue to volunteer when given an opportunity. And of course I own a business that’s almost eight years old, which is the Apex business. That said, what I’m describing about this is I got some really extraordinary life experience, both on the NGO and the business side of things.
So coming back, I think there has been really a deficit in the sense of accomplishment, connecting with constituents’ needs, relating to problems of what needs to be done to move forward. And that’s what’s brought me back. I mean, a lot of people said they miss me. I always joke: even my enemies say I was pretty good at what I was doing, and they missed me too. And I’m joking about political enemies, particularly, but that said, it’s important to say people recognize that maybe I was ahead of my time on some stuff, and maybe I could have done some stuff better. And I apologize for that. That’s the reality of politics, sometimes you’ve just got to do your best. And that’s what I’m trying to bring back to the table. I really care about people. I love to get to know them. And I like to try to help and accomplish things with them.
Many residents won’t have been here the last time you were an MLA. For their benefit, what would you say were the things you were proudest of from your last time in office?
Hands down, I like to think I was one of the best community constituency MLAs out there. I visited people at the hospital, I went to their home to talk about different things. I met them at different appointments, I always tried to be a steward. So that’s hands down. I like to think that’s my proudest thing, in the sense of getting to know people. I like being the community person and I still think I can be.
The other thing, in particular, we had the barrier-free disabilities building built downtown right next to Bruno’s Pizza. That was sort-of a phenomenal thing and quite lucky in some ways. I raised the issue because people with disabilities didn’t have adequate housing and reasonable housing to suit their needs. I had some experience in that, working for public works way, way, way back. That’s the federal government. And so I understood how to communicate that problem. And I like to think that that’s sometimes my best asset, understanding some of the challenges people are living in, walking through, and helping that through the government policy and process to a matter of a deliverable. There’s many others, but we’ll start with that one.
So having been an MLA before, what is it that now marks you out as a candidate for the future? What new ideas are you bringing that we haven’t heard from you before?
Well, that’s an excellent question. And the reason I say that it’s an excellent question is because I hear other candidates, whether it’s this riding in Yellowknife Centre or other ridings – they’re all speaking platitudes about “we’re going to do this and that.” The great thing about having 12 years’ legislature experience is I can tell you how to do things. And I can tell you, we can do things on day one. And I can also tell you, “That might be a fantastic idea but that idea’s a five, 10, 20-year idea down the road, if we’re even that lucky.” To get that type of experience and ignore it? I mean, it’s quite a challenge.
I mean, it’s a balance, you know? Do you want someone who can go to work and who knows mechanisms of government and how to get these things through, and how to communicate with people? And that’s the value I like to think I bring: somebody who can relate with folks and somebody who understands the challenge before us to get it done.
What new ideas do you think you’re bringing forward that you haven’t mentioned before?
Yeah, thank you.
Well, I think the question is: what’s the ideas of the time? And frankly, that’s really the issue. I had different ideas when I first ran and now the new ones or, sorry, the ones I’m proposing are these: So for example, I think it’s time we scrapped the payroll tax. The cost of living is so high. You’ll hear everybody say, “Oh, I’m gonna fight the cost of living.” Experience tells me, and it’s taught me: I can tell you how we can fight cost of living. OK?
So drop the two-percent payroll tax. Now I’m going to tell you right now, we do get a small credit back on that, but keep in mind you’ve got to file your taxes a year later to get some of that money back. But it was really intended as a mechanism of charging fly-in, fly-out workers. But really it’s punishing NWT families and workers and everybody, when we need real deliverable solutions that literally a switch could be flipped today, and we could stop the payroll tax. That’s a meaningful change in meaningful dollars in people’s pockets. That wasn’t the discussion back in the old days. But when every dollar counts, and it is necessary to get through these times, it is.
I think many services the government provides may be necessary, but they also cost a lot of money. In essence, they charge more than they’re really worth. Why do we continue to pay for registration of vehicles year after year after year? I mean, it’s important to have your car registered, don’t get me wrong, I want to be very clear, you still need to register vehicles. That said, the ongoing cost when nothing’s changed, especially in the day of internet? It’s just a click on a renewal or, if nothing changes, why renew the vehicle at all? Because if it’s still in your name, nothing’s changed. Why are we paying this year over year?
