Paulie Chinna hopes to become the MLA for Sahtu.
With 20 years’ experience in government and at the community level, Chinna said preparing for the Mackenzie Valley Highway is a focus. A project like the $700-million road’s construction only comes around “once in a lifetime,” she said, and she wants to ensure benefits stay in the region.
Chinna also wants to improve preventative mental health services in the communities and hire a doctor for Norman Wells, to stem rising rates of suicide and chronic disease.
On-the-land programming, in health and education, is a further focus for Chinna. “It comes naturally to [the people of Sahtu]. It’s a sense of healing and connection and I think it would go a long way,” she said.
Facing high drop-out rates and low educational outcomes, Chinna said the Sahtu needs to train more Indigenous teachers and widen what is offered in schools. “We need to help [students] to dream again,” she said.
Taking a page from Fort Good Hope’s success in housing, Chinna said providing building materials and helping people become homeowners are two ways to address housing issues in the Sahtu.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Chinna’s interview air date is September 16.
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: What made you decide to step into the race for MLA in the Sahtu this year?
Paulie Chinna: I come to the table with 20 years of work experience within the GNWT and at the community level. I feel very passionate about the region that I serve. And I look at the uniqueness of our region: there’s a lot of potential and there’s a lot of opportunity to look at the economic development. Tourism, for one, is the major area that I would like to accomplish during my term.
I would like to come up with opportunities for residents in the Sahtu, with the Mackenzie Valley Highway coming through – looking at the opportunities we would have for education, and for tourism and employment. I think a major project like that just comes around once in a lifetime and I would like to concentrate on that.
But then, looking at my years of experience, I have been exposed right at the ground level to understand the dynamic of my region. There’s a broad range of situations that are arising. And just through my conversations in the communities: housing, there’s such a need for improvement, and the education system as well. It’s been brought up several times, looking at graduation, that level is declining. Also the healthcare system. There needs to be improvement for that as well.
Starting with healthcare, you’ve mentioned that there is large room for improvement as there’s a lack of healthcare in the Sahtu region for addictions, long-term disabilities, and chronic disease. If you’re elected, what are some things that you would work on to make improvements?
I would like to work towards strategic planning for our system in the Sahtu and reflected throughout the Northwest Territories. I’m assuming there might be similar situations and scenarios, and that we would be able to work together as a territory.
Times are changing. Chronic illnesses are becoming more.. I just think that there need to be more services for it and more education for it. And I’m thinking of diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness. I don’t think there are enough services in the Sahtu region that would be able to accommodate those.
And I see that our suicide rate is increasing. I think the need to work with those patients is crucial. I think awareness needs to be brought up. And I think there needs to be more care and services to educate the clients that are going through these situations in their own life. But I feel like prevention needs to happen.
Just observing within the Sahtu region, we do have the healthcare facility that’s here too, but I feel that there could be more services that are available in our new healthcare facility. I’m surprised that we don’t have a doctor in our region. We do have a nice healthcare facility now, which is kind-of comparable to the one that’s in Fort Smith. They’re equipped with doctors there and they’ve got their nurses, they’ve got their labs. I don’t understand how come we don’t have that in the Sahtu region.
A number of your communities are fly-in or difficult to reach. How do you provide mental health services in these smaller communities?
Right now, I believe we have a mental health worker and we are supposed to be equipped with them at the community level. But I just don’t see it being effective. And I think in this case, the Aboriginal groups and the GNWT need to come together to strategize and we need to work on this issue together. We need to come up with program and planning for it, because it’s obvious. The numbers are increasing.
You’ve also talked about wanting to see improved services for addictions. The GNWT has, so far, not committed to a northern treatment centre but has funnelled funding into on-the-land programs. What would you like to see in the Sahtu?
Just observing during my trips to the communities, I know the region is quite interested in on-the-land programs and it does work for them. I see that they do take a sense of pride and accomplishment in working on-the-land in the Sahtu. And I think, you know, it comes naturally to them. It’s a sense of healing and connection and I think it would go a long way. And I feel that there needs to be more concentration on it.
Because you know, with the addiction issues, it affects their mental illness and then the chronic diseases. If we can have prevention – at least, starting at an addiction facility or on-the-land training program – I think that’s a start.
