NWT Election 2019: Robert Hawkins’ Kam Lake interview
Robert Hawkins hopes to become the next MLA for Yellowknife’s Kam Lake.
Hawkins served three terms as the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, from 2003 to 2015, before losing his seat to Julie Green. He is pledging to help turn around what he calls “a lack of cooperation and teamwork” at the legislature.
Speaking to Cabin Radio, Hawkins said politicians were failing to “change the narrative” for Yellowknife’s working families.
He wants to see the territory find a way to reduce the cost of power, while stepping up efforts to increase its population and consequently its federal transfer payments – including a push to keep more seniors in the NWT by expanding facilities and supports.
On the topic of healthcare, Hawkins said those who do not believe a bricks-and-mortar treatment facility in the NWT to be feasible were “just people who want to make excuses to continue to protect the status quo.”
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Hawkins’ interview air date is September 17.
More information: Robert Hawkins’ 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.
Ollie Williams: Give me the 60-second opening pitch in terms of what you believe makes your candidacy different in Kam Lake.
Robert Hawkins: Well, I guess let’s get it right out of the way: 12 years’ experience as an MLA, three years’ experience as a city councilperson. I know the city and the territory quite well. I’ve been off for four years to experience what citizen life is. I call myself Citizen Hawk during this period. I’ve kept myself, I’ve worked for the John Howard for three years, and certainly started my Apex business for the last four years. I’ve been busy.
But what I’ve noticed really is that, you know, the teamwork at the Legislative Assembly has been a glaring lack. There’s a huge gap in sense of what they’re happening. It looks like they squeezed everything in at the last minute. It doesn’t look like they’re really changing the narrative for the working family trying to get forward.
I watch what’s happening with the economy through the cost of living. I mean, that fight has largely gone silent. And I’m worried. I mean, I hear from families that the economy is really scaring the heck out of them. And they want people to re-inspire them.
That’s why I’m coming back. Over the four years I left, people would often tell me they missed me, they missed the fight, they missed the way I did work with constituents, hands-on, meeting people wherever it took to get the conversation going to help them. They missed that style. Well, that’s what I’m bringing back: somebody who will care about them, care about the working family, care about their cost of living. That’s the idea. That’s who I am.
Having talked a little bit about those four years, what do you think lost you the election last time around, four years ago?
Well, it’s fair to say that the narrative changed. Downtown was always changing and the issues were changing, and perhaps maybe I didn’t go with them enough. Or maybe I didn’t respond to the needs. I think that’s fair to say and it would definitely be a fair criticism. The other thing is, and this is not to shift it, but I think change was in the air. When change is in the air, it’s a tsunami. And you saw that with the federal government, and you saw that with the territorial government. And it’s ironic because, when I’m knocking doors now, people are telling me that they voted for somebody previously, and now they’re thinking, “Well, geez, we want a change.” And they’re glad to see me at their door.
Why did you choose to turn up on Kam Lake’s doorstep instead of any other?
Well, that’s a fair question. It really wasn’t up until the beginning of this year… my wife and I decided to slate the conversation, let it go three-and-a-half years before we had it. The reason I’m doing a little back-story to this is because I think it’s important. You know, when I wasn’t elected again, what I did was I used the chance to sort-of reinvent myself, hence my business and other opportunities that I’ve done. I mean, I’m busy doing pest control but, you know what, my passion and heart has always been in politics. So wherever I go, people would say, you know, “We miss you,” etc, I’ve already talked about that. But you know, I said, “OK, we’re not going to discuss it because I don’t want to back-seat drive the assembly in 2015. Let them do their thing, see how it goes.”
But also, I paused the conversation and said, “We’ll revisit it in three, three-and-a-half years,” as I’ve said, “and that way, I’ll see if the fire is still in my belly.” Which it always has been, you know. The embers have always been burning. But do I still have that fire and excitement to get back in? And so then we said, “OK, yes, we do.” So we opened up the conversation in the new year of 2019 and said OK… because people have to appreciate you don’t want to be living through this every moment for over three years, you’ve got to let it go. You’ve got to accept those things, and that’s what we did. We chose to let it go and accept how it is.
