Fort Smith’s Denise Yuhas was the first to announce a planned run for the Thebacha constituency.
Yuhas owns a hair salon, food truck, and an office management and consulting business in town, and previously worked as a constituency assistant to Michael Miltenberger for 15 years when he was Thebacha’s MLA.
In her interview, she advocated for Aurora College to be headquartered in Fort Smith and for program offerings to reflect what the community needs and is able to offer; for decentralization of boards; and for land claims to be settled to spur economic development.
She also stressed the territory’s budget needs to balance priorities: “We need infrastructure, but we also need to have young, healthy, educated people,” she said.
Yuhas said her business experience extends outside Fort Smith: she sat on the NWT Development Corporation Board for five years and on the board of the Northwest Territories Business Development and Investment Corporation for 12 years, in addition to her current position on the Thebacha Chamber of Commerce board.
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast.
More information: Denise Yuhas’ campaign Facebook page
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on August 29, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sarah Pruys: Denise, I’ll start by getting you to introduce yourself and telling us a bit about your background and why you decided to run for MLA in Thebacha.
Denise Yuhas: Hi, thanks for the question. My name is Denise Yuhas. I decided to run for MLA Thebacha not just recently – I had been thinking about it for a while. I do have a lot of experience that I think I could bring that would help us in a lot of areas here.
I’ve been an advocate in the community for at least 30 years, I do have some good experience. I worked in the constituency office for Mr. Miltenberger for 15 years. That gave me a lot of contact with community members, helping them navigate and get through some of the difficulties they may be having with accessing services. I also have a background in business – I have owned and operated my own business here for 28 years. Also, I was privileged to sit on the NWT Development Corporation board for five [years] and as well served on the BDIC [Northwest Territories Business Development & Investment Corporation] for 12 years. So I’ve been keeping up with things outside of here as well.
I’ve always been a good volunteer in Fort Smith. I believe giving back to the community is important and I currently sit on the Chamber of Commerce. I had the privilege of working with some great people here. In the past, we delivered a beautiful track to our community. We did deliver dialysis as well. So there’s been many things that I’ve been involved in so I think I’m ready. I’ve been listening to people through my business and attending meetings and other things for some time. So I really feel I’m ready to represent. I’m known to be a fair person and a hard worker. And I think that’s a really great place to start.
And what’s your business?
I own a hair salon, and a food truck, and an office management and consulting business.
I imagine you hear quite a bit then from the public about what they want to see in the community just by your conversations.
Yeah, for sure, in all of those things. There’s a lot of great things going on in the community. There’s some uncertainty right now though. We have a lot of good people working hard in various departments. Things with health here, we need to make sure that we have the financial and the human resources to deliver the best health care possible.
I raise that again, because dialysis has come back again. We have an elderly gentleman, he’s been in the news, he’s been away from home for a long time because he can’t get the service in our community. We need to address stuff like that; we just can’t ship our elderly and sick off to the capital to be alone. So we have some things we need to work on there.
As well in the community, Aurora College is on everybody’s mind. It’s an institution here that we’re very proud of. We need to maximize the potential of the college. And I absolutely believe the headquarters should stay here. I understand from what I’ve read and meetings that I’ve attended, that they are down the road on the Polytechnic University and I think they projected it was five years out. But the other statements that were made were that they wanted three strong campuses. So I would like to see this as an exciting opportunity and see what else we can deliver here. And that means having more to offer that ties in with industry – whatever that is, we need to access it and we need to be able to offer what’s needed. It’s a fabulous place. It does get a bit of a black eye sometimes, the foundational review was pretty harsh.
One of the things that is interesting, as I noted on a public site that they’re right now closing on the 30th of this month, they want to do a strategic plan, they’re putting it out for that. So in the document, the people must refer to the foundational review. And that kind of scares me because I thought it was pretty clear that there were some major issues in the foundational review. So I’m not sure if that stuff got cleaned up but it would be a shame to see a consultant come in and work off a document that’s not accurate.
And jobs in our community: people need to feel safe in their jobs. And the public service report that’s out there suggests that we grew a job. I don’t know where that job is. But I can tell you that in every office, there’s empty offices where people used to be. You could just walk anybody down the college halls, those pods were full of instructors, they were full of people. That’s not the case right now. And you know, our own regional superintendent here, from ITI, his job is here, but he’s not here. So there’s things like that – people see those jobs going and it’s scary.
Like education, and I’m glad to hear that they acknowledged that we needed some funding and stuff here too for student housing and things like that. I think they said they had a $22-million surplus? Well, I would like to see them spend some money on modernizing where it’s needed the infrastructure and the student residence.
Centralization is a big one too, of programs and services. You know, for some people that follow this kind of stuff when the government starts collapsing boards, I don’t know how else to put it, you lose your regional representation. And they’re run by deputies. So the Aurora College Board, NTPC [Northwest Territories Power Corporation], Arctic Energy Alliance, hospital – that kind of undermines consensus government.
In order to have a strong north, we need to have a vision, we need to all be involved. When these things are all hived off and they’re being delivered out of one place for whatever reason, if it’s money, they’re not saving money. Maybe it’s just easier, but they’re not getting the regional representation. And the north is unique and we have to keep that in mind. It’s not all about the capital. So those are some of the things I’m hearing.
