Dez Loreen is hoping to be the next MLA for Inuvik Boot Lake.
With a background in media and communications, Loreen also served on Inuvik town council and is manager of the Inuvialuit Communications Society.
Loreen told Cabin Radio his focus is on community wellness, ensuring residents have access to stable counselling, addictions treatment, and education. "I don't want to see any more young adults getting lost into addictions and into hopelessness because they feel like they can't leave the North, or they feel like they've hit a dead end," he said.
With access opened up by the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway, Loreen said another priority of his is finding ways to access oil and gas in the region and extract it responsibly.
If elected, Loreen said he's not interested in a cabinet position, adding: "I've got a much more focused view and that's on the community of Inuvik." In the 18th Legislative Assembly, both Inuvik MLAs were cabinet ministers.
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News podcast. Loreen's interview air date is September 20.
More information: Dez Loreen's campaign page
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on September 10, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Emelie Peacock: Tell us about yourself and why you decided to run for MLA of Inuvik Boot Lake.
Desmond (Dez) Loreen: My name is Dez Loreen, I'm 36. I'm Inuvialuit, a father, a husband here. I'm born and raised in Inuvik and I've spent the majority of my adult life working in media and communications, most recently getting into municipal leadership. I'm the Assistant Deputy Mayor of Inuvik right now. And I also sit on the board of directors for the Aboriginal People's Television Network, APTN.
I have this interest in working for the community and representing those who don't necessarily want to speak up or can't speak up for themselves. And I ran in 2015, for MLA in Boot Lake, in the same riding, so I think I'm just finishing up what I started here really.
Let's look at the top three issues that are facing your district.
Obviously, people talk about jobs, they talk about job security. But I think the big one that I want to focus on is community wellness. That is a big umbrella term, I know, but I mean anything like education from a young age – let's care for the youth so that they become responsible young adults and we don't lose them to addictions or to mental health issues later on in life.
I'm 36 right now, born and raised here, and I didn't get into counselling until very late in life to work through things that I had to get through, the struggles that I have with mental illness and struggles with depression and anger. So I think it's very important that that stuff is accessible.
And I know a lot of people in the community are frustrated, because when you finally do build up the confidence to actually talk to a professional about your issues, Inuvik is a transient place. So I want to make it a better place for even the staff to come in and stay, and to grow their homes and their families and stay here. Because what we're seeing is, somebody will finally go into counselling and tell their whole story and then after a few sessions, maybe into the year, this person, their contract's up or they switch out, and somebody new is here. Then it's harder to tell your story, again, to different people. And I'm hearing that a lot. So that's one of the issues for sure.
Addiction treatment is another big one. We see a lot of people on the streets, we hear a lot of people struggling with drug addiction, with substance abuse. And I've seen it firsthand. I know that the rehab system, these programs can work, they can help the individual break that cycle. But when you send them home, there's nothing local. They have to go to Edmonton or beyond in Alberta, maybe to Poundmaker's, and they come home, and they're still in the same broken cycle. So I want to help that along on a wider scale, and see what we can do to help fix those problems here at home.
On that, the GNWT has put money toward addictions, but has decided not to go with a territorial treatment centre. How would you want to see improvements to addiction treatment in the North?
Well, I want to see it localized, 100-percent this has to happen at home. Otherwise, it's just doomed to fail. Because it's a process, it's not something that's going to happen overnight. We have a great facility that was built on the Mackenzie Delta, just outside of Inuvik, that's only accessible by boat, which is a real shame. It's great to have that remoteness to help with the treatment, I'm sure, but it needs to be more accessible to people and we have to start using it, we have to start using these facilities.
There's the young offenders' facility they made here in Inuvik, that mini-jail here, it's now being used for different government offices. Again, that's another facility that's secure that can be used for these sort of things, for more at-risk people. I think that there should be options here locally and by just saying, "Oh, you know, we shouldn't do it in the territory," I don't agree with that at all.
What are some other issues in your district and in the region that you would want to prioritize should you be elected on October 1?