Take fishing licences. Such a simple little thing. It’s not a lot of money but why do we have to issue fishing licences to residents of the Northwest Territories when you live here? You still have to follow the quotas as far as I’m concerned but you have to be a resident, and by de facto you should be able to go fishing. So it’s things like this – driver’s licence renewal – and there’s many more, but it’s about the collective discussion that never happened before that I’m trying to raise.
These are practical, small wins. How do you reduce the cost of living in a longer-term, more meaningful way?
Those are the short-term goals. That’s what I’m suggesting. But by the same token there are long-term ones. Now everyone’s going to tell you they support the hydro. I support the hydro as well. I mean, there’s other ways to lower the cost of living. Like I said, extend the hydro all the way through the Northwest Territories, wrap it around the lake, and it can have interconnectivity of people. So the problem with that question is I don’t think a lot of people care about two, five, 10 years down the road. We know that there’s always mechanisms. People are struggling now. And that’s what I’m trying to communicate, is what can we do now to start the initiative and create a little momentum?
And by the way, the average income, according to the stats in the Northwest Territories, is $75,000 per person. Now that’s per person. So that’s $1,500 that two-percent payroll tax is taking from citizens, that’s going into the coffers. Now, the first thing you’re going to say is what about the money? Right? That’s true, it’s a good question. But it costs almost as much to administer as it does to collect. So it’s actually really a tax that’s more prohibitive to citizens, that really doesn’t produce much. Now there is some money gained. I was an MLA at the time when they raised it from one percent to two percent because they were losing the shirt on the program. That’s why they raised it back, I think, 15 years ago. That said, all we have to do is start making smarter choices for the difference.
Your platform states population growth is going to be key to the NWT’s economy. How do you propose to grow it?
Well, the government has to start asking itself the critical question: how do we track people? Every person here is a new $40,000 to the territorial coffers. But you know, it’s bigger than that. It’s things like, for example, the GNWT has to release some land for city development so we can build houses, we can attract more people to work here. If it has to put incentives in certain sectors to attract them, I think it’s time we have that conversation.
Your platform calls for the university campus to be brought across Frame Lake from the legislature and not on Tin Can Hill. They’re both green spaces. They’ve both got trails. Why over on Frame Lake?
I think it’s a better location, it’s more central to the city. The other thing is it’s closer to services such as roads, water, sewer etc. And it doesn’t have to eat up the trail that runs along Frame Lake, it can be set in. So you can take what’s called Suicide Corner towards it… I mean, I’m not here to design where the polytechnic could be. That quantum of land is almost the same size as the Tin Can Hill area. I think it’s a better choice.
The other thing is there’s interest in it with the YKDFN. I think we could do an enormous collaboration, working together on getting some better results. The other thing is, Tin Can Hill has been an emotional context to people for years. In other words, they love it. They’ve joined it, there’s walkers, it’s the park space in Yellowknife that, you know, once you blast it, it’s gone. So you have to be very careful about where you put these things in and the long-term usage. That space, the Capital Area site by the ledge, was designed for public institutions. And the forethought when they created that opportunity was saying, “Hey, we’re going to put something here one day, but we’re going to only be limited in the context of what it can be.” And as such the polytechnic fits perfectly in that sort of network. We can have access. We’re not trampling on anyone’s interests. And I think we could be working together, like I said, in partnership with the YKDFN.
Under a heading in your platform here – “Robert has solutions” – you declare having a family doctor is a right, not simple luck. Now, obviously, that’s not a solution. That’s a problem. What is the solution to that? Is it just more money?
Thanks. Well, actually, I’m really glad you brought that up, because I’ve been knocking doors but people have been telling me this for a while, that they don’t have a family doctor. And you know, first of all, you’re quite gobsmacked about that particular problem thinking how, in Yellowknife or in Canada, you cannot get a family doctor. But CTV released some stats just recently, I think it was one in six can’t get a family doctor.
I didn’t realize how big it was until I started talking to people. So we know what the problem is. Fact is they just take your name and that’s all they do. There’s no transparency. Doctors can refuse patients – and this is not coming down on doctors, it’s just they can say, “Hey, no.” People have told me the only doctor they can get to see is at Emerg or a locum doctor and they have no relationship. This is absolutely critical to long-term health and their relationship and their health plan as time goes on. I mean, if you’re planning a family, you sure want to know who your doctor is. If you’re sick or you’re elderly, I mean, you want a relationship with somebody who you trust over time. That is critical to long-term healthcare.
