Niels Konge hopes to become the next MLA for Yellowknife Centre.
In declaring his candidacy, the construction boss city councillor said solutions to problems plaguing Yellowknife at a municipal level – like access to land – could only be solved with effective representation in the legislature.
Konge told Cabin Radio his business experience would help him build relationships and get things done at the territorial level. “Our next government needs people like that, so that makes me one of the best candidates,” he said.
Konge wants to get land claims settled and streamline the permitting process to help kickstart the NWT’s economy. He believes territorial politicians must have a “30,000-foot view” of the issues and avoid getting sucked into “the weeds” of day-to-day operations, saying he’ll let staff decide how the territory’s new polytechnic university should look.
Asked how the territory could look to solve some of downtown Yellowknife’s social issues, Konge said senior staff with responsibility for the sobering centre should relocate their offices to the facility. He also pledged to fight for Yellowknife to be adequately funded to deal with those problems, saying: “It’s not a Yellowknife issue. This is a territorial issue. Every MLA needs to be on board in solving this problem.”
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Konge’s interview air date is September 12.
More information: Niels Konge’s Facebook campaign page
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on September 9, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What’s your pitch to voters in Yellowknife Centre?
Niels Konge: I think what makes me the best option for Yellowknife Centre is that I have business experience, I know how to build things. You can take that from building houses to building relationships to figuring out how to get things done. I think I’m good at that. Our next government needs people like that, so that makes me one of the best candidates.
I’m invested in Yellowknife. I came here, I met somebody, stayed here, started a business. We have our kids. I’m invested in this community, I own a building in the downtown. So you know, all of those things make me the best person for Yellowknife Centre.
City councillor and MLA are quite different jobs. How will you approach the role of MLA if you’re elected?
So they’re different in that one is a municipal government and one is a territorial government but, really, I think that the function of the politicians at both those levels is very similar.
You know, you don’t want politicians that are in the weeds, that are directly involved in the day-to-day operations. That is not the job of a politician. The job of the politicians, in my opinion, is to have a 30,000-foot, high-level, “How is everything interconnected? How can we get some efficiencies in the government?” It doesn’t help that we have policies that are overlapping or producing the same thing, it’s just doubling the work, you know? So trying to get some good policy, good procedures, efficiencies, and support those things that need supporting.
Your platform document calls you “plain-spoken.” Others might call that “incapable of being diplomatic.” What examples can you give of times that you’ve built bridges and brought people together in politics?
I’ll give you one example. At the NWT Association of Communities annual general meeting last year, the polytechnic university was a discussion item – on whether or not there’d be resolution put forward on that – and the room was quite divided. We had community leaders that were saying, “We don’t want to support this until every child in the Northwest Territories has enough education to go to a university.”
The room was quite divided and I stood up and said, “This is craziness. Not every kid in the Northwest Territories even wants to go to university.”
You know, I use myself as an example, I don’t have a university education, I am a carpenter, that is my education, that is the only thing I’ve gone to school for. I do it very well, I’m very happy doing it. And then I have a lot of lived experience: starting a business, being involved in the community through different boards and sport, and those sorts of things. They give me a perspective that a lot of people have. And I think that is required.
So standing up in there and explaining that, yes, education is important for those younger children. Absolutely. We need to focus on that as well. But to stop something else that’s good for other people isn’t the right thing to do. We need to support both.
Is the NWT getting it right in its approach to a polytechnic?
Do we need one? Absolutely, I think we need a polytechnic university. On the approach to getting there? Now we’re in the weeds a little bit. The GNWT hired Tom Weegar. He has been hired to do that job, he’s going to do the work that needs to be done, he’s going to bring that to the politicians, and the politicians are going to look at it and decide if it’s the right path forward. So, you know, there’s people to do that. And I believe that we’ve hired the right people to do that, and we can get the right people to do that if we need more people.
Let’s get into some other aspects of your vision for the NWT. How does our approach to the economy need to change?
What’s interesting is all the candidates are talking about the economy. Because it is important, there’s a trickledown effect there to small businesses, a trickledown effect to education, there’s a trickledown effect to cost of living, there’s a trickledown effect to our social issues. So I do believe that that’s the number one. And the number one GDP producer in the territory is the mines, so we need to support mines and exploration.
Mining isn’t just the mine that people go and work at. Before the mine happens you need exploration, you need a whole team of people to get through the permitting, then you need the construction of the mine, then you need the operation of the mine. And then you need the wind-down of the mine, and then you need reclamation. So there’s a whole spectrum of things there that need to happen in terms of mining, and there’s a lot of opportunity there in terms of training and employment and having a robust economy with the trickledown effect that I believe in.
