After her last term as Sahtu MLA, Paulie Chinna is standing for re-election with a goal of enhancing “what already exists.”
Chinna says the past four years have given her the experience and skills to better serve people. If re-elected, she’ll focus on finding funding for infrastructure projects – and working closely with Indigenous governments to achieve that.
“Right now, housing has become quite significant. It’s a crisis throughout the NWT, but I can see a drastic need in the Sahtu,” she said.
This interview was recorded on November 3, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Aastha Sethi: You were among the last names added to the candidates’ list before nominations closed. Was it a last-minute decision to put your name forward?
Paulie Chinna: No, it wasn’t a last-minute decision. I was actually in Yellowknife and some flights were delayed that week. The election officer was just getting set up as well … but I was able to connect with her as soon as I got back.
In 2019, you said your main focus was looking into how the Mackenzie Valley Highway can bring economic opportunities, along with thoughts on creating more jobs in tourism and improving the education sector. Is that your focus this year or has it changed?
My focus hasn’t changed. It’s more of wanting to enhance what is already existing. I have a clearer idea and understanding of how the process works for a major project like the Mackenzie Valley Highway, and the commitment put forward by the territorial government and the constant advocacy with the federal government. With a major project like this, it’s very important that we have the Indigenous governments front and centre and involved with every process. They do have to come to an agreement on how the project would be laid out, and how it would actually be of value to the region. The Indigenous governments do have a huge role to play and that is something that I’ve learned during these last four years.
I feel like we’ve made significant progress on the Mackenzie Valley Highway. Now there’s a signed memorandum of understanding between the Sahtu Secretariat and the GNWT in regards to the highway. There’s also a financial commitment to coordinate between the GNWT and the Indigenous governments. We were also able to successfully complete the Prohibition Creek access road this year. So there’s quite a lot of progress, but also understanding that there’s a lot of involvement when there’s major projects such as this. I also want to elaborate a little bit on the regulatory process, where there is constant consultation with the Sahtu Land and Water Board, Mackenzie Valley as well, and interested stakeholders throughout the region. So it’s quite a large process. It’s not approval by one MLA and one minister alone. There’s huge collaboration that has to take place in order for a major project like this to be a success.
What other issues are a focus for you this year?
Housing has become quite significant. It’s a crisis throughout the NWT, but I can see a drastic need in the Sahtu. We do have a limited winter road season, and the barge season really impacted us this year with the low water levels. Normally, we would be getting seven deliveries to the barge and we only got two this year. It really impacted a lot of the infrastructure projects that were to commence this summer, but it also impacts the delivery of supplies and materials – also food security as well. I see the impact of climate change throughout the region, the effects of permafrost for our infrastructure. I can see the effects on wildlife and on migration routes.
What do you think needs to be done to push infrastructure projects forward like the Mackenzie Valley Highway? That was a discussion that happened in 2019 as well. I wanted to know how far you think we have come since then?
Looking at all the involvement that needs to happen with the Mackenzie Valley Highway, the reality is that GNWT doesn’t have the money to build the whole 238-km highway. Right now, there’s a lot of advocacy that is happening. In the assembly this year, all 19 members were in favour of the Mackenzie Valley Highway, for the constant advocacy to the federal government, for them to recognize that this is a significant project, it needs to be funded. We need to see this going forward. Right now, it’s funding. It is funding that needs to be committed. It’s funding that needs to be verified. But in the Territories, we’re still recovering from Covid-19. We just recovered from the fires. We’ve recovered from the floods. We’ve got a lot that’s at stake right now financially for the North. It’s something we need to start emphasizing, that projects like this become and remain one of the top priorities of the next government.
What steps would you take to lobby for that funding?
I will be working closely with Indigenous governments, which is Sahtu Secretariat, and the GNWT, and looking for adequate funding with the appropriate minister. We need the collaboration of all governments at the table, equally, to look at the surrounding communities up and down the valley and at the significant need for this highway to happen. It’s a reality that it’s not going to happen within four years. The reality is that we’re not going to be building 238 km within four years. The reality is we don’t have the funding to get this complete. Right now, the commitment is we do have the funding for the Bear River bridge. The prices have increased. There’s lobbying efforts for that project right now. There’s also the completion of the Prohibition Creek. In all, I want to say approximately 12 km of that 238 km has been constructed. But the longer we wait, the cost will increase of the materials, supplies, and pricing to get this highway build. That’s the reality. So I want to say, right now, the main focus would be collaboration, working together and lobbying together. Having all governments at the table and making our way to Ottawa, to make sure they recognize that this highway needs to be built. We need to respectfully involve the Dehcho because this significantly impacts them as well. We all have to be working together for the same purpose, to get the highway built.
In 2019, you said that there was no doctor in the region. Is there one now?
We do have a doctor that flies in and flies out right now. There is a shortage throughout the NWT. That is the reality. We don’t have one that is stationed here in the region. We do have locums that come up and do visit the smaller communities as well.
You have talked about the goal of establishing addictions treatment facilities. I wanted to know how far discussions have come along for that?
An addictions facility has been highlighted very strongly throughout the region – an addictions facility and aftercare. Right now, Fort Good Hope is in the process of completing their submission. They’re looking at a treatment centre on the land. That I would like to support going forward while looking at their initiatives. Culturally, I believe that these centres need to be managed by Indigenous people in specific areas and communities, and they need to be supported. If we see and hear of Indigenous governments that are wanting to step up, and they’re wanting to look at partnerships, that absolutely has to be considered.
Délı̨nę had also expressed interest in an addiction centre located on the land. So there’s been quite significant progress, but not only with that, my riding is very creative when it comes to wellness and addiction recovery. They’ve had a number of training programs on the land throughout the region. It’s quite remarkable, what the region has developed and then put together and how they’re able to work together with adequate funding. I feel that working with Indigenous groups and governments is key, and we need to really be working with them in partnership when it comes to addiction and recovery. We need to understand what it is that they need, what is their crisis, and how we can sit side by side in partnership and support them.
Coming to education. In 2019, you mentioned a lot of students were not able to graduate to attend post-secondary education. Have those numbers gone up?
Numbers remain the same pretty-much throughout the Sahtu. Since 2019, every year there are about 20 to 23 graduates. One of the things that I just applaud the minister of education for his northern learning programs. It is distance education offered where the students are able to take the adequate mathematics and science courses at a distance. It’s quite remarkable because I’ve seen a lot of success with that. Also, I’ve seen the enhancement of adult basic education throughout the region. There has been difficulty filling those positions, but I am here in Colville Lake and it’s quite remarkable to see the adult basic education being taught remotely as well. The attendance is quite impressive. So I feel that education has heard the isolation in the smaller communities, and I feel that they’ve been doing very well to provide adequate access to education in the smaller communities.
You’re up against Delphine Pierrot and Danny McNeely this year, who was the Sahtu MLA before losing to you in the last election by a small margin. What are you doing differently this time in terms of your election strategy to continue holding the seat?
I feel that I come back after four years with more experience. I understand our legislative process. I understand in more depth the role of an MLA. I’m fortunate that I was elected as minister as well, so I was able to acquire skills from both political seats.
Coming back into the region and how I’m looking at the campaigning happening right now? I feel it’s face to face with the residents. You have to hear them. You’ve got to go door to door. You have to be in their homes. You’ve got to set up a venue. They need to be heard. What I’ve heard so far is the services that are lacking in our communities and how we can enhance what is already existing. I’m not looking to change anything. I’m looking for enhancement, and where we could provide appropriate money for those programs to start becoming more successful.
Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.