So here it is, the spring of 2019, and we’re saying: “Do we want to re-fight the same fight over again?” And, you know, again, reflection. The constituency, it changed. Have we changed, our values changed? Was there something we should have paid more attention to? Those types of things. So I started looking at that in that regard and thought, “OK, well, first of all, yes, the fire still burning. Let’s stoke it and give it a good go.”
Next is, what makes sense? Well, I have a few partnerships that I work with in Kam Lake regularly. What’s more important, though, is the city is five minutes away from everywhere. So any impact in the city, whether it’s in Yellowknife North, Yellowknife South, you know, whether it’s Great Slave or Frame Lake, I mean, we’re all interconnected. So the exciting thing is, you know, we’re everywhere every day, pretty much.
So it didn’t seem to me to cause any concern. I really care and I’ve always been an advocate for business. I’ve always been concerned about the manufacturing industry, that was a big thing when I was trying to push a “made in the NWT” program to ITI, because we need to stimulate and stir the emotions of people buying local product and getting involved, because it creates a local workforce. It creates a bit of pride when we see that that window is manufactured or that building is built here in Yellowknife. And that puts working families to work and heck, working families buy Christmas presents. My goodness, it sounds silly. But the fact is a working family takes a lot of pride in the fact that they can pay their own bills. They’re contributing to the community, there’s population growth. So there’s a lot of exciting things.
Then there’s the working class in the sense of the everyday family. I looked at that riding and I thought, you know what? That’s really who we are. My wife and I chatted about it and said, “Well, the everyday family’s there. That’s who we are. That’s the types of things we connect with.” So, a little bit of a mouthful in the sense of a story, but the journey is important to appreciate. We just didn’t sort-of flip a coin or throw a dart at a board and say, “Well, wherever it lands, it lands.” We thought about it and thought, where can we help? Where can I do the most good? And who can I connect with?
Let’s look at some of what you’re actually proposing to do if you get voted in. Where do you see your priorities? What real actions would you hope to take?
Let me focus on the simple ones and I’ll expand. So, the economic challenges in Yellowknife. What I’ve seen in the last four years is almost a glazing-over of optimism and I think I can bring that back.
I mean, economic challenges go from, you know, when you knock on doors and someone says, “The mine has now tabled their closure plan. We’re nervous… property values, like, where is the future of Yellowknife going? Where is it heading?” And so what we need is new optimism and to remind people that Yellowknife is more than just that. We’ve got so many opportunities.
So how do we turn the economy around? Well, the NWT population at large is relatively stagnant. You’ve got to keep in mind that over $30,000 per transfer payment per citizen comes to the Northwest Territories. I mean, you look at the transfer payment based on population alone, it’s $1.3 billion, almost $1.4 billion, because of our population. So we can do so much by attracting more people. And that means getting a better foreign worker office connected to help businesses. We can connect families here, we can create an attractive community through this. Now more people come here, more people want houses, more people want jobs, it helps the economy, there’s a ripple effect. It’s like that little pebble that hits the pond, it starts to radiate. So we have to remind ourselves.
Now, the NWT is a resource economy. It’s huge. It represents almost 60 percent of our GDP. We cannot continue to ignore it. If you look at Nunavut, they’re towering over the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon is towering over the Northwest Territories through exploration and long-term planning. Let us not kid ourselves: the process to create a mine and get it up and running and get people working is a long process. Now, I would never say that the regulatory system isn’t doing its job. And I would never suggest in any way that it’s not important. But what I would say is, where is that investment? It’s all gone largely silent. And I can tell you, you don’t hear that fight any more. Where is it? I don’t know. And that’s the issue. Where are people fighting for working families and jobs? And to me, that’s the issue right there.
I think it’s a problem that a lot of people have identified. It’s harder to identify solutions. Have you come up with anything? When we look at investment in mining and exploration. have you got anything that you want to bring to the table and say, “Why don’t we try this?”
Well, the resource industry, by all means, let’s not kid ourselves, is a fickle industry, right? They go where the climate is the best. And that’s what we have to diagnose, which is: has enough work been done on asking, “What will it take to re-attract them?”
I remember at the end of the last term, Husky turns around and says there’s better opportunities elsewhere, cheaper to get because of lack of infrastructure, cheaper to get because of employment factors, cheaper to get because we have a more welcoming environment. It wasn’t the complaints about the regulatory system. It’s just they saw it altogether as a house of cards, not just one but multiple issues. And that’s the difference right there.
