Incumbent RJ Simpson is to be acclaimed as MLA in Hay River North, with no opponent running.
Simpson believes the Mackenzie Valley Highway would be a “game changer” not necessarily for heavy industry, but as a means of promoting economic diversification through the tourism sector.
Foreseeing “a long gap, maybe decades” where the NWT has no major operational mine, Simpson advocated for continuing to support mining and exploration but significantly increasing efforts to diversify the economy.
In Hay River, he wants to push for land development to be made easier.
Simpson described dissatisfaction with the workings of government during his first four-year term, saying: “There seems to be a notion right now that the role of government is to rule as opposed to serve the public.”
He added: “I’m going put my name forward for premier because it’s time for a change. I don’t want to go another four years through the same system that we’ve been through.”
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Simpson’s interview air date is September 16.
More information: RJ Simpson’s Facebook campaign page
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on September 6, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sarah Pruys: So over your last term, what would you say are some of the highlights of things that you’ve accomplished both at the regional level and at the territorial level?
RJ Simpson: Well, coming into the assembly as a brand new member with little political experience, everything kind of feels like a highlight, because everything was brand new.
But if I look back, some of the most rewarding stuff I did was committee work when you were looking at legislation, and we put a lot of hours into making some pieces of legislation better. Things like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which a lot of people aren’t too concerned about. I know I wasn’t very familiar with it when we first began, but that’s something that we put a lot of time into and we really improved, and I think that people in the territory will see the effects of that.
We spent a lot of time on the cannabis legislation, we renewed the human rights legislation, we spent a long time on the Mineral Resources Act. And I think that kind of work is really rewarding because, when we’re sitting in those committee rooms for hours and days on end, poring over this information and documents, you know, we really dig down into them and identify areas where they can be improved. And I think that by doing that, the impacts are going to be felt by the public, and by industry, and by the territory as a whole. So, that stuff is all very rewarding.
The constituent issues too were also rewarding. Sometimes they’re very frustrating, because the government doesn’t want to budge on certain things, but when you can actually sit down with someone and help them get their issue resolved, it’s a great feeling. And I guess that’s probably the thing I like most about the job.
Run through some of the highlights of your platform.
When I ran in 2015, I went door-to-door and I used that to build a platform. I talked to people and I found out what was on their mind and what their concerns were and I amalgamated all that into platform. I was focusing then on economy, education, mental health, and seniors’ housing.
A lot of the stuff I’m talking about now is the same, because a lot of those issues aren’t resolved. But having done this for four years now, I know quite a bit more and I can maybe pose a little more in terms of solutions as well.
So everything that we do is important. There’s issues with health care, there’s issues with access to justice, there’s issues with everything. And I realized that as a single person, I can’t necessarily fix everything. And so I’m going to focus on a few areas, but still work on everything. But my areas of focus in the next assembly are going to be economy, education, and governance. Keep in mind, there are health issues, especially mental health issues and access to justice issues, issues like climate change, and everything else that goes along with it.
Let’s talk little bit more about those top three: economy, education, and governance. You said you want to be more solutions-based this time around now that you’ve got a better grasp on those issues. On the economy, what would you like to see happen there?
Resource extraction industries have been the backbone of the economy for generations now and I put my support for them on the record a number of times, but I think we have to come to terms with the fact that those days are coming to an end. And there’s nothing on the horizon that is going to replace the current mines that we have. So in the mining sector, Ekati, Diavik, and Gahcho Kue will all likely close in the next eight years.
We’re talking about spending billions of dollars to build the Slave Geological Province road and expand Taltson but we haven’t addressed the regulatory and land access issues that are the real reason our industry is falling behind while the Yukon and Nunavut mine sectors are booming. So there’s going to be a long gap, maybe decades, where we don’t have a major mine in the territory.
And in terms of oil and gas, we may never see that industry recover. In order for it to become economical to produce, we probably need the Mackenzie Valley Highway, and again that’s billions of dollars, and decades in the future, and who knows what the demand for oil and gas is going to be then. While I believe strongly that we still need to encourage these industries, we can’t rely on them in the near term, and so we have to focus on diversification.