What I want to see done, regardless of who wins the election, is Inuvik is sitting next to a lot of oil and gas here in the Beaufort Delta area. The Inuvik-Tuk highway has created this whole new, accessible lane to it. So I definitely want to investigate that and find responsible ways to get in and access these fields. This is an opportunity for local Indigenous governments here, for municipal governments to get involved and to work with the territorial government to actually have some ownership over this resource that we have here. I mean, so long as it's done responsibly.
In the work that I've done, I've seen offshore drilling. I don't agree with offshore drilling, I don't think it works in our region. But I definitely would want to investigate getting onto the land here and how we can do that responsibly.
Do you have any ideas about how that resource could be extracted responsibly?
I'm just sort-of looking at minimizing environmental impacts, really, to the wildlife and to the environment, and to the people, to the hunting areas that people use. But I know that Inuvik is a boom-and-bust place, we've had access to these taps before the highway came in. So now you should be able to get in there and drill some more wells here in the region, or at least have access to the ones that already existed, that weren't so feasible to get to in the last 40 years or whatever, however long the studies have been going on. But you have to think that this highway has just made it easier for those partnerships to happen.
In terms of balancing that resource exploration and resource extraction with the effects of climate change, your region feels climate change more than other regions of Canada and of the NWT. Do you see that there's a possibility to balance work on those two fronts?
I think we really have to balance them. We're looking at it from two different sides here, I don't think it's black or white. I don't think it's either-or. I think we definitely can help, mitigating climate change effects and the way that we extract these resources out of the ground. I mean, there has to be a way, at least worth identifying.
This region is very hit by climate change, and we live it. We're seeing slumping all over town, ground levels are just decreasing. So the municipality is spending much more money on maintaining our sewage infrastructure than it is building new ones and replacing them. So now, we're spending a lot of money on that. And of course, in the Nunakput riding you're seeing Tuktoyaktuk is sinking into the ocean.
How can we do that? How can we work with the community at a territorial level to make sure that the people that are getting their homes moved, but in a way that's respectful to them? I think this study looked at it this year where it said, these pilings have to sit a certain amount of time for adjustments before you can build on them. Otherwise, you're just asking for trouble. And then the person's on the hook for that themselves.
I think the territorial government has to do more in that regard because we have to look after our communities, and make sure that we're working with those local governments like the hamlets and the municipalities, to get everybody online, because it's something that we can't avoid. This is happening to us if we want it or not.
And I don't think trucking in propane, when we're sitting on all these oil fields, is a real thing we should be doing. I think we could take ownership over that.
What else is part of your election platform this year?
I spoke about education, I think that's a big one for me. I've got a daughter going to school, she had developmental issues early on, she wasn't speaking, she had speech delays going into kindergarten, which was really alarming. We wondered if it was a permanent thing or if it was just a thing that she was going to come out of. Then sure enough, now, she's at grade level.
But then you sort of see it, that there are kids, they're not all the same level here but they're the same age. And you know, a lot of people call it social passing. And I don't agree with it. I mean, I'm from an age where the threat was real that if you didn't perform well enough in your grades, you were going to fail. And if you couldn't, if there was something holding you back, then there was a system for that. Or at least there were people that would work with you to get you back up to that level where you could rejoin your peers, you know, or you just have to bite that bullet and be a grade younger than everybody else. I graduated a year after most of my peers did that I went to school with throughout elementary school. So I definitely took a little bit of a longer time being out of high school.
I think that strengthening education in the younger age and maybe even looking at retooling how the curriculum is, and maybe eliminating social passing, could be something that I would want to do. Because I don't want to see more dropouts. I don't want to see any more young adults getting lost into addictions and into hopelessness because they feel like they can't leave the North, or they feel like they've hit a dead end. And they're frustrated with school or they're frustrated with home.
And it all falls back down to social issues, you know, and so this is what I want to do: I want to help people out. Because I've definitely come from a darker place in my life, where I didn't think we were going to ever see a brighter day. And you know, raising a family was very hard when we were both working service-industry jobs and struggling to pay rent. And using social assistance like the food bank.