The attitude towards these things is the key. We have to start looking at ourselves. How are we doing these things? So population, there’s the resource of human resources. We have to re-attract people. It helps the money. Again, if we get mineral resource investment in here, that helps the bottom line. I mean, $50-some million, you know, maybe $60 million in tourism is important, and by all means, certainly welcome for those industries to the territory. But I mean, my goodness, when you’re talking $2.4 billion dollars from mining, you know, the scale sort of speaks for itself. Long-term strategy, I think, yes, we have to continue to diversify, because any hiccup in the economy has a huge ripple effect.
The other thing is, and it ties into this: how do we effectively do business here? Now, this is the cost-of-living issue here, so it affects business and working families. You know, before I left, we were talking about trying to re-org power, how we could change that, and again, that’s another conversation that went silent after I left. Why aren’t we doing the intertie between jurisdictions? You know, why are we not importing power from Alberta?
I mean, anybody who says we can produce power out of the Taltson and sell it to Alberta is crazy because, frankly, you’d be selling it more expensive than they can produce it themselves. We need to create those assurety links and bring it around to Yellowknife. So then we can expand the Taltson for NWT power, we can also habe the potential there to tie in. We can get rid of diesel engines, get rid of the backups, because we already have the assurance of the programs there.
We can also expand the fibre-optic link. Look, a couple weeks ago when there was no power, we lost so much business. I mean, I couldn’t go to the grocery store to buy groceries, they were shutting their tills down. The wave of the future, including radio, is over the internet. I mean, it’s phenomenal. You know? So we have to start looking at those types of components. So as I said, when it comes to the industry – be it mining or whatnot – it’s not one issue. It’s the house-of-cards of all issues.
Don’t tell me the future of radio is the internet, I’ve only just applied for the FM licence. Is the fibre line something where the GNWT should be intervening, or subsidizing the connection of a backup? How do we combat that loss of connectivity?
I mean, could you imagine: 20 years ago, you said the internet didn’t work? I mean, they’d just go, “Oh, well, I’ll light a candle and we’ll use the old fashioned till.” No. It is tied to healthcare, it’s tied to commercial services.
What do we do? I mean, clearly, this is a federal government issue. Clearly, this is an NWT legislature issue. And this is the type of teamwork that needs to respond. You know, when I was there, I found it was very comfortable to work with opposing points of view. And I don’t mind someone not agreeing with me. And I don’t mind disagreeing with someone else. But I found the narrative back between 2003 and 2015 while I worked there was that you can have a healthy disagreement but the files move forward on the initiatives. People wanted to feel supported so you’d find people working together. You don’t have that.
But I think, coming back, some of the initiatives and the strengths I can bring is the teamwork and the experience of how that done. I mean, I lived in Fort Simpson, I’m very familiar with every single community. I’m very familiar with their community challenges as well. They want to be heard as well as Yellowknife. But the key of that is appreciating the challenges they have and working in teamwork so they can help our challenges for investment here.
We don’t have too long. I want to ask you about healthcare and education. When it comes to what you’d like to see achieved over the next four years, what do people need to know most about where you stand?
Let’s go with healthcare. What I’ve seen in the last four years is very little investment with seniors’ long-term care, housing, and supports. So what I think here is we’re now asking yourselves, well, if we want the seniors to stay, where are we going to support them? And that’s not helping. I mean, Avens has got a huge lot waiting to expand. It’s a good opportunity. That helps everybody in Yellowknife, not just Kam Lake, not just Yellowknife Centre, not just Yellowknife North. It helps everybody and, as well, that takes pressure off.
But back to the GDP. I mean, if we’re getting transfer payments for every person who stays here, why don’t we help encourage our seniors to stay here? As far as healthcare, just a little further on this, if I could… I continue to knock on doors and a glaring problem is the government refuses to address the addictions issue. Addictions treatment.
I was in Manitoba in the spring. I was visiting a community called Fisher River. It’s a Cree First Nation community. And just south of them, there’s a community called Peguis, and they do their own addictions treatment support program in that community. It’s a very tiny community, smaller than Behchokǫ̀ for goodness’ sakes, yet they have an addictions program because they’re committed to supporting their people. I really admired that.