To do that we need to do a better job of supporting northern businesses and keeping money in the North. We talked about this in the legislature a number of times. The government spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on infrastructure and we need to keep that in the North, and we haven’t been doing it, there hasn’t been the political will from cabinet to do it. And this is one way to build capacity, keep people out of social housing, keep people off income assistance, and keep money in the territory.
The tourist industry is another one that people always talk about. It’s growing and it’s big, but it has primarily been centred in Yellowknife. You know, if you look at the explosion of tourism in Tuk, that gives hope to the rest of the territory. But if you really want to capitalize on that, I think what we need is the Mackenzie Valley Highway, so that when people want to go up to Tuk, they don’t drive up through the Yukon and then back down through the Yukon, they’re coming through the Northwest Territories. And I think that would be a game changer for the territory and would provide a lot of sustainable economy in communities up and down the valley.
Hay River’s in a bit of a unique position with its economy. I’m sure you’ve seen the community plan estimating the population could grow to 5,000 or 6,000 people in the next five years with the Pine Point Mine, the new long-term care home, the new fish plant, and the pellet mill. As an MLA, what kind of support do you offer the community if it goes through this period of major growth?
The big issue in Hay River right now, there’s a number of issues of course, but one of the major issues is the housing market. There is no land available for developments so there are limited places to rent and the rents are high, and that stunts the economy. And you can’t even fill positions that are available because people don’t want to move to town and buy a house right off the bat, they want to be able to rent somewhere and there’s just nowhere to rent.
So I’ve been pushing for years now for the government to help fund some of this land development. There’s definitely a business case for it. You mentioned that there is the long-term care facility, there’s the pellet mill, all of this industry that will be happening within the next few years. And so that land that is developed will sell and that will bring people into the territory. And so the town, they just need help from the territory. They don’t need a hand-out, they just need the GNWT to be on board, because this is going to benefit everyone. If we have more housing here, people will move to Hay River, and for every person that moves in the territory, the GNWT gets $35,000 in transfer funding. So if you add a couple hundred people, you’re looking at millions and millions of dollars go into the GNWT. So there just needs to be the political will, from cabinet, to entertain this plan.
Going back to your platform, education was the second thing. The current education minister is pushing for reform from the K to 12 level. Where do you stand on that? Where do you see the issues in education?
I think education is the most powerful tool we have to change the fortunes of the territory and the best way to insulate ourselves against the boom and bust of the mining and oil and gas industries and to reduce our dependence on government. But we need to make a concerted effort to provide better education so that the future generations will fare better than us. And sometimes that’s not something politicians want to do because they want results in this term.
But we need to start setting the foundation so that in 20 years, when kids are graduating, they’re actually graduating with a Grade 12 education. And this is starting with prenatal care, continuing through early childhood right to Grade 12 into post-secondary, and adult education as well for the people who didn’t get the education that they should have gotten in K to 12.
We all complain that the government and the mines don’t hire enough northerners and they seem to unable or unwilling to fix that. So what we need to do is flood the labour market with educated and qualified northerners so we begin to take over those positions of power, so that we’re the ones doing the hiring, not executives from Australia or senior bureaucrats from Ontario.
We have to start giving people the educational foundation they need so that they can become journeymen and accountants and lawyers and engineers and other professionals, so we can grow northern businesses. We need to give them the foundation to become doctors and nurses and teachers and social workers so that northerners can provide services to northerners, instead of being at the mercy of a southern workforce that doesn’t necessarily know the North and often doesn’t intend to stay in the North.
So what’s the government’s role in supporting education throughout a person’s life?
It’s the government’s role to deliver education. And so I think that there just needs to be a focus on this. If you have a degree or you’re a journeyman, you probably don’t need social housing or a lot of other social services. So the government isn’t spending money on you and you’re probably contributing to the economy, which means there’s more money to provide better social services to other people who need them.
So it’s worth the government’s time to do this. And I believe that it’s a government duty to provide quality education, to free people from government dependence. Education is freedom. And I think we can do this.
But what we need to do is promote education so that people actually see the value in it. We can have an adequate number of teachers in schools, but if kids aren’t showing up to school, they’re not going to get educated. So we need to promote education and we need to partner with communities and Indigenous governments in the promotion and the delivery of education. Because every time education initiatives have been successful, it’s because there have been those partnerships in place.