And looking at the dynamic for the Sahtu, I feel that would bring it to a level where people are going to feel a sense of pride. And they’re going to feel valued in the region. And I just think the drugs and alcohol are so accessible. But then I think, again, prevention and awareness needs to be advertised, spoken about. And people need to gather and we need to start having the discussion. So we could start planning, as a region.
On the topic of education, former minister Caroline Cochrane spoke about the need for review of education in the Sahtu. And as well, she mentioned that Indigenous governments have a right to a say in how education is delivered in their communities, specifically with self-government progressing as it is. Could you tell me how you see the state of primary and secondary education in your district?
I think there’s a huge need for improvement because it’s obvious that our graduation rate is declining, the students are not graduating with the requirements to attend post-secondary. A lot of them are held back and not able to attend post-secondary because they haven’t met the requirements.
During my home visits, I went and met with this couple and they had expressed that their daughter was on the honour roll from Grades 10 to 12. She applied and went south to attend university. And they got down there and they explained to them that she didn’t meet the requirements. And they were quite shocked with all of the awards that she’d been given and all of her academic excellence. I was quite shocked to hear that and I thought, well, what is going on in our education system?
There needs to be more focus and more involvement in the region with Aboriginal groups and with the GNWT to look at this, and to help improve what is being offered. So these kids, once they graduate, they can have that sense of accomplishment and that pride to go and strive, and accomplish at a post-secondary level.
So if you are elected, what are some specific improvements that you would be advocating for within the education system?
I would like to strategize the whole approach that’s happening within it. I think where we need begin is we need more Aboriginal teachers, we need more teachers that are from the region that are passionate, and teachers that are wanting to connect to the North and become long-term residents and invest into our region, invest into our communities, invest into our children.
So promoting that education program and the need for it. It doesn’t exist in the Northwest Territories any more, but we need to start there. Because the connection will happen between the region and the students – there will be a different approach, there will be a different sense of pride, because you’re coming to school and you’re familiar with the teachers that are already there. And some of them still speak the Aboriginal language. And it would be something to hear that more and more in the school system.
And I think the encouragement of staying in school needs to be promoted. Right now, the young people, it’s a challenging world for them today. There’s a lot of social media that’s out there. There’s a lot of addiction issues that are lingering as well, very vulnerable for this generation to get involved and to get sidetracked and end up in a place that they shouldn’t be. And I think that, as educators, we need to acknowledge and we need to look at that prevention.
Also, I think we need to understand our young people; to ask them, what is it that they want to do? We need to help them to dream again if they want to become doctors and lawyers, or they want to become hairstylists, or they want to receive their tickets in trades. We need to make that available to them. In the education system here in the Sahtu, it’s just basic math, science, English, social studies, northern studies once you hit the high school, and I think we need to be more creative.
Even with on-the-land programming, I think that would also ignite a uniqueness, a sense of pride to be a part of our education system here in the Sahtu. We need to reconnect because in this time, there’s a lot of emphasis on on-the-land training. You’ll hear that quite often. So then I think we need to incorporate that probably in every aspect going forward. And I feel that it would be quite successful because traditional values are still strong in our region. We have a lot of children that still participate and are very skilled. Once you’re involved in a traditional value, and it’s implemented in the school system as well, you end up displaying a different kind of discipline, a different kind of patience.
You said there’s a need for more Indigenous teachers and more teachers from the region. How do you get to the point where you have those teachers, teaching the students?
I would look at training opportunities. If we were able to hire teachers and then put them through a training program… even the teacher assistants, if they’re wanting to become a classroom teacher, make that available to them. If they’re already there, they already exist, they already have the exposure, I think I would recognize them, give them that opportunity.
You have experience serving on the Board of Governors for Aurora College. The GNWT is in the process of imagining what a future polytechnic university for the NWT would look like. What would you like to see for the Sahtu?
Like I’ve expressed in the past, there’s a need for social workers and nurses and teachers, but I would like to see a focus on Indigenous Studies for this region.
I would like for that program to be initiated in the Sahtu region, because I look at current issues that are sitting at the table – we’re speaking about healthcare, housing, economic development – and we should be studying and seeing what the history was like in the past for the Sahtu and the past leadership, what they had discussed, and how did we come to where we are right now?
