Caitlin Cleveland says the NWT’s 20th Assembly will be a better place if people learn from those who’ve done the job before.
Cleveland was acclaimed to a second term as Kam Lake MLA after nobody opposed her.
As she waits to discover who her colleagues will be, she points to examples where she says the outgoing group of MLAs did function effectively – even if it didn’t look like it from the outside – and hopes the incoming batch of winners can learn some lessons.
“It really is a facility based on mentorship,” she told Cabin Radio.
“It relies on the experience and opinions of past leadership. But luckily, the people who put their names forward generally have a plan and a target of their own. And so they’re able to take that information and run with it and make it their own.
“I really look forward to seeing who my colleagues are, and how they themselves interpret that past information and make it their own.”
Read our interview with Cleveland about how the 20th Assembly can improve on the past four years, how the way the NWT sets its priorities should change, and what some of those priorities should be.
This interview was recorded on October 31. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Why do you think it was that you were acclaimed as an MLA?
Caitlin Cleveland: You’re starting off with a difficult question, Ollie. As much as I think that people would look at ridings and think, “OK, I’m gonna go run in mostly an open riding” – I think people like to weigh odds, and it’s easier to get into an open riding than it is in a riding with an incumbent, generally – that said, I would like to think that people have respect for the work that I did, and hopefully want the opportunity to work together. And I really look forward to starting the 20th Assembly and getting to work with whoever ends up being the MLAs.
On a personal level, what are you proudest of from your first term?
I am proudest of the fact that I work hard to be accessible for the residents of Kam Lake. That was something right from the get-go that was very important to me, and even as I’m knocking on doors, now, I’m asking people: how do they want to be communicated with? I think that we’re at a time where there’s such a spectrum of people’s preferences in how communication looks with their elected officials. I have people who refuse to get on social media, and that’s absolutely fine. And so I want to find ways to stay in touch with them. And then I have people who are on social media multiple times a day, and that works best for them and they like that instant communication.
I would say my accessibility, but it’s something that I’m also working hard to continue to evolve as we work together.
We’re used, now, to hearing a lot of people say: “Well, there needs to be change.” And also people complaining that this has been years of crisis government. We haven’t heard a lot of people reach back over the last four years and say, “Hey, these things actually went really well.” From your perspective as a regular MLA, what did the government do the last four years get right? What do we need to maintain that we were doing well in the last few years?
One of the things that I don’t think gets enough credit – and I acknowledge that the outside looking in is much different than actually being on the inside of it – one of the things that did work well is when it came to the actual work of regular MLAs, regular MLAs did a very good job of sticking together and deciding what they were going to ask for at budget negotiations, and negotiating those things with the GNWT. That was done through our chair of the accountability and oversight committee, who was Kevin O’Reilly, along with our deputy chair, who was Lesa Semmler, in conjunction with our finance minister, who was Caroline Wawzonek. Those three kind-of carried the torch and the hard work of having to bring forward what we were asking for, and that was one of the things that I would say I’m proudest of as far as our working together with the GNWT.
I would also say one of the things that I really appreciated was the great work done on some of those long-term pieces that aren’t going to be accomplished in a day – they’re going to take time, but they’re also going to take the new batch of MLAs coming in to really hold the government accountable for finishing those pieces. We’re finally getting a homelessness strategy off the ground, and there’s some really good stuff in there, but it needs to be implemented. Another piece of that was the changes to the Income Assistance policies that happened. Another piece of that was the changes to the housing policies that happened.
And so what it’s going to take now is actually following those through, making sure that they’re being carried out and implemented properly, and making sure they’re having the intended outcomes. Those are some things I think, from the social side, that I’m really excited about. I would say this next assembly really needs to have a stronger focus on the economy.
We’ll come back to the economy. What you were describing there was a lot of collaboration, and a lot of working together. Meanwhile, from an outsider’s perspective, there’s been so much volatility in the assembly over the past four years – and a lot of people are running on a platform of wanting to change the tone. Does there need to be a change in tone? And if there does, what sort of change?
Working in the Legislative Assembly is like no work environment I’ve ever worked in before. I’m going to be very honest about that. But at the end of the day, you get to choose who you are as a person and who you are as a representative of the people that you serve. And you get to choose how you act and react, nobody else gets to decide that.