Governance was the last thing you mentioned on your list of top things. Can you expand on that?
There needs to be a change in the attitude of government.
There seems to be a notion right now that the role of government is to rule as opposed to serve the public. And I’m not putting this on the public service. This is an attitude that’s been perpetrated at the top. It’s the old boys’ club mentality that everyone is tired of. I’ve seen it in the way that some ministers and senior bureaucrats operate. There needs to be more respect shown to the public, to Indigenous governments, to communities, to regular MLAs, to standing committees, to small business, and even to industry.
There’s a notion that the government is in the pocket of industry, but you just have to look at how the Mineral Resources Act was developed and you can see that industry was shut out of there so you can see that’s not the case.
I also hate saying this sort of cliche, but we need to break down silos within government. Through my work with committees, I saw there was often a complete lack of coordination between departments, it was like the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, and sometimes didn’t even care. And again, I’m not blaming the public service. This is how some types of premier and cabinet structure the government, it’s a political decision.
And we can change it if we really want to and we can get everyone working together and moving in the same direction. And I think when you talk about government, you also have to talk about our government-to-government relationships and the land claims. And there are people who are alive now who know nothing but negotiations. You know, it’s unreasonable that these negotiations go on for decades and for generations. And as I travelled around the territory, I’ve seen a lot of young people who are becoming leaders and some who are already leaders and I think that they have a different way of thinking about things. And I think that they’re tired of nothing but negotiations. And I think that we can change the way the government thinks.
The government wants to hold on to powers, that’s often a complaint from from Indigenous governments. Well, I think that we need to change that way of thinking. I think that with new leadership in the GNWT and some of the new ideas coming out of Indigenous governments, we can get these things settled, because it’s in everyone’s best interest to settle claims.
To change the mindset, which is really what’s behind the governance issue, that’s quite a big task. What are you specifically going to do in terms of that if re-elected? How do you have those conversations? And how do you encourage people to have those hard conversations?
I think it has to come from the top. So it has to be the premier, it has to be cabinet to make a concerted effort to change that mentality.
Do you have any interest in those positions, either being in cabinet or being premier?
I’m going put my name forward for premier because it’s time for a change. I don’t want to go another four years through the same system that we’ve been through.
You also mentioned healthcare and climate change as other issues. Healthcare in particular has gotten a lot of attention in Hay River lately and it’s definitely a territorial issue. What are your thoughts on improving healthcare across the territory?
You’re right, healthcare in Hay River is a major issue. And I didn’t know that would be the biggest issue of my term when I became MLA, but I’ve heard more about healthcare than than anything else. To be frank, I’ve heard horror stories. And I’ve heard people who are going to suffer the rest of their lives because of the care they received.
And what’s really disheartening is that I believe that it can change. I believe that if we put the right structures in place we can fix the system. In Hay River some things are as simple as, again, access to land and having places to rent. It’s hard to attract doctors to Hay River if there’s nowhere for them to live. So there’s those kind of things as well.
There’s educating our own people to become doctors, to become nurses, so we don’t just import people from the south to come up here for a couple years. There needs to be more public input. We’ve removed the health boards and now we have this sort of territorial authority, where we have wellness councils that are there to provide advice, but that’s not necessarily ever taken. So we need to listen to the public more as well. There’s a lot that can be done, and I’m not a healthcare expert but, from the things I’ve heard – some people and things I’ve heard from employers of people as well – there are changes that can be done. And there are fixes that we can put in place to improve things in the near term.
And final question. I know you’re running unopposed. Why would you have said people should vote for you?
You know, when I ran last time, I said, “I’m not going to promise anything, but I’ll promise will work hard.” I think I kept that promise. I’m open to listening to people. That’s the only way you’re going to learn and I understand that the role of an MLA is to bring the people’s voice and make sure that that’s reflected.
The way I try to behave as an MLA is the way I would like my MLA to behave. So when I think about how to deal with constituents, or the kind of effort I would like my MLA to put into the work they do, that’s the way that I try to conduct myself.