NWT Election 2019: Rylund Johnson’s Yellowknife North interview

Last modified: September 5, 2019 at 12:31pm

Rylund Johnson hopes to be the next MLA for Yellowknife North.

Johnson, a lawyer and co-founder of non-profit Makerspace YK, is running a campaign based on the slogan: “Smart policies. Radical honesty.”

Saying lawyers make “the most effective legislators,” Johnson told Cabin Radio he will work to reduce government “doublespeak” and provide more transparent, collaborative governance.


While supporting the Taltson hydro expansion, Johnson said such “mega-infrastructure” projects require much closer scrutiny than he feels they are currently receiving. He wants the territorial government to look at doing more to introduce universal daycare and a form of guaranteed liveable income.

Stating a firm belief that the new polytechnic university should call Yellowknife home, Johnson said politicians should accept that “there’s no situation in which Yellowknife’s thriving and the communities do not get the benefits or vice versa.”

Below, find a transcript of the full interview.

Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Johnson’s interview is to be broadcast on September 6.

More information: Rylund Johnson’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: Why did you become a candidate?

Rylund Johnson: I became a candidate for Yellowknife North largely in working with government and developing legislation, being disappointed in this last government’s mandate, and especially the implementation and deliverable aspect of it.


I believe I’m going to go in there and – lawyers, we have this unique ability to look at a piece of legislation and right away know the changes we’d make. I think we’re one of the most effective legislators, I also inherently believe the GNWT needs to be way more results-oriented, way more data-oriented. I want to mandate with percentages in it, you know, are we talking about reducing the cost of living? OK, by 5 percent? By 10 percent? Can we even do that? Are we just trying to maintain and freeze the cost of living, you know, given all of the other economic inputs that go into it?

I think, looking through that mandate, and looking through how the GNWT has been talking, it’s becoming more and more platitudes. And it’s allowing the government to go in and say, “Oh yeah, we checked that off.” But then when you look down and you start looking at the stats, you go, “Actually, you accomplished nothing other than creating more bureaucratic hurdles, and more programming that ultimately did not deliver what it was designed to do.”

At the very top of your website, there is a phrase that interests me. “Radical honesty.” What does that mean?

Yeah, so radical honesty is the second half of my platform. First off, I believe in smart policies. I’m a policy wonk at the end of the day, I worked at government, I’m a lawyer, I think about politics all day. The second half is I believe we need to start doing politics differently, and I’m calling that radical honesty. I don’t want our ministers to be able to go in and give their ministers’ statements and it be hard to pin down what they’re saying. I think we need ministers and MLAs who are willing to own their mistakes and say, “Look, we didn’t do this.”

I think more and more of our language around politics, not just in the NWT but globally, is becoming kind-of this doublespeak, or it’s hard to figure out what exactly our politicians are saying or doing.

Radical honesty is just a policy and a principle I live my life by. When I make mistakes, I own them. I am completely transparent in everything I do. I’m always willing to be quoted by media. Everything I do is out there. And I want the people to know who they’re elected.

As one MLA – potentially – how might you effect that change?

How might I effect the change of radical honesty?

Among the wider government.

So I also believe that the GNWT right now has sacrificed supervision by ministers and deputy ministers which has stifled the creativity of many of our bureaucrats.

Right now, there’s a culture at the GNWT – having worked there – of many people either being overworked or just checking in and checking out with their paycheque. I think allowing people to explore their ideas, allowing room for our professionals to use evidence-based decision-making, and supporting our bureaucrats when they come up with a program that is implementable and has good ideas… not, you know, simply going through the chain of approvals till it gets watered down or, once again, it’s a minister not bringing us deliverable stats.

So I want everyone at the GNWT to feel free to talk to media, to feel free to talk about what they’re doing and have opinions. Right now, I believe often those opinions are stifled down because we want too much control by our MLAs when we should be handing them deliverables.

Talking about evidence-based decisions, what would be an example of a case where an evidence-based decision was not taken?

Yeah, so right now, I think the GNWT has… we’ve been pushing forward all of these mega-infrastructure projects and the rhetoric around them is often misguided or misleading.

