Retired newspaper publisher and lifelong entrepreneur Don Jaque is running for the Thebacha MLA seat.
If Jaque gets elected, he said the first thing he will do is form a working group with community leaders in Fort Smith so the community has a strong voice and everyone is working together toward the same goals.
He’d like to see the college restored to its former glory, but says hand-in-hand with this is a review of the elementary and secondary school system.
Jaque also prioritizes stabilizing the slope of the Slave River bank to protect the community’s infrastructure, working with leaders to push for a road through Wood Buffalo National Park, and revitalizing the local economy by encouraging private sector development, particularly in the tourism industry.
Finally, he is strongly opposed to the Taltson hydro expansion, saying the power should stay in the South Slave and not support Yellowknife and the mines in the north. “That $1.1 billion could be spent transitioning all of the communities to modern hybrid diesels that work with solar and wind generation,” he said.
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: Don Jaque’s Facebook page
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on August 24, 2019. The transcript has been edited for length.
Don Jaque: I ran a newspaper in the Northwest Territories and I ran multiple businesses for close to 40 years. And I’m getting to the point where I’m getting close to retirement, but I always felt as I wound down my time in the newspaper that there were a lot of things still undone. I wrote so many editorials, and I made so many plans for solutions for issues and challenges faced in the Northwest Territories.
I know there are a lot of things that need to be done. I know there are a lot of solutions that I could provide for them. I basically have many of them mapped out already. And so I want to execute on that. I want to offer my services and my abilities to be able to make better decisions about the things we do in government and about our economy and, certainly in Fort Smith, about how the community is evolving.
Sarah Pruys: So what are some of the specific things in Fort Smith that you would like to address during your time as MLA, if elected?
Well, I think that Fort Smith is in terrible shape.
I think that the community is on a slippery slope; it’s being diminished substantively. And we have to fight that and the community is simply not doing that.
I don’t think we’ve had good leadership for some time. No, I shouldn’t say “good leadership.” We’ve had good leadership in some ways but there have been things that have been missing that have led to problems that we’re now facing. And so I think that what we have to do as a community is we have to wake up to that: we have to energize and we have to unite and we have to fight. We’ve been fragmented, we’ve been polarized and that has made us weak and vulnerable. And we’re losing things.
The headquarters of the college and the academic programs that Yellowknife was trying to take away as a part of the polytechnic university – that’s certainly a major thing. It’s a territorial issue, but it’s very much a Fort Smith issue. It’s not being done well, it’s not being done right. Certainly there is the best of intentions, and there are some good ideas there, but there are problems in terms of how it is being done. Certainly the part where the communities are not involved in the process.
And then with healthcare, similar things: our wait times are increasing, our quality of healthcare is being challenged because we can’t keep local doctors. And that, again, is a territory-wide issue. It’s a systemic issue. And we need to fix that. We have to evolve as a community, find alternatives for the economy and for growth, so that there’s a quality of life there. All of that as possible. All of that can be done, if we were to work together. And that’s going to be my number-one thing that I’m going to strive for, is to work with other community leaders to make Fort Smith a better place.
So you mentioned the college. I think the most recent thing that the current government’s come out with is that it’s not so much going to be physical campuses everywhere, but they’re going to do more online campuses. But that said, there’s still going to need to be a president’s office somewhere and it seems you’re saying this should be in Fort Smith.
Well, let’s talk about how the polytechnic university should evolve. Firstly, we have a problem graduating our own young people from high school and that has to be dealt with. The college campus in Fort Smith has been the biggest high school in the Northwest Territories. In order for people to get into higher education, and this includes with the trades, almost all of the students – or many, many of the students – have to take upgrading to bring their education up to standard in order to be able to go to those classes. That is a significant problem, that has to be dealt with, and that is part and parcel of any evolution to a polytechnic university. So I think we have to address that and it’s not being addressed at this time.
What specifically needs to be done there?
Well, if I told you that I’d be trying to take over our education minister’s job. Caroline Cochrane has said that herself recently, she’s identified the fact that there are serious problems with K to 12. And I’ve worked with the college over the years, I’ve been a part of the board of governors and I’ve played an active role, certainly as a journalist, in doing story after story after story about how the college is run.
It’s gone downhill in the last decade, and the college’s ability to deliver good programming has slipped significantly. I think that’s a problem with the bureaucracy in Yellowknife. I think the college has to be independent of the bureaucracy. I think that’s one of the most important things that has to happen in a discussion about how to form a polytechnic university.
So would it be fair to summarize your views on the college by saying you think the community should be much more involved and the government should be much more hands-off moving forward in the process, wherever this college evolves?