In order to get the mines, I think we need to get our land claims settled. There’s been a moratorium on staking for 20 years. We need to get those land claims settled so that we can move forward. We need to ensure that the permitting processes that projects go through are not duplicated several times. That’s probably the first place that I would want to have a real in-depth look at, the permitting processes. Are we making people do multiple permits that are the same? Can we streamline that? Can we make that easier?
A lot of people listening to this will want us to focus on the downtown, as well, considering you’re standing for Yellowknife Centre. What do you see as the way forward for downtown Yellowknife?
I don’t think there is any one clear path forward in the downtown. There are lots of examples across Canada of things that different cities and organizations are doing. There are examples in, you know, Nunavut just last week, there was a CBC article about their addiction treatment that they’re doing there.
So it’s a lot of things and we are doing some of them. What we need to do is evaluate the things that are happening and decide, “OK, is this working?” And if it’s working, then we need to support that properly. If it’s not working, you know what, stop doing that. Figure out something else. It’s going to be a lot of different things that are going to have to happen, and it’s going to take a lot of trying different things in order to get to the end result that we want.
And we’re not going to get there quick enough. We need to work on that for sure because, you know, it’s not good. It’s not good for the community. It’s not good for the territory to have that deeply entrenched trauma and addiction that is happening in our Yellowknife Centre.
Your platform calls for us to look at introducing new programs and services that have worked in other cities. Do you have any examples you can point to?
I’m not going to name any examples because there are a lot. I think that we need to work with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Society, who is already here on the ground, and seeing, you know, what they think would work. That’s what I think the job of the politician is: to get the NGOs into a room and say, “Two of you are almost doing the same thing here. Why doesn’t one of you concentrate on this, and the other concentrate on this? We’ll help you do both. Both are important but we don’t need people working on the same thing.” We need people working on diverse things, different things to get better results.
You also, in your platform, suggest bringing decision-makers physically closer to the downtown core. What do you envisage?
I brought this up at council. We had a presentation by the GNWT – the director who was in charge of the sobering centre – and my question was, “Where is your office?” It was in the downtown, and that’s fine, but I think that if you really want people to understand and see what’s going on, they need to be there. So I would advocate quite strongly that departments’ offices are either in the sobering centre and day shelter building, or in a building that is directly adjacent to it, so that they are having that lived experience that the neighbourhood is having every single day.
Because those people are in charge. They do have a budget. Perhaps it’s not the right budget, but they have a budget. They can make decisions a lot quicker than most. I believe that they have the ability to do that. But they need the lived experiences about what is actually happening there on a day-to-day basis in order to make decisions to better it.
Is there no concern there about demoralizing the staff that you need to be making critical decisions and making them quickly?
I think if being there is demoralizing to staff then perhaps it’s not the right staff. You know, in my experience, through my business, if you give people the training and the tools they need to get the job done and then you encourage them to go out and do that job in the best manner possible, in most cases, they’ll take that responsibility, and they’ll run with it. And they’ll try to excel. But they need the tools and the training to get the job done right. If it’s demoralizing, we would have to find out why is demoralizing and make those changes.
But more than that, working with vulnerable people in a sobering centre and day shelter is a specialized occupation. It requires training, it requires people who know what they’re doing to help people who are often at some of their lowest ebbs. Then having a few dozen office staff walking into the same building at the same time? Many people might see that as something of an unnecessary move.
I’m not suggesting that there’s a half a dozen people. Probably two that are in charge of that facility would be enough, I think, and it would provide oversight to ensure that – call it project management, call it what you will – but who’s actually overseeing the current contract of that facility? Is it being run as per the contract says? You know, I think there’s a little bit of a gap about what the expectations are, and what’s happening. So where’s that oversight? I believe that if the people in charge are there, we’ll get that oversight.
The NWT Disabilities Council is the current operator of the facility, although that is up for tender in the near future. Have you spoken to them at all about it?
I have not.
Is that something you will do?
They’ve made presentations to council. I’ve heard those presentations. Here’s a good example, I think, of how politicians can influence this sort of thing. I do know the contract is up. I’ve heard that there have been suggestions that it be a one-year contract. I don’t know if it is or isn’t. But when that contract is going out, the politicians should be very clear what the expectations are. And that would be how we could ensure that different things are happening, that new things are being tried.
Also, in your platform document, you talk about “keeping every MLA from across the NWT focused on why Yellowknife needs the resources.” What do you mean by that?