Nothing’s going to get fixed overnight. I think that the government as well, after devolution, land claims over 30 years – we need to move forward on that. They said they were going to do that; they didn’t deliver on that. You have frustrated groups out there and industry too. It needs certainty, who are the land owners? I think that the Aboriginal governments will make strategic investments that make sense for them in their region. We have to give that over to them – that’s what devolution was about, not about taking the power from the federal government and then hoarding that. We need to move to the next phase so we will have strong regions.
So you mentioned the issues with the threat of the college leaving Fort Smith and health care. Where do you see some opportunities for potential in Fort Smith?
For which area? Healthcare?
Just anything – where would you like to see the town grow and evolve?
I think that the town can grow in many ways. I think with our offerings at Aurora College, we have some very skilled people, we have a really good trades area there. We have a new mine training [centre]. The list goes on.
But the thing is there are other trades and technologies out there. These people that are working in these jobs, that are delivering programs now, they know their industry, I don’t think they’re being heard. Or maybe if they’re being asked, nobody’s heard. They keep up on their stuff and for me to say, “Well, I think they should offer this or they should offer that,” that’s looking from the outside in. I just don’t think that they’ve had a good opportunity to say about what they could offer. I’m pretty sure there’s all kinds of ways to expand what it is they’re doing, but they need to be supported. The institution, and the people working in it need to be supported, and they need to feel valued, and they need to be listened to.
So how involved do you think the government should be in the college moving forward?
The minister suggested it should be arm’s length. Well I think that if that is the case, then they really need to do that. I believe they are called a crown corporation but they need to be respected for the stuff they do. There’s two areas under the one minister, one is the department of education and then the college – these are two very different things.
And I guess while we’re on education, they have a lot of work to do. You talk to any pretty much anybody that’s teaching and they’re struggling trying to meet the needs in the classroom at the front end. You know, in a public meeting here as well, I’m not sure if you were there, I brought that up. They’re talking about this huge investment for the polytechnic – we need a huge investment here from junior kindergarten on up.
Now the rest of the regions of the territory, infrastructure is a huge topic right now. It almost seems like it’s the GNWT’s number one priority. Do you think that it should be? If not, what do you think should be the priority?
It is absolutely an issue. They are investing a lot of money and I hear a lot of the term of the 70 cents, the 30 cents on the dollar. I don’t know for certain how we’re going to fulfill those commitments when the infrastructure is done if we’re talking roads and such. Because that’s another pot, that’s more money we’re going to need to get to. But we do need to make sure that whatever we’re doing is balanced. We have to make sure that our basic programs and services are properly funded, that our teachers and our kids are getting the best experience they can.
Is it one thing? I think it’s a lot of things. That’s one thing that I think is going to be very interesting about this election, I hope there’s going to be diverse thinkers at the table, a lot of new people coming in, because some of the people are moving on. So I’m hoping that it’s going to be a fresh set of eyes and some fresh perspective. We need infrastructure, but we also need to have young, healthy, educated people. That’s how we’re going to grow as well. We need to have jobs for our people to come back to.
So let’s talk briefly about the infrastructure projects around the South Slave then. We’ve got the Taltson Hydro Expansion Project that is looking like a real possibility now and then the conversations just are just starting up again about developing a road through Wood Buffalo National Park. Can you speak to each of those just briefly?
Well, with respect to the Taltson, there’s a small investment. I think the last time I checked was $1.4 billion and the feds gave $2 million.
I think just for a feasibility study.
But let’s talk about this road to the park. It would be fabulous if we had a road through the park but I don’t think that’s something that’s going to happen in short order. We’re dealing with the Alberta government, we’re dealing with Aboriginal groups along the way. It is in another province. I think it would be great for tourism. But first and foremost, I think it would be great for safety. The climate: we know things are happening, places are burning. I don’t have to go into that, we all know that. And there’s been some scary times here when the weather’s hot, and we’re surrounded by forest. So it would be great to do have a secondary road. I think in order for that to happen, that’s going to be a long process.
But I also think there’s somewhere for the college to tie into that too. We have good trainers here, we have good programs, and there’s many parts of what we offer here at the college that could tie into training and stuff like that and somebody’s got to maintain it. I’m not sure who’s going to be the biggest obstacle. Is it going to be the federal government? Or is it going to be one of the people along the way? It is positive and I hope the discussions keep going. There won’t be just one or two, there’ll be many.
And the Taltson Hydro Expansion? What’s your position on that?
My position on that would be where are we going to get the $1.4 or $1.8 billion to do it. I can’t really say it’s a position, but it’s a legitimate question. Will they be able to sell enough off? I’m told that there are other ways that we should be addressing getting off of diesel. There’s other energy sources and other programs. I haven’t looked into all of them with the feds and other things, but it’s all about balance. So those are two big things: the road is a big thing and energy is a big thing.
We have to wrap up here in a minute. So a final question: what’s your pitch? Why should people vote for you? Why would you say you’re the best candidate for the job in Thebacha?
I would say I’m the best candidate in Thebacha because I’ve worked with a lot of people. I’m fair. I have a lot of experience working with people. I believe that people should be treated fairly, they have should have access to all programs and services. I don’t have any political baggage. And I’ll stand up for us, I’ll stand up for Fort Smith, and I’ll stand up for what’s right. And I’ll make sure that we are represented, and that it’s done in a respectful way. And I’ll definitely be available. I’ll have an office, people will be able to contact me. I make a commitment, I’ll fulfill it. And if they put the trust in me, I will not disappoint them.