NWT Election 2019: Caroline Wawzonek’s Yellowknife South interview

Caroline Wawzonek hopes to be the next MLA for Yellowknife South.

A lawyer, Wawzonek says she wants to help the NWT strike a balance between fostering its resource-based economy and mitigating the impacts of climate change, while working to improve mental health aftercare and develop the new polytechnic.

Interviewed by Cabin Radio, Wawzonek said she would push as an MLA for a government with “real, measurable results.”


Comparing the NWT’s economy unfavourably with those of Yukon and Nunavut, Wawzonek said: “We can’t simply turn around and blame the fact that we’re in the North, or blame the fact that the markets are slow.”

She wants a healthcare system where territorial leaders “stop reordering and reorganizing and restructuring the healthcare system every so-many years,” and suggested mobile treatment units as a way to help maintain supports throughout communities.

Below, find a transcript of the full interview.

Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Wawzonek’s interview is to be broadcast on September 5.

More information: Caroline Wawzonek’s campaign website


More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far

This interview was recorded on September 4, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: Introduce us to your platform.

Caroline Wawzonek: I’ve got four main points on my platform. One I want to start with, because it’s coming back as a theme throughout a lot of the other ones actually, is about real accountability. And to me, that’s making sure that the government is providing real results, measurable results, to achieve targets on a vision.


And that vision? There’s two I’ll highlight for you right now. One, on investment and innovation. So that’s really growing the economy, making sure that our economy is growing in a way that it’s becoming competitive and is innovative. So we are somewhat falling behind right now some of our territorial neighbours, particularly in mineral resources, and I think there needs to be a real drive to change that.

We also need to be supporting our small business, continuing with investment on infrastructure, and making sure we have a regulatory system that is responsive. And another big one for me is in the community, empowering people. So looking at our education system, investing in education, investing in the providers of education, mental health, and addictions. And also healthcare. Housing is another one under that heading. A fourth prong for me is under access to justice, it’s somewhere I have a lot of particular experience in.

We’ll come back to access to justice. There’s a lot to unpack already. Let’s start off with government accountability. Now, what do you propose we do differently?

Right, because this word comes up in a lot of elections. I know it was talked about a lot four years ago. Where I think we’re falling down is understanding what actually is accountability and who’s going to be accountable. So to me, if you’re going to be accountable for something, you have to have a clear point of accountability, you can’t just sort of have it thrown out in the ether, you need to say who’s going to be accountable. And to me, that’s leadership.

So they need to be accountable for end results. And that’s the other part, is making sure it’s for end results. So actually having an outcome that you measure, key performance indicator, right? Something where you can say, what are the points along the way that are going to get us to the vision? So starting from the vision, what is the idea? What are the goals and the steps that we need to achieve that vision? What are the key performance indicators along the way? And who is accountable for each one? Ultimately, it’s the government.

And if people are found not to be meeting the key performance indicators, what happens then?

The point of having a senior position of accountability is that they should be having the point of authority to make changes immediately. So if you are accountable for a result, and the result’s not being achieved, you should have the authority to make whatever changes are necessary to then actually start to adjust in order to achieve the measure.

If it’s someone who’s in the government, they need to be able to answer for that. And there were some efforts, I think, in the last four years to do that, to have obviously the midterm review, I think that’s positive, to try to bring forward some of the ministers and question whether they’ve achieved their targets.

I think maybe it’s time to take that and move that forward and make it actually even more meaningful.

Everybody in this election wants to drive more investment and drive a better economy for the Northwest Territories. “We must inspire investment,” your platform proudly declares. Sounds great. How?

Well, we need investor confidence. It’s a big one. I think if you look at what’s happening in Nunavut, and what’s happening in Yukon, we can’t simply turn around and blame the fact that we’re in the North, or blame the fact that the markets are slow, because both of these two neighbouring territories are really advancing.

So what is it that we’re missing? What are we here not doing right?

For one, I would suggest we need to improve land access, which requires settling land claims, which is something we are desperately overdue to do. On top of that, I would suggest there also need to be changes in the regulatory system. And that is something that needs to happen now and quickly. Needs to be more responsive, needs to be more adaptive to different kinds of projects, different sizes of projects.

If you have your regulator coming out, for example, as they did recently saying that the government itself wasn’t maybe following the right process, there is something wrong and that needs to be changed immediately. And the faster you can do it, the faster you can show investors that we are going to be a responsive government this time around,

Are you saying the territory is over-regulated?