I want a complete assessment of, you know, do we need Taltson? When is it happening? What is it going to cost? And not this just blind, “This is the solution to everything.” Because it’s not the solution to all our problems, we know that.

As the diamond mines close, and whether it’s the Mackenzie Valley or the Slave Geological road – these mega infrastructure projects are not the silver bullet that our MLAs keeps saying they are.

Now we need to be able to step back and… I understand why that’s happening. It’s happening because we want to convince the feds to pay for them. But often it’s at the expense of, you know, the public not having full and frank, honest facts about what is going into these projects. And that’s just one example of multiple at the GNWT level.

Let’s stick with that example. Are those projects worth doing?

So right now, I think the best bang for our buck is Taltson at approximately ten-to-one federal funding. It also means we’re going to meet our greenhouse gas emissions targets, it also means any new mines that open up have access to clean energy. I think that’s our number-one priority in regards to those multi-infrastructure projects.

The Slave Geological Province, I think, is being stated as if this is going to completely, you know, save the GNWT economy, when in reality, you know, we’re 10 years away from any new mine really opening up and we have this period where we need to diversify our economy in a meaningful way, such that we’re not completely reliant on resource extraction going forward.

So I’m supportive of that project but it’s like everything in GNWT politics, it’s what is that level of federal funding at? Right now, Taltson is the best bang for our buck.

What one smart policy change could the GNWT make to diversify its economy in that time, that it hasn’t made already?

I’m fully supportive of the university in Yellowknife. I believe it needs to be arm’s-length. I don’t want to just see Aurora College rebranded.

I think that university has the potential to inspire northerners and the potential to attract international students. The beautiful thing about international students is that they pay higher tuition rates, and then it can be a for-profit university with a degree of academic freedom that is fundamental to research.

I also think we have so many unique specialties here in the North. If we’re going to focus on trades, well, we have green northern building. If there’s ever a specialized area of building, it’s in the North, and I think that university can be a hub that inspires so many people in the North to really realize their full potential and allow us to export knowledge.

Right now we have this problem where some of our main industries are largely just living off government contracts and don’t go outside of the territory to compete. I believe we can develop our industries, whether it be construction, whether it be manufacturing, whether it be agriculture, to compete outside of the territory, and I’d like to see that. I think the university is the first step to doing that.

The moment you called it “the university in Yellowknife” I could hear our listeners in Fort Smith sharpening implements. Do you see it as a Yellowknife university?

Absolutely. I see it as a Yellowknife university with a new campus, a beautiful building that is… you know, we go to trade conferences and we attract tourism and we attract foreign workers, we attract new immigrants, we can pull foreign nationals with visas using this university as a backbone.

Listeners might wonder at that point, “OK, is this going to be an MLA then that’s therefore just going to work for Yellowknife and is going to lose sight of maybe a territorial-level of diplomacy here? Other MLAs tiptoe around that and are very careful not to say this is a Yellowknife university, because they want to preserve a working relationship between the communities.

I understand why that binary has happened of Yellowknife MLAs versus community MLAs. I think it’s been unfortunate at times for Yellowknife MLAs to not see the bigger picture. There’s no situation in which Yellowknife’s thriving and the communities do not get the benefits or vice versa.

I also see the GNWT as not delivering the services to the communities that it needs to. I think our Indigenous governments and our municipal governments are the future. I believe we need to start offloading powers to our Indigenous governments, including the funding and negotiating to get that federal funding to our Indigenous governments, so that they can take control of their own governance. And we can end this “Yellowknife versus the communities.”

It should be the GNWT working with Indigenous governments in the communities to make sure the whole territory succeeds together.

Offloading powers and offloading funding would mean offloading staff, eventually, wouldn’t it?

Yeah, that’s correct. And I think this is where the big hurdle in self-government and land-claim agreements is right now.

We have the executive, Indigenous Affairs, going out, sitting at these negotiating tables for years. And then – I’ve seen it myself in government – the first glimpse we get is one of these agreements-in-principle. Every single department says, “Well, this is our jurisdiction, oh, this isn’t how we’re currently doing it.” And it just roadblocks the process.