How do we do that? I mean, first of all, it means either a) we have to assess our doctors per head – so in other words, how many patients doctors can take – as well as we have to ask ourselves, why are doctors refusing patients? We have to find out from the doctors as part of the solution, because they’re going to be part of the solution.
Do you think the problem is that doctors are refusing patients?
I can tell you right now there are waiting lists and they don’t explain why they’re not taking patients. And it’s not to put a finger on one specific – I’m not dodging the question, but I don’t know why they’re specifically refusing them. So it’s not fair to pick on them by saying, “Well, why?” We don’t know their numbers. It’s not publicly transparent. So I could say Doctor A has, for example, 1,000 patients, but Doctor B has 500 and only wants to work when they feel like it. So I don’t know. That’s the issue is that the list is long. I’m aware of that for a fact. I’m aware that nobody knows the timelines of the list. And that’s the type of transparency I think we need to find out about. And it’s not about shaming, it’s about connecting people to family doctors. It’s about the solution and critical need for it.
You mentioned that this is a problem in a lot of places. Is the broader problem not just simply that we don’t have enough doctors in Canada?
Well, that could be a Canadian problem, absolutely. Absolutely. But I think that once we sit down and get the number… we can’t be refusing people who want a family doctor. We have to find a way. And if it means you’re booking out further – so in other words, not getting a family doctor appointment within 30 days, maybe now you’re waiting six weeks or seven weeks – you still should have the right to have a family doctor. Again, that relationship is absolutely critical.
Couple of minutes left, let’s bash through a couple more questions.
One that’s very important here is under a section about healthcare and addictions. You say “Yellowknife is overwhelmed.” What do you mean by that?
Well, everywhere you go, you see… I’m going to mix this one with addictions and homelessness, OK, if you don’t mind? So I work at the John Howard Society. I’m constantly dealing with files, with people who have addiction problems and homeless problems. I think the city has been overwhelmed. And I’m really glad we’re going to talk about this one. I want to talk about seniors too before we go. I, as a member of the John Howard Society, the guy who takes the phone calls, I even get calls from Iqaluit – the government in Nunavut – about trying to find homes for people who have problems in their community, because they’re sending them to Yellowknife.
Now, as a human being I feel bad about that, but are people dumping their problem? Just saying, “Well, Yellowknife will eat it up and figure it out?” I think everywhere you look – like I say, I run the John Howard Society, we deal with this problem day in and day out. We need solutions for people that are meaningful and that’s part of the issue. Now, I want to tie it to the homelessness. I mean, we all know the challenges of homelessness. We don’t need more lectures or presentations, we just have to do something. So for example, I’m convinced – not just by myself, I’ve talked to lots of people about this – but I’m convinced part of the pathway to the solution is creating an inside-of-Yellowknife solution or a Yellowknife solution and a territorial solution, by working in partnership with our communities and our regions. Because we can’t have Yellowknife solve it on on its own. And at the same token, the City of Yellowknife can’t be the only or major partner in the solution. I mean, it needs the territorial government.
Tell us about seniors.
My experience as an MLA – benefits are all over the place. So seniors and Elders aren’t getting consistent and regular benefits. I’m proposing a Seniors and Elders Bill of Rights that will codify what’s important to them and we’ll build on it and we’ll make sure it’s clear and transparent.
And lastly, what do Indigenous voters in Yellowknife Centre need to know about how you will represent them?
That’s a great question. I guess, partly because I grew up in the communities – I went to Akaitcho Hall, I’m just saying that – half my friends are Indigenous. I’ve been a northerner since I was, well, we’ll just say since 1977. So I don’t know, the North is part of my heart. I have been to almost every single community in the Northwest Territories. And so I can definitely say… I like to say I have a lot of friends everywhere. As far as I’m concerned, many people in the Indigenous community consider me a friend and a supporter of many of the causes. It doesn’t mean that’s a carte blanche on everything, but it definitely means everyone gets an open opportunity and I’ll do my best. And that applies to their issues. Absolutely.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.
Correction: October 31, 2023 – 7:52 MT. This article initially stated Robert Hawkins didn’t run in 2019. He didn’t run in Yellowknife Centre, but did run in Kam Lake – where he was defeated by Caitlin Cleveland.