I think there is a lot of room for improvement. A lot of laws that have come out in the last while actually are kind-of short on law and heavy on regulations. So we’re creating a lot of rules and a lot of rule systems.

We should be looking, in my view, at modernizing them, having them be responsive. If they can, be flexible and adaptive to the appropriate circumstances. They’re still comprehensive, but they’re just better tuned-up to what they’re supposed to be doing. So they can actually achieve their goals in a way that is meaningful for the people who need the goals to be achieved.

You mentioned settling of land claims, which has been priority number one stated by several NWT governments in a row now. What could be done differently? Because it doesn’t seem to have happened so far.

No, it certainly doesn’t. And I’ve had the opportunity to speak with people involved on different sides of these tables. And some of the themes that come out are this fear of losing control – the need to maintain some sort of government control. And I would suggest that maybe it’s time to recognize a nation-to-nation relationship, which has certainly been asked for for a long time from Indigenous governments, and to recognize that we are better off to perhaps release that control and engage in partnerships, rather than trying to divvy up the pie.

So, decrease the size of the territorial government and the number of people it employs?

That’s actually not what I’ve necessarily said. There’s this fear that if we have to have Indigenous government and give over the control, that suddenly there’s just no ability to control what’s happening. I don’t know that we’re necessarily going to decrease the size of the government.

What we’re going to be doing is empowering an Indigenous government to take on an area of control. And they may well do that by the supports from the government. They may well do that by employing people from the government. And there’s a whole host of different ways that you can achieve that goal… I don’t know that it necessarily means making the our government smaller. What it does do is empower local Indigenous governments to take that on.

Let’s look at social issues. “Reducing the prevalence of mental illness or social need” is a line from your campaign platform. What steps would you advocate for that the current government is not already taking?

So this spring, they came out with a new mental health system, a new mental health initiative, and there’s talk there about aftercare – post-treatment aftercare. It’s not clear to me what it means when I read that. And if we are sending people away and not then giving them aftercare treatment when they get back, it will fail. That needs to be improved, and it needs to be meaningful, needs to have investment.

In addition to that, I’d suggest, again, there’s talk around having sort-of community networks. But what does that actually mean? We need to have networks and resources in communities. And I’d suggest one way to do that is to have a mobile treatment unit or group that goes around, community to community, on a regular basis, and keeps building up those support networks.

Finding ways to really engage with people and empower our front lines, so that the people who are providing the community counselling and the community supports are really getting that support from the government themselves as well.

Adequate healthcare staffing is also in your platform. I’m sure nobody would disagree with that. However, it is an issue that has evaded consecutive governments in terms of how that address that. What would you do differently?

Well, I would stop reordering and reorganizing and restructuring the healthcare system every so-many years. Every time you wind up with a restructuring and a reorganization, then the management and the supervisors sort-of in that middle level are then scrambling to fit themselves back in. The people at the front lines aren’t being supported.

So some of this is just structural, is providing a workplace that has more morale, where people feel supported, where they know who their supervisor is that they can go to, and I don’t think that’s something we have been doing very well of late.

So to me, from a leadership perspective, maybe it’s just a matter of providing that leadership and saying, you know what, I’m going to engage all the way through the chain, all the way to the front lines, know what’s going on. From an industry perspective, it’s the idea of your manager, your CEO walking the floor, and actually getting to know what’s happening all throughout, so that everyone feels supported at every level, and isn’t scrambling to fit themselves in.

So if you were to end up as a health minister, say in January 2020, you would be leaving well alone in terms of the structure of the way that health services are provided, and how they’re staffed in the territory, and supporting what exists so as to maintain stability?

Not just supporting what exists, investing in what exists, right? You want to make sure you’re understanding what’s happening at all levels.

If you are the person that’s responsible and accountable, well, then you need to know what’s going on at all those levels. So yes, at first instance, I would say we don’t want to blow up the system again. But we want to make sure that we’re investing in that system, understanding that system, so that whoever is responsible for it is actually accountable.

Can and should the territory afford universal daycare?

It’s already been approved. So this is already supposedly out there, they’re supposedly doing it.

There was a feasibility study in 2015 which concluded that the territory would need to pay between $20 million and $45 million a year to do it, would need 230 additional staff and a 56 percent increase in daycare spaces to get it done.

Right. And yet, there’s word out there that says that this is something that supposedly is going to be happening.

Word out there from whom?

When I was looking into the ECE programs, it’s on their materials that this is in the works. Now I don’t I don’t know where it’s in the works. I don’t know what’s happening, it’s not particularly clear to me. But if we’re going to have something that’s a goal, that everyone agrees is worthwhile and important, then we need to start working backwards and making a plan and really figuring out whether it is possible and how it can be done.