Even though there are some opinions on how the last assembly went, these are not the… how am I going to explain this, Ollie? What people are seeing from the outside, looking in, is not what it looked like inside our committee meetings. So there was a lot of – like any assembly, or in any very high-stress, emotional work environment – there are some difficult times. But when it comes to getting the work done, being in a committee meeting, that did not spill into our workplace.
For me, for example, as the chair of the Standing Committee on Social Development, I was very strict on not allowing any of that stuff into Social Development. And I think that anybody in any workplace or any social situation can stand up and say, “No, not here.” And that’s done. At the end of the day, you can’t control the actions of other people. You have to do the best work for the residents that you serve.
Heading into the 20th Assembly, to make it a more effective government overall – granting that a lot of people looked at the 19th and felt like it didn’t seem that effective for them, at least from the outside, and I think we can all think of examples where it wasn’t particularly effective…
Heading into the 20th Assembly, what would you like to see change? You’ve done this job for four years, what would make the 20th Assembly better? Whether that’s in terms of the approaches that your colleagues take, or the ways that things get done.
Having the ability to ask people who have done the job before, and forming relationships not only with your colleagues that you’re sitting next to, but people who may not actually be there any more. And so finding out: how can I be most effective? Because there’s a definite learning curve that happens when you’re in that job. Learning about a private member’s bill before the last year that you’re in office is so important, and finding out ways that you can take the reins on some legislation and run with it, I think, would be hugely impactful for regular members – and how you can also use the tools you have afforded to you in committee, right off the bat, would be a huge gain. And I know that there are past politicians who I’ve had the opportunity to work with that would lend their time very generously to new MLAs as well.
Second, I would say having less priorities – having a much more focused look at what you want to accomplish as an assembly. Not looking at it as a laundry list of what you want the government to do, but looking instead at what legacy you want to leave. That would be really helpful. You get in and you have this whole laundry list of items that you want the government working on, but the government still has business that it has to do – business that it’s working on.
And there are action plans already in play that you can continue to use to hold the government’s feet to the fire, and hold them accountable for those commitments that they’ve previously made. But having an actual conversation about what our legacy is going to be, I think, would be tremendously helpful.
You’re not the first person to say we can be more strategic about this mandate, we can do this in a better, more productive way. But I think that might be easier said than done when you get 19 people into a room and they all have to sign off on a document for the next four years. Do you think it can be done? Do you think we can get 19 people to be more strategic about this territory’s priorities?
I absolutely think we can. I think what it’s going to take is uncomfortable conversations. And there’s a real drive to not be uncomfortable when we’re having those hard conversations. It might even be conversations where people have to get up and leave the room for a little bit because they’re so frustrated. But that’s OK! That’s a form of self-regulation, to be able to get up and say, “OK, I need a break from this conversation. I need five minutes, I need to go for a walk to the museum and I’ll be back.” And that’s OK.
Being able not only to be uncomfortable, but taking the time that you need – and I think sometimes you just need an extra day or an extra two days. And an extra day or two days at the front end of an assembly that’s four years long? That might pay for itself down the road in dividends.
You are one of only two people with four years’ experience of this guaranteed to be back in the building. That being the case, do you anticipate playing something of a leadership role in having those conversations?
Every single person who walks through those doors is automatically going to be playing a leadership role, right off the bat. Anybody who has put their name forward has kind-of said, “I want to be a leader for the Northwest Territories.” I plan to definitely voice my concerns. I’ve been saying the same thing for a while, since we basically signed off on the last priorities. I have never been shy about sharing my feelings on the priorities, even when we were sitting in that room four years ago, and I intend to continue to do so.
It really is a facility, though, that is based on mentorship. There’s no MLA 101. And so I think it really relies on the experience and opinions of past leadership. But luckily, the people who put their names forward generally have a plan and a target of their own. And so they’re able to take that information and run with it and make it their own. I really look forward to seeing who my colleagues are, and how they themselves interpret that past information and make it their own.
We’ve spent a bunch of time on political theory, here. Let’s turn to your priorities. You mentioned the economy. What are you going into the next four years feeling as though we absolutely have to get done?