Now I'm grateful we're in a place right now where we both have good jobs and we can save up for trips, and we can go out and enjoy life and take advantage of the high amount of money that we make here in the North while still being responsible. Through the lessons I've learned, you know, and don't fall into the pitfalls of spending too much money and overspending. And partying too much.
There are things I've learned in my life that I'm very vocal about on social media and on my Facebook. And I want to see other people get through that mess, too. I'm 36, I see so many of my friends and younger people who work to drink. And they just party to work and they work to party. It's just the cycle. And then they wonder why I'm going on these trips or how I can afford to go see my favorite pro wrestling and follow my passion. And it's because I put the work in, you know, and that's the message I want to spread, is that hard work pays off. So I guess that's a really long way of saying it, but hard work pays off.
As an MLA, what are some things that you could do to break that cycle or help people to understand and break that cycle?
Right off the bat: being open about it, talking. I've been born and raised here and there's so much trauma that's happened in the region from every angle here, from social impacts to residential schools and everything and beyond. There's so much trauma here.
I just want to lead by example and say, "Yes, there are people in substance abuse and there are people that have mental illnesses and are struggling with these different things. But every day is another day, and you can move on and you can become something if you work hard enough at it." So that's what I want to show people is that, yes, I took the bad way. I took the long way to get here. But I feel like now more than ever, I've gotten myself in a place that I'm healthier than I've ever been. I mean, bacon cheeseburgers aside. But honestly, mentally I'm in a better place than I ever had been.
And so, as MLA, one thing that is very important to me is staying on as a regular member for the town of Inuvik, for Boot Lake, and not chasing a minister's portfolio like we've seen in the past. I'm sure it's great for a territorial level but when you have two MLAs in your community and they're both ministers, we don't have anybody on the other side of the table standing up for the concerns of the constituents. So that's my goal, is to be elected MLA and sit as a regular member.
So even if approached to be a member of cabinet, you're committing to stay on as a regular MLA?
Absolutely. Honestly, I'm there for the community. And I will definitely give my input when I can on territorial issues. But as far as you know, taking on cabinet portfolios and things? No. I've got a much more focused view and that's on the community of Inuvik.
In your campaign literature, you said Inuvik students of all ages deserve top-tier education. How would you like to see Inuvik take part in the future polytechnic university?
Well, I mean, this is a great opportunity here for Inuvik to really put itself on the map as something else that's not just a town run by government jobs.
Aurora College has a campus here already. It's a very nice campus, great building, and there's a residence here that can definitely be built on. A lot of people will talk about, and I've heard education minister Cochrane speaking about, how we're in this age of these studies that say that nobody wants a headquarters anymore. It's everywhere and nowhere, right. Well, I disagree with that. I think it has to be somewhere. And obviously, a lot of people push to Yellowknife, you know, or even Fort Smith because it's got the existing Aurora College infrastructure there. But I think there's a great opportunity for Inuvik and not just for the community, but we have the college campus, we have the Aurora Research Institute - there are so many elements here, already, of Aurora College. And it being the regional hub of the Beaufort Delta, I totally believe Inuvik could be the hub for this polytechnic university.
Going door-to-door and talking to constituents, talking to people that I've been in this community with forever but I've never approached them on these issues - you hear about students that got approved to go down south and take these programs. But then the program got pulled so then they had to settle to do business admin here in town because they don't want to leave home. So I want to see more courses offered.
It actually happened to my wife, years ago. She took a one-year nursing access program here. She got approved, she passed the first part of it and then they said, "OK, now you're accepted into the nursing program. Oh, yeah, by the way, we're pulling it. We're scaling it down to only Yellowknife. So you're approved for the course, but you have to move your family to Yellowknife." So we tried that, you know, and it was a tough move for us. It was really tough on our family.