Now, why don’t we have an addiction program? You can come up with all the excuses of empire-building, pawn-playing, whatever. But what has been done is not working. And so anyone can come up with any excuse on saying, “Well, we can’t because we don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have the labour.” You know what? They’re just people who want to make excuses to continue to protect the status quo.
If you want to change the narrative, you have to be willing to risk it. I was always willing to risk it by saying, “We need to say what’s important and we need to do what’s important.” Sometimes the chips fall where they do. I wasn’t afraid of that. And I’m not afraid to say it now.
We need an addictions program. Do we put it in the new hospital, or the old hospital? Maybe that’s the right place. Maybe we can put it somewhere else? I don’t know. I’m not that expert. But I can tell you, you don’t need to be an expert to say this is a glaring problem in the Northwest Territories.
I’m going to focus in on the trades on the education piece. Now. I mean, you’ve heard a lot of people complain about the Education Act. You know what? Frankly, there’s a lot of good about that. I mean, we have a lot of good happening every single day in our system. Where we need support here, and I’ll get to the trades, is in making sure the education system speaks to the future, OK? So we need to be inspiring opportunities throughout.
Now someone like yourself, from the UK, can appreciate that people don’t necessarily want to go on to the traditional paths once they start entering that, you know, middle school to high school, they find different paths. Well, you know, the school system through the Education Act needs to start identifying different paths to ensure people have a future and feel they are part of that future. Young people may not see education, long-term, be it university or college, as their way to go. They may not even identify trades as their opportunity. But we know they’re an incredible asset. We can’t let them go. Because they are what’s going to make the machinery run in a few years.
We don’t have a late entry program and an early entry program into trades. I mean, in Grade 9 and 10 we can help identify folks who, you know what? Grade 12 may not be their thing, OK? But you know, what’s key to that – to get a trades job, to write the trades entry tests – is you have to be able to read, you have to be able to write, and you have to do math. That person is great with their hands. That’s fantastic. But they can’t read the proposal or they can’t write the response to do it. So we have to find a way. Perhaps what we do is continue to support their education through literacy programs and numeracy programs through math and reading, because ultimately that will be a huge benefactor, no matter where they go, knowing how to manage those things.
Having been an MLA for relatively long period of time, and then been voted out, there is a tendency this time around that some residents might think, “OK, this, politically, is yesterday’s news.” In a field of six candidates, how do you convince them that’s not the case?
Well, knocking on doors, what I’m finding is many people already know who I am. I’ve been told repeatedly that they were excited to see me running and see me back. Many people are friends. I know how this works in the sense of the voting business. Everyone will have their group of supporters, but I can tell you, knocking on doors, you can feel the synergy and excitement by people saying, “Hey, you’re back! Thank goodness, we were worried.” I was at somebody’s door last night and they were saying, “I’m so glad you picked our riding.” I mean, it’s the excitement.
Now, am I old news? No. I think the four-year break was great because it gave me a different perspective. I mean, I’ve been running the John Howard for three years. My goodness, if that doesn’t give you the on-the-ground perspective to provide reflection on how I was and lessons learned so I can help do things better? I mean, I don’t know of a better opportunity, I can tell you from starting a small business, over the last four years, about what it’s like to get it up and running and trying to get customers, and reach out and work with them, and trying to work with the everyday people. I can tell you a new perspective, and certainly a better one. I mean, it was easy to say I could talk about business before. Now I’ve lived it. These are new, lived experiences that will pay dividends.
And lastly, people will tell me at the door they miss the way I would work with the constituents. When I used to be an MLA, I used to have people from every riding come to me and say, “Look, I can’t get my healthcare card processed. I’m having trouble with this form.” People used to come to me with their immigration forms. I would help people with those things, even though it wasn’t my job. And I’ll tell you why: it is because, you know what, at the end of the day, people were so tired and frustrated that sometimes they just needed a friend. So they called me. And I sat them down, I’d go to them and meet them in a coffee shop, I’d let them come to the office. We’d work through the paperwork. Even the simplest stuff sometimes made the most incredible difference in people. And that’s the common touch that I think people are missing. That is who I am and that hasn’t changed.