Ultimately, the GNWT has to understand that self-government means giving away some of its authority. And then over time, that will mean less positions at the GNWT or those positions in the regions being taken on by Indigenous governments.

Your district, like most in the NWT, is full of GNWT workers. Some of them might have just raised eyebrows that they, as turkeys, may have been just told to vote for Christmas.

I’m not sure I understand that expression, Ollie.

That you basically just told people to vote for you and they may lose their jobs.

No, I mean, right now we have a collective bargaining agreement. This isn’t something… reconciliation with our Indigenous governments isn’t something that’s happening anytime soon.

If you have experience here in the North, I don’t think it matters at the end of the day, whether it’s the Tłı̨chǫ Government signing your paycheque or the GNWT signing your paycheque. Also Yellowknife’s a large exception to that. Yellowknife will always be the hub of the Territories and, first and foremost, government.

OK. Let’s look at some social issues here. Let’s talk about universal daycare and guaranteed income, both of which are found in your platform. Tell us more about why you believe those could and should be afforded by the NWT.

Yeah, so I’m gonna start with universal daycare. Right now it’s approximately $1,000 a month to get your child in daycare. I really like what the GNWT did with pre-kindergarten, I think it was a great idea. I would like to see that expanded.

I also think there needs to be a reframing of why universal daycare is a good idea. Consistent studies have shown, using largely Quebec, which has had $10 a day daycare for years, that every dollar invested in universal daycare gives us about $1 and a half back. Some people claim it’s $3. It gives us money back in GDP, because it allows people to enter the workforce.

Right now, if you’re a single mother, it doesn’t make sense for you to enter the workforce when you have to then pay $1,000 a month for daycare. This combined with the model right now… there’s long wait times and it’s simply not meeting the demand for daycare services. So I believe that has the potential to open up a huge swath of employment in the labour shortage, which is currently going on.

And just on that point, the 2015 feasibility study for universal daycare said it was going to take 229 additional staff and a 56 percent increase in spaces for it to be viable to the same extent as Quebec. Where are we going to make that happen?

OK, so the important thing to distinguish in that study is that there’s a fundamental difference between Yellowknife’s daycare scene and each of the communities. Those positions in the communities, we’re going to have to look at and they’re going to have to look differently.

I think this has been something the GNWT has failed on consistently and it furthers that Yellowknife versus the communities mentality. You know, in a community where there’s only going to be three kids in daycare, it doesn’t make sense to build a new centre and hire full-time GNWT staff. So each community is going to have to look at how they want to do that. And I think this is a perfect case for the GNWT to once again offload that authority to Indigenous governments.

In Yellowknife the case is very much different. The feasibility of doing Yellowknife universal daycare, where there already are systems and there’s a huge waitlist, and there’s a demand, and there’s a labour shortage, makes sense by every metric.

Talk to me about the implementation of guaranteed income.

Yeah, I think the Northwest Territories is 100 percent set up for a guaranteed liveable income, also called a universal basic income, you know, depending how universal or basic it is.

I think we should start with pilot projects. We have communities with a high rate of people on income assistance, we have a very convoluted system of multiple federal and territorial programs competing and kind-of overlapping, I think we’re in a great position to renegotiate with the federal government to say, “All right, let’s combine these. Let’s run a guaranteed liveable income pilot project.”

Let’s get the data. Does it get people back to work? Does it save money over a five-year time period? Does it increase, you know, health, education? And I believe it will. Time after time it’s shown – whether it was Mincome, a pilot project that happened in Manitoba in the 60s, or the limited data we have in Ontario before idiot Doug Ford shut it down – we know that this universal basic income or guaranteed liveable income is a permanent solution to poverty.

And I think our government has lost some of its grand ideas. One can be: we can eliminate poverty in the Northwest Territories. Poverty is a metric, you know, it’s “anyone living below the poverty line is poor.” And by topping them up with no-strings-attached cash and, most importantly, incentives to keep working… the pilot project in Ontario had a tiered system for every dollar you earn, you get to keep a percentage up until you are above the poverty line, which does encourage you to work.