We’re a territory of 40,000 people. There’s 19 MLAs representing every resident in the North. Some of those communities are dry communities. Some of those communities, they only have health centres. So we see people that are coming to Yellowknife from these communities for health reasons, incarcerations, and when they come to Yellowknife, they don’t always go home.
So the downtown Yellowknife issue is not only a downtown Yellowknife issue. The people in the downtown who need help, need resources, they come from every corner of our territory and they end up here for whatever reason, and either can’t get home… they need help, but it’s not a Yellowknife issue. This is a territorial issue. Every MLA needs to be on board in solving this problem.
Speaking of being plain-spoken, you have in the past occasionally got yourself into hot water over issues like the Canadian flag that was mixed with a pride flag over City Hall; over suggesting that carpentry was too physically demanding for a lot of women… to the point where a couple of people have been in touch with us and said they’re concerned about your ability to represent all people in the district. What do you say to people listening to this?
So I mean, the flag one, absolutely. I am, you know, a very strong believer that the Canadian flag represents every Canadian and the flag shouldn’t be changed, altered, or anything. That is Canadians’ flag. When you change it, it all of a sudden doesn’t represent every Canadian. You know, pride, they have their own flag. It’s a wonderful flag. We paint it on our crosswalks in the city.
But of all the things to get offended about. Putting the rainbow stripes on a Canadian flag.
You know what? Sure, some people are going to have that opinion, and I’ve had a lot of people that have come to me and said, “You know what? If the flag is to represent everybody then it needs to do that.” So I guess it’s a personal moral issue, if you will. I have no problem with the pride flag being flown.
We have proper flag protocol at City Hall now that came of that scenario, which is a great thing, because now we have pride flying the flag, we have the Filipino association flying their flag, we have multiple flags being flown there in any given year. So, you know, I think there’s a positive thing that came out of that, because now we can represent all Canadians how we should. We have the territorial flag that’s flying next to the city flag. And then, you know, associations and groups can come and get their flag flown.
But I think this slightly misconstrues the issue as a flag issue when really, to the people who were complaining at the time, it was more that of all the things for politicians to get worked up about, this one expression of alliance? It seemed a bit much to them. And they wanted to hear from you how you’ll represent those people when in office.
Well, I mean… OK, so specifically the people that were outraged by the flag? Quite honestly, I don’t think that they’re ever going to feel represented by me.
They have a preconceived opinion of what I am. I’m a white, male business owner. That is how they view me. I think if you… you know, I have other friends and colleagues who are LGBTQ+ and, even on the flag issue, there were several of them that reached out and said, “You know, what, you’re right, Niels. The flag is everybody’s flag, we have our own flag, we should fly our own flag.” So you’re never going to make everybody happy.
I told somebody this the other day: on any given issue, if you can get 80 percent of the people happy, that’s awesome. And the next week, the 20 percent that were unhappy with you are happy with the decision you’re making that week, along with 60 percent of the 80 percent that liked you the week before.
I believe that in all the decisions I have made at City Hall, I have had the best interest of the most people, and our community, in heart and in mind. And, you know, I stand by that.
Just lastly, because we’re running out of time, the NWT is going to get a new premier following this election. What kind of premier do you think the territory needs for the next four years?
We need a strong leader. I mean, number one, we need absolutely a strong leader.
What does that look like?
Well, a strong leader is somebody who can be vocal and outspoken for the residents of the Northwest Territories, number one, with our best interests in mind. When this new group of MLAs is elected, there’s going to be a cabinet there’s going to be picked, there’s going to be a premier, there’s going to be a speaker. It’s going to be somebody who can speak out for us, someone who is going to be a strong proponent of the Northwest Territories. Vocal, letting people know what our problems are in the Northwest Territories.
Forty thousand people, we’re a small community in a vast, vast land. We need support from the federal government to do all the things that we’ve talked about today. So we need somebody who will go to that table, who will respectfully advocate for the Northwest Territories and ensure that we are getting what we need both for ourselves and for Canada as a whole.
Do you see yourself as a regular MLA or cabinet member?
You know, definitely I would like to be on cabinet.
In what role? Have you given that any thought?
I have not, but I do think that my 16 years of owning and running a business, my seven years on council, my countless things that we’ve done for community groups and organizations in the community, and my lived past experiences – I mean, I lived for eight years in Denmark, where there’s a lot of great social programs – I think that all leads to that I would be a good cabinet minister.
But that being said, we don’t know who’s getting elected on October 1. When those people are elected, hopefully there’s such a great group of people that get elected, and leaders, that I’ll be like, “You know what, I am not one of the top leaders here and we need better people than me in cabinet.”