We’ve been, for my entire life, a mining territory. We are not seeing huge leaps and bounds as far as what our next mining economy is going to be. We cannot ignore that conversation, and really need to look at what is being asked of this government from exploration companies and mining production companies. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with a couple, both in committee and on my own.
The two biggest things I’m hearing are certainty of the regulatory environment and the regulatory process – so that they can give that certainty then to their investors, so that money comes here rather than another jurisdiction – and the second piece is energy. The cost of energy and the type of energy we’re using is, a lot of times, cost-prohibitive and has a huge impact on how people are going to do mining in the Northwest Territories. And it also has an impact on the type of investment they’re able to bring in on their project.
What are we going to do about energy? Because people have said Taltson for years – it’s no closer to happening. It’s hundreds of millions of dollars away. Even if they got the money tomorrow, you’d be looking at years and years to actually get the work done. What should we do?
I think we need to make a decision. I don’t think that Taltson has ever been a formal decision that’s been made by this government or any government before. And there’s been acknowledgement that for energy in the Northwest Territories, there’s not a single silver bullet. It’s not one size fits all for every community. We have such a vast community with different needs and different resources that it has access to. I think what needs to be done is there needs to be actual dollars attached to projects. There needs to be actual projects for each region that are identified to hit the goals of the government. And those projects need to be actioned right now.
We’re talking about kind-of pie in the sky ideas of things that we’d like to see done, we’re not being realistic. Decisions need to be made and those plans need to be put into process, because right now we’re talking about no actual concrete dollars attached to actual concrete projects. And we need to see those go forward.
We had the absurdity in the legislature, just in the last few weeks of this government, of Rylund Johnson standing up multiple times and asking cabinet: “How much do we think Taltson is going to cost?” And cabinet not giving a figure. I realize that behind closed doors, MLAs maybe had a figure. But we’re dealing in the public here, we haven’t had a figure in 10 years for how much Taltson is going to cost. I will move on – beyond the economy, if the other 18 people elected say, “Caitlin, give us your top three so that we can put that on our brand new mandate to 2027,” what else is going to be on the list?
What I’m hearing from residents at the door – and that’s who my bosses are – our cost of living. Cost of living brings into that affordable housing. Energy as well and food costs. And the other piece that I hear non-stop is healthcare. And I think another, fourth piece on that which I want – I want only three, but another piece on that is our emergency management. And that one I think is a hot topic right now because that is something that people are still financially and emotionally recovering from with the summer and the evacuations. But those kind-of four what would be my top things that I’m going to bring forward.
Let’s very quickly dwell on that. How should the GNWT’s approach to climate change and to emergency management evolve over the course of this next government?
I don’t want us to get so focused on the emergency management side of things that we’re forgetting about the other pieces. So there’s the futureproofing of our communities to make sure that we’re ready for flooding or wildfires, or we can’t get produce into a community because we don’t have water.
There’s also looking at creating some form of stronger resilience for each of our communities, which again, is going to look different wherever you find yourself living in the territory. Part of that is going to be the communication pieces, as well as the collaboration between not only the GNWT but municipal governments and Indigenous governments as well, which we saw come up in the last emergency that we went through as a territory.
The other piece of that, though, that I think is really important, is on the mitigation side. We can’t just talk about these emergencies as far as communicating about them and preparing ourselves for them. We have to learn to mitigate them as we go forward in the future. And for me, what I’d like to see is discussions on not only energy but transportation. How are we becoming more resilient in the territory and being able to ensure that more goods and services are produced at home, and we’re using what we have here? How are we keeping more employees in the territory rather than flying them in and out all the time?
And then a great example, as well, or something that needs to be looked at for other regions, is what the Tłı̨chǫ is doing right now. They’ve just put a significant investment into reforestation. I think those conversations are really important as well, given our reliance on the land and the territory.
Last question: tradition would dictate that the next premier comes from somewhere other than Yellowknife. How important do you think that is?
I want the right person in the right job. I think that we’re at a point in the territory where we need to make very strategic decisions. Regardless of where someone lives, we need to make sure that we have the right people in the right positions. There are a number of people right across the territory who, over the years, we’ve seen be excellent contenders for premier, and I’m really looking forward to who the 20th Assembly ends up being.