Daniel McNeely is seeking to remain the MLA for the Sahtu.
As a first-term MLA in the 18th Legislative Assembly, McNeely told Cabin Radio getting the financial commitment for the Mackenzie Valley Highway is one of his biggest accomplishments.
It's a project McNeely wants to focus on if re-elected, as it will open up the Sahtu region, where the major challenge is isolation and knock-on effects including the high cost of living, depression, and a lack of opportunity.
To get the road built a business case would need to be made, McNeely said, highlighting the potential of the region – including such things as tourism and resource development. "Some of the first mine discoveries were on the shores of Great Bear Lake. We've got oil and gas. So there's a huge amount of potential to create returns for taxpayers," he said.
McNeely said he is also focused on improving the Nutrition North program as well as tackling housing challenges. Education needs to be reformed, he added, starting with a review of the 1996 Education Act.
Seen as widely supportive of cabinet during his first term, McNeely said more can be achieved by working with the government than against them. If re-elected, McNeely said he will be lobbying to become a cabinet member. However, the position of premier is not in his plans.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News podcast. McNeely's interview air date is September 23.
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on September 11, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Emelie Peacock: I want to start by looking back. Where do you think you've made the biggest difference as an MLA over the past four years?
Daniel McNeely: I would say the biggest accomplishment, I think, is with the financial commitment for the Mackenzie Valley Highway.
Where are we at with this highway project?
Where we are at, currently, is that we're sitting at a financial commitment of 24 percent to the project cost. And it was an application submitted from the territorial government to the federal government for a total of $700 million to build a 330-km section of the highway connecting an extension from Fort Wrigley to Norman Wells, which includes the 470-metre structural span for a bridge across the Great Bear River.
What are some other things over the past four years that you would count as successes?
I would say some of the other things is that we got commitments for a new school in Colville Lake, we got a nursing staff unit in Tulita and a health centre in Tulita. And these are both needed community infrastructure. And we also have a new department staffed in Norman Wells, the Department of Infrastructure. So that gives more independence for the Sahtu region.
As a regular MLA you often voted in support of government plans, including supporting ministers Abernethy, Schumann and Sebert during votes to remove them from their positions. Does this suggest you think the GNWT, overall, is doing a good job?
There are always avenues for improvement but when I look back on my support given to the midterm review, I would rather – after consultation with the leaders of the Sahtu – work with cabinet rather than work against cabinet. And that gives the fundamental principles of consensus government. In collaboration with government, you would be further ahead. Anybody would be further ahead working together to achieve the same objectives. As part of your deliberations for collaboration, you set out goals and objectives that both parties agree to. And I think I've demonstrated that, and I think the people that I represent would rather see me working with cabinet than working against cabinet by creating barriers. One could say the barriers are holding accountability. But you address that as you move along in your collaboration endeavours.
You said there's always room for improvement. Do you have any specific areas that you could point to that you think need to see improvement?
I would say the improvement, as an example, could be the tabled document for Child and Family Services that was tabled by the previous Minister of Health and Social Services. The Quality Improvement Plan, which actions out recommendations submitted by the Auditor General's report. So that's an example of, I think, how unfinished business will carry on. But it supports a strategic plan developed by cabinet or government.
I'm wondering if we can look at the Sahtu for a moment. What do you see as the biggest challenges, let's say the biggest three challenges facing your district at this point in time?
I would say the biggest challenge, and it creates a domino effect for other factors, is the remoteness and isolation. With isolation comes other areas created by isolation. High cost of living would be number one. Depression would be another one that may set in because of the lack of opportunity. And opportunity brings prosperity and growth and family stability and so on. We don't have that because we're isolated.
We have only biannual seasonal access and it's limited to some communities of the Sahtu, we've got five communities that are accessible by the winter road system. So that's seasonal access. And three of the communities afterwards are connected by the barging system. So both avenues of access bring a limited and seasonal amount of timeframe for bringing in affordable materials so you can build your home, affordable materials so that the store shelves could be stocked with affordable groceries. But even that supply chain has created a high price of groceries at our store shelves.
So to address some of these challenges, if you are re-elected, what will be some of your priorities over the next four years?
Looking forward to the next four years, and I've drafted our pamphlet setting out our platform, would be a continuation of what we started in the last four years. We started working on the Mackenzie Valley Highway and will certainly continue with that initiative. And there were a lot of suggestions made towards improving the Nutrition North program so we can see larger benefits down to the people in the remote communities, so that will be another initiative to carry forward. Housing is another initiative that we will continue on with, and healthcare and education. These are all strategies that we worked on – when I say "we," it's the 18th Assembly. Now we've just got to implement and action out these strategies so the benefits could be seen by local residents.
In terms of specific action, let's start with the Mackenzie Valley Highway. What type of specific actions would you want to take on that project?
I would really like to see the communities of Tulita and Norman Wells connected. We would have two of the five communities connected by an annual all-season road. And that would prove to the people that yes, it can be built. And the longer section would be Tulita to Wrigley. So a continuation of the plan would be forthcoming as we move forward.
So what exactly is required? And what would you push for as MLA to put those shovels in the ground to start it being built?
First and foremost is financing, we need to