To study that, and the history, I think that would be a start for the Sahtu, because it gives us a sense of identity going forward. And I think it would open the table to let us discuss how are we going to be dealing with the new impacts, and how are we going to gain from them, and look at the negative and the positive of it. An Indigenous Studies program would be so broad that it would be open to have a large amount of discussion. And I think it would be very successful because it would give us such a broad range of study for the people within the Sahtu.
You’ve also spoken about the need to prepare for the Mackenzie Valley Highway. What are some ways, if you were elected, that you would push preparations for this project?
I would push for the security and the increase for local businesses. I would like to see the money from that project mainly stay in the Sahtu. And the other is tourism, I would like to see at least a strategic plan, something going forward to develop that. Ultimately, I would like to see education come out of it. I would like to see people who are red-seal, who have their certification, who have their tickets. And the people that are working on that project, they do walk away with certification. And I look at that as a sense of accomplishment.
What are some of the benefits you think will come from this project for your region?
Well, it would honestly open us up. The cost of living as well, they speak about it and how it would decrease and then they look at that, you know, connecting us down. And I think it would open the doors as well, too, because we would have more access to the other communities and going south.
I think it would unite us as a Sahtu region. And it would create the Norman Wells as being the hub of the Sahtu, more programs and services to be offered here. But then going forward, I look at the education and the employment that it would cause. And I think it’s a good thing for the Sahtu.
We’ve heard about issues with housing in communities, for example Fort Good Hope. If you’re elected, what are some things you want to see for your region on the topic of housing?
We would need to look at the opportunity to become homeowners. I think that needs to be reviewed because it’s really hard to access. And I’ve been to some communities where some of the housing units were sitting and they were vacant. And I think we need to work as a region – the Aboriginal groups and the Sahtu and the GNWT – To work to try to strategize, to try to implement and think of ways of how we can improve our local housing. And how we can decrease the amount of homelessness, because it is rising.
On the other page, I look at the success Fort Good Hope is having, and they took the initiative to pursue their own housing program. And just watching them from a distance, and I’m not really involved in too much conversation, but I see them taking the initiative and owning it. And they are becoming responsible for it. And they are striving to eliminate it.
And I see them doing such simple things as, you know, providing material to local residents to fix the deficiencies that exist. And you feel that sense of pride, because you feel the connection. Also with the highway coming through, it is quite costly to get that material into the region. I think that highway would make a huge difference in getting that material up into the Sahtu.
But I look at the housing program, what Good Hope has created… I think it would be a mirror image of what it honestly could look like if the communities took the initiative and were more involved. And they are the people that tell us what they want. And if we were able to program-deliver and have that discussion and work with them, it would be quite successful, because I see the success happening in Fort Good Hope.
The Sahtu is also leading the way in the territory on self-government agreements. Several communities have either achieved or are in the process of negotiating these agreements. If you’re elected as an MLA, how would you work with these communities?
I would do my best to represent them. How could I make this achievable for them? What influence would I have in order for them to accomplish this in a significant timeline?
I’m just thinking about Steven Kakfwi’s comment that the GNWT is holding them back in their process. And I would like to elaborate on that a little bit more, if I get elected, with the Aboriginal groups – wanting to understand, where is the GNWT holding them up? And what would they want to see from me to help them make it easier and faster for them to accomplish?
What makes you an ideal MLA for the Sahtu?
I come from a different generation. We’re enthusiastic, we’re new, we’ve got a different way of thinking. Seeking opportunities, striving to go forward. And I think accomplishment is something that I would like to see.
I look at the Sahtu: it’s very unique in its resources. There’s a lot of opportunity. I have 20 years of government service and community experience solely working in the Sahtu region, observing all of the leadership in the past. Like I go right from, you know, Frank Tseleie to Stephen Kakfwi, Norman Yakeleya, Danny McNeely. And I’ve observed their leadership style. I think coming forward and taking all of that knowledge and observing all of their successes and struggles and looking at where we are today… they paved the way for new leadership, they paved the way for a new approach. One of the people that I was reflecting on was Ethel Blondin as well, too, and these are leaders that come from the Sahtu.
I feel that we are in a good place, and I feel like the Sahtu is ready for a new approach. I think they’re ready for a new strategy. I’m here to serve my region, what my region may need, what it is that they want me to do. I’m here to deliver it, and I want to represent them in the Legislative Assembly.