So junior kindergarten was part of that. They rolled out the JK process and the sky didn’t fall despite what people were worried about. So maybe it’s time to take the next step and see what they can do to actually invest in some more daycare spaces as well. And keep it as a goal that we’re going to get there. At some point.

Editor’s note: Universal daycare does, indeed, appear in an ECE action plan for 2017-2020. By August 2019, a GNWT update on access to childcare seems to back away from some of the terminology used in the initial action plan.

To look at the bigger picture of where we get money from, does it come down to federal handouts? In terms of infrastructure and the money that we need to get things done, are we approaching this right? Do you see any need to change any of the way that we get the money to do these things?

A lot of the things that I’ve tried to advocate for in my platform aren’t necessarily the big-ticket items. Obviously, the infrastructure stuff is going to be, but a lot of it is just changing the way that we do things.

That said, you know, there have been a lot of announcements in the last couple of weeks or months, both federally and territorially, about money. It’s one thing to have the money announced, but where’s it going to go and how’s it going to be spent? I want to be careful that we don’t just keep spending more and more money on studies – that if we’re going to have a study, we get the study done, and we use it effectively.

And we use it strategically, so that we then are moving forward on a partnership level, whether it’s with a city government, other municipal governments, federal governments, Indigenous governments, and saying, what are we going to do now to take the next round of funding and actually invest it towards the next stage of a plan or process, whether it’s feasibility or beyond?

There are also, I think, opportunities to look at the federal formulas and say, you know, are we being funded in a way that does provide a reasonable amount of services comparable to southern Canada? And you can look at a lot of the Northwest Territories communities and even in Yellowknife and argue that we’re not.

When you look at the dynamic of the legislature over the past four years, where do you identify a need for change in how our politicians work and work together?

One of the things that I do a lot professionally is having to be an advocate, but also having to engage collaboratively, because sometimes you can be on very opposite sides of big issues – whether it’s a private individual, or business, or even government departments.

But the most effective solution isn’t to just be at loggerheads, but is to actually find some sort of common ground, and then move forward with a solution that is the best for everybody involved. So that’s the kind of perspective that I would like to bring.

It’s difficult sometimes to find common ground. For example, economic development versus the environment. How are you going to strike that balance and find that common ground between a lot of these big-ticket infrastructure projects, and preserving the Northwest Territories environment?

You know, a lot of the big industries right now are almost getting a bad rap, as if they don’t want to protect the environment, I don’t think that’s true at all.

I think a lot of big industries and big companies are very engaged in having social licence, they really want to show that they are members of these communities, and that they are aware and alive to the need to preserve sustainable environment, sustainable practices, in what they’re doing. It’s not a one or the other choice, there is going to be a balance and there has to be a balance.

And maybe we can be leaders in terms of being the ones that are innovating how to engage in large business development and large infrastructure development in a northern region, but one that is actually aware and alive of what’s happening with the environment at the same time.

And in listening to you talk, would I be fair to characterize your position that the NWT doesn’t quite have the balance right? And maybe with its regulatory system being what it is, is holding back development to an extent?

I don’t know that that’s entirely what I’ve said. I mean, it’s… I don’t know… well, right now, we certainly are not getting a lot of big-ticket development. Is it because of the regulatory system holding it back? Or is it because of all of these different issues that are holding us back? Is it because of, you know, a regulatory system that isn’t always as adaptive as responsive as it could be? Is it because of land access? Is it because of, you know, the high cost of doing business?

There’s a lot of those things that I think are impacting, but I wouldn’t characterize it as being because of a fear of environmental issues. I think those two things can start to work together better and they’re not mutually exclusive.

In closing, and having listened to you for the past 15 minutes, there’s a lot you’re discussing that I feel like I could have heard any GNWT department state as its aim over the past four years. Things like settling land claims, things like developing the economy, and things like adequate healthcare staffing. Those are all ambitions that the government has already had. What do you think the difference is between what the government has already tried to achieve with those, and what you would bring to that as an MLA?

My professional work, and my work in the community is knowledge across all the sectors. So in terms of being able to bring that balance, I have direct knowledge and experience in all these sectors.

And in terms of the skills that I have, my skill set is one that is about driving effectiveness, driving collaboration, and driving decision-making, and then actually being accountable for those results.

I think it’s time to maybe start empowering our public service, who have great ideas and initiatives and studies and strategic studies, and actually taking that and saying now we’re going to act on it and we’re going to be accountable for those results.