Well, in terms of the community, Fort Smith has to unite and fight. And I think the fight for the college – to keep it, or to keep an important part of it, and for Fort Smith to continue to have an important role in all of that – is only going to happen if Fort Smith fights for it. And that can only happen if Fort Smith starts working together as a community.
So that’s my number one priority, to foster that. To try to get more people engaged and involved and to energize our community. I think that’s my job one.
When you’re saying fighting to keep the college, what kind of college are you fighting to keep? As it is now, with the trade centre and the president’s office based here?
Well, I think it’s much more than that. I think that we’ve had amazing educators over the last two decades, who have evolved the college. We have multiple programs that have had affiliations with universities in the south, they have been degree granting programs. And that was true in education. That was true in social services. That was true in the resource training program. And I’m very proud of what the educators of the past have done there. And I think right now what’s happening is we’re throwing all of that away, and that’s a very sad thing. That is not right, it should not be done.
What we want to do is we want to try to retain the good things of what have been there. And as I said, I put the blame squarely on the bureaucracy for the last 10 years: we’ve had two colleagues, presidents, fired. Why has there been a deterioration of the programming quality at that college? There was no accountability for that. And so those are mistakes that have to be assessed, analyzed, and dealt with.
And if we go ahead and build a polytechnic university without going through that exercise, we’re building a house on sand. It will have a weak foundation and the same problems will reoccur. So I think there’s work to be done there and I think that the community of Fort Smith has a very important role in all of that. What we have to do is we have to start working together in order to accomplish those things in order to make our community better.
You mentioned working together quite a few times already. I know when we talked previously, you said one of the first things you would want to do would be to get all the leaders in town together. Would you like to tell me more about that plan?
One of the first things I would like to do after the election, if the people of Fort Smith choose me, is to have a community leaders’ meeting to talk about what we can do together. We will talk about priorities, we will talk about how often we would meet. And I would like to see us have common goals that we can tackle. I would like to see us working together.
One of the things leaders in town are already all working toward is the possible road through Wood Buffalo National Park. Can we chat through your views on that?
I would love to see a road south. I would love to see a connection between Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan because our communities are so bound together.
To be able to have a shortcut through a national park to connect to Garden River and Fort Vermilion would be awesome. Especially in these times of climate change and warmer winters, there’s the potential there that they might not be able to have an ice road that would be able to get fuel trucks into the community and have heating oil for their homes in winter and things like that. So a permanent all-weather road is really important for them.
Hay River would benefit because there would be a loop road and it would enhance tourism. Peace River and High Level would benefit as well with enhanced tourism. It would open up a new part of Wood Buffalo National Park, which would be incredible, wonderful country.
Now, one thing I haven’t so-much heard leaders in Fort Smith discussing very often, but you bring up time and time again, is the stability of the slope along the Slave River – and some of our infrastructure that’s at risk if that slope were to collapse if we had another major landslide in town.
in the early 1980s there was a study done and the engineers determined that there was a way to stabilize the bank. Instead of doing that work they tried something else that didn’t work. Instead of following what the engineers had laid out, in the Golder Brawner report that was done, what they did was set up a setback line and so they moved all the houses out and you can’t be anywhere close to the high-water mark. And so it just sort-of kicked the can down the road. And nothing has been done since. And so successive administrations and councils at the town have ignored it.
But it’s happening. There’s been millions of tonnes of massive blocks of earth move and are still in motion, actually. Just close to the downtown core that has happened over the course of the summer. It’s an unsafe situation that MACA [the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs] is ignoring at their peril, because they haven’t even blocked the area off for quads to go down there. Young people go down there to play. It’s really, really unfortunate that they are not doing due diligence there.
If that were able to be stabilized, it would obviously greatly improve our situation with a key part of our community, the downtown core: to be able to stabilize that bank and extend the stability of it for decades, maybe even hundreds of years by doing the right thing. A remediation program is definitely required, that’s something that has to be done. Fort Smith has to get that done, there’s no question about that.
The local economy – you said before you think a lot can be done, especially within the private sector, to revitalize Fort Smith.
Well, I’ve been in business in Fort Smith and Yellowknife for 40 years. And so for one thing, I know what it’s like to struggle, to have severe challenges in a small community trying to run a small business. And I know how it’s different in Yellowknife, because there’s more opportunities there and because you’re closer to the market and especially to the government people who make decisions. That’s always a struggle, it’s always a fight that the businesses in small communities face.
So I know the dynamic that happens with business. And I know what has to be done. Fort Smith used to be the capital, and then it became a regional centre, and now the regional centre is gradually ebbing away. What we need to do is add a private-sector component to the economy in Fort Smith. I know that can be done. I know exactly how to do it.