Right now we have numerous programs, many of which are creating disincentives to enter the labour market, or they’re creating incentives to go take under-the-table work, which we don’t get the tax on, and then it doesn’t pay for the programming.

In the same sentence there you said no-strings-attached cash and incentives to work, which sound to me mutually exclusive.

I mean no-strings-attached cash and then, if you are living below the poverty line and you go get a job, you take the first 50 cents on every dollar you earn, you get to keep. So you can actually get up. And then it tiers on until you are above the poverty line earning complete income.

Right now what happens often with income assistance is you have to go into job training or you are forced into a position as soon as it becomes available. And what’s shown is that getting people into the labour market not on their own terms and conditions, when they haven’t dealt with their trauma, addictions, the underlying causes of their poverty, is not a permanent solution. It’s a band-aid solution, which means they eventually lose that job and end up back on income assistance.

A universal basic income or guaranteed liveable income ensures those people enter the labour market on their own time and are given enough funding to ensure they’re not living in poverty while they improve their lives.

People have a limited mental bandwidth. And when you’re living in poverty, you’re working actually twice as hard. There’s this bizarre idea that the poor are lazy but, in fact, they’re working twice as hard as anyone just to survive. And the idea that you’re going to go into resume training, and you know, process all that information, and then go be a competent worker, when you’re struggling to put food on the table just simply isn’t true.

We must solve that problem first, before you can enter the labour market and maintain a job and have some pride in the work you’re doing.

We don’t have too long left so you’ll excuse me if I hop across themes a little here. Is the NWT regulatory regime holding back development?

Yes, absolutely.

In 2015, all of the candidates were talking about cutting red tape and the Federation of Independent Businesses gave us an F on the report card. Here we are four years later, we have an F on the report card. We absolutely don’t measure duplication in regulations. We have no sense of economic measurement.

I see it time and time again, whether at the municipal level or the territorial level – the government asking for things and not giving thought to what that actually costs a business. You know, asking for a set of drawings at the municipal level costs a person thousands of dollars and may then result in them not implementing that program.

I myself went through the process of becoming a tourism operator this year, I questioned the whole meaning of the Tourism Act. The Tourism Act, you’d think, would be to encourage tourism, but my experience was it just limited what I was allowed to do and made it a hassle for me to run a small tourism operater business.

Time and time again, the GNWT regulatory system has been inflexible. I think there are easy fixes to that. One is losing some of those regulations and two is a simple clause that allows bureaucrats to assess the economic value of what they’re asking for, and to provide exceptions to the regulation.

Do you believe that applies to environmental regulation to the same extent that it applied to your examples from business regulation?

We love to talk about environment versus economy and that’s just simply a false binary.

The NWT, more so than anyone, we’re sitting right by Giant Mine – a billion-dollar remediation project that shows that improper environmental regulation costs us money in the long term.

I absolutely support our land and water boards, I think we need to get a hold of the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act, get rid of that federal level of bureaucracy and waiting for their ministers to approve things. And then we need to work with our boards.

I absolutely believe in our co-management system. It has taken some time to get things right and there has been some understandable, you know, grief from the mining industry in these boards having duplicated processes and overlapping. I think we need to get all the boards together, get rid of some of that duplication.

But to say that we’re going to, you know, allow lax environmental laws, as if that will promote the economy, simply is not true. It just means that the back end, the GNWT, won’t hold adequate security to remediate these projects.

What personal qualities do you feel that you would bring to the role of MLA that would help you get some of these things done with colleagues over the next four years?

I am a lawyer. I think lawyers make the best legislators. I have a stack of private member bills ready to go. I know changes I want to see in legislation.

I also am more than willing to work with MLAs both in Yellowknife and in the communities. I think time and time again, we see our MLAs, you know, holding how the person voted on the last issue into the next thing. As soon as the vote’s over you restart, you form those relationships, and you try to build consensus. I’m not one to go into government and you know, bang my head against the wall for four years.

I want to create a mandate. And then I want to work together to accomplish that mandate. And if some of the things I want don’t get in it, I’m not going to fight it. I’m going to work together to ensure that the GNWT as a whole accomplishes a mandate with measurable results, data, and statistics, and it gets properly implemented.