I definitely want to see people stay here in the region. And I think that for the people in the Nunakput riding that go farther north, and the Mackenzie Delta riding to the south, I think having a polytechnic university headquartered here, or at least a main campus in Inuvik, would be great for the region. And it would be great for the territory.
One local issue I want to squeeze in before our interview ends is housing. Inuvik has one of the longest public housing waitlists, after Yellowknife. I'm wondering how you think the housing corporation is doing on this and, if elected, what more would you want to see done in your district?
What I'd like to see done, first of all, is I want to see more of Inuvik getting developed. And there's obviously a housing issue here. We're seeing a lot of people couchsurfing, there are homeless people on the street. So we're not just seeing them on the street, it's almost hidden a bit where you're seeing people are couchsurfing or they're staying with their uncles and aunties or their grandmas in a spare room that used to be something else. And they're living in maybe not the best conditions, because it's not suited for them.
I want to see more. We've got construction companies here that need work. We have people in town who are skilled, we have so many skilled tradespeople in this community. We could be building homes for everybody if we just had the money. So if I was elected MLA - and I understand that every politician says "Oh, you know, let's pay for this, let's pay for that." And where does the money come from? But that'd be my job, that would be my role to find that money. To advocate for that money from the feds, from the territorial government, from the Indigenous groups, from the local governments, from the local community governments.
There's going to be people here in Inuvik that will always live in Inuvik. As transient as Inuvik is for the government and the people who come in and out of town, and the families that are here for five to 10 years and they're gone, there are people who have been here for 40 years. Since the town was born, since the town was made. And they're going to continue to be here, for a few reasons. Number one, they don't want to leave. And for a lot of people leaving is very expensive. And trying to leave the community doesn't always pan out, you know? They'll go to Whitehorse, they'll go to Yellowknife, they'll go to Edmonton, and then they'll realize that, hey, you know, things are tough all over. So I want to make Inuvik, honestly, the best place it can be for the people who are here.
I know that you're involved in a lot of other projects in Inuvik and beyond. I'm wondering, for the fans of your wrestling persona and your other projects – for example, Below the Treeline – what will happen to those once you become MLA?
Well, I mean, I'm still a filmmaker, I'm still a creator at heart. Totally Arctic Wrestling is still going to go on, I've still got big plans for that. So regardless of where I am, we're definitely full steam ahead with programming for that here, for at least the next year. And that's working closely with my partners here, in British Columbia, and in the town. So I'm definitely still full board on that.
Below the Treeline has already been shot, we're just waiting. I actually just got a letter today, breaking news on Cabin Radio, I did not get accepted to the Yellowknife International Film Festival because they feel my movie is a little bit outside of the realm of their programming. The letter said it wasn't chosen and they didn't really specify why. But there were pre-existing conversations that it might just not have had a place in the program.
So it is what it is, I'm going to keep making the things I'm gonna keep making. I'm not going to stop being Dez Loreen just because I want to be MLA. So I mean, people are going to either invest in me and elect me because I'm Dez Loreen, or they're not going to want me to be MLA because I'm Dez Loreen. There is no new version of Dez that's going to be this different person. I'm not trying to pose out to be a politician that I'm not. I'm just a regular person that likes to get stuff done. And if people want to get stuff done with me, then they can elect me before October 1.
Well, my last question was going to be to allow you to make a 30-second pitch. I believe you already did. But if you want to take another stab at it, why should the residents of Inuvik Boot Lake elect you on October 1?
This comes back to what I've been talking about. I'm the strongest voice for our community. I'm the best one for this role now. Our community is looking at having two new MLAs here this fall and I definitely want to be that person. To be representing our community at the Legislative Assembly. And I'm doing the best I can to go door-to-door, drum up as much support as I can in my riding and beyond, even on the other side of the community. So a lot of buzz behind this.
I'm just hoping that people listening to this in Inuvik. and those electors that I'm talking to, go through and get registered to vote. If you look at the numbers, there are so many people that are not voting in this community. And if I can just tap into a little bit of that, I think we will see a huge difference, especially with a four-way race.