So what exactly can be done?
Well, it’s complex and detailed and it’s multifaceted. I own a marketing company and so I know exactly what has to be done to establish a tourism industry in Fort Smith. And again, it would be a territorial thing, the Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment, it’s their job to do. It would be one of the things along with education and jobs for young people that our leaders’ committee would talk about.
So for example, consider what might happen if the whooping crane nesting area had a camera in a blind, a telescope that could take pictures in a blind a ways away from one of the whooping crane nests, where people could come and see the whooping crane chicks being born. And let’s say maybe we’d figure out a way to put a live camera, a web-based camera, so that it could be broadcast worldwide. I think that people would come. I just think that people would, pardon the pun, flock to see those baby chicks being born. The Japanese consider cranes to be sacred, that’s part of their culture. So just look at that one market for example, that market we could promote to.
Yellowknife had 115,000 tourists last year – aurora and other types of tourism. Fort Smith has the pelicans, the rapids, the buffalo, a national park, the whooping cranes, the dark sky – all kinds of amazing things. And we have no tourism.
So right there is something that I think is an easy get in terms of the economy. The challenge would be how fast you would want it to evolve and develop. And I forgot to mention Aboriginal culture, because that would be, I think, sought after by visitors if it was properly offered.
I was at meetings a couple years ago, when all the key leaders in town and businesses and operators came together to discuss how we could bring more tourism to the community. All of the same kinds of great ideas for businesses were thrown around but none of them really ever got off the ground, because there weren’t people here willing to take that risk to try and start those up. How do we go about encouraging those businesses to start up and supporting them in the first place?
In my 39 years in business in Fort Smith, I hired, recruited, and trained over 500 people. Many of them stayed in Fort Smith. I sought out the very best people from across the country to work in my different businesses. So of those people, right now, three of them are on town council. And two of them have recently been the last two fire chiefs in town. These are people that put down roots in Fort Smith, and they are raising families. These are brilliant, wonderful people. And I’m so proud of that part of what I have contributed.
It’s similar with tourists. I think that the same kinds of things about Fort Smith that would attract doctors and other medical professionals to come and stay there for years, are the same kinds of reasons that would attract tourists to come there. It’s a special place and you have to seek out the right kind of people who are going to mesh with the kind of life that’s there and the kinds of experiences that are there. All of that is eminently doable.
I guess the tricky part for people starting up these businesses is finding the money and the time to do it. How do they go about just putting themselves out there when there’s not much of a tourism industry here, except for the special events like Paddlefest or Dark Sky?
Well, I think what you’re talking about is something that’s a ways down the road. I would say that’s 10 years away. In actual fact, you wouldn’t want a huge number of tourists to be showing up in a small town in the North right away because you have to gradually evolve your infrastructure and your services and things like that. So restaurants and motels and crafts and outfitters and guides and things like that, things that people can do, experiences.
But that’s a different kind of tourism than the kind I’m talking about. I’m talking about self-directed tourism. And that’s essentially what you have here in Wood Buffalo National Park: you give people a brochure, you tell them what they’re going to experience, and you send them off, and there’s trails and special things they can go and see and there’s signs to guide them. That’s self-directed tourism and that’s the kind of thing that we need to do to start it off.
So how does that relate to people starting businesses in town then?
It’s a “build it and they will come,” but it’s the kind of thing that has to be done gradually.
I have one more thing I wanted to mention and that is that I am adamantly opposed to the plan to expand the Taltson dam in order to run power to Yellowknife under Great Slave Lake and then into the Slave Geological Province, where it would be offered as cheap power to stimulate the growth of mines and of course grow the Yellowknife economy.
I don’t like that plan because I think that power should be used in the South Slave.
I belong to a group that is involved with politics and basic issues of humanity. And that’s one of the positions that this group has taken. Spending $1.1 billion to run that power into the Slave Geological Province to sell it cheap to mines is just not an acceptable approach. The mines should be self-sustaining. There’s ways to generate power out there in the tundra, that has been shown.
These mines are owned by multinational corporations, and I believe a recent story in CBC talks about how the main proponent is owned by the Chinese, which means probably the Chinese government. So we’re going to build roads across caribou migration routes, and that’s going to cost a billion, and we’re going to spend another $1.1 billion taking the power from the Taltson dam under the lake to Yellowknife and then out into the Slave Geological Province to stimulate these mines? This is just really, really terrible math.
What we need to do because of climate change is we need to have a whole new approach to what’s happening with our energy generation. That $1.1 billion could be spent transitioning all of the communities to modern hybrid diesels that work with solar and wind generation, and with elements of storage. The new way to go is using micro grids and not spending fortunes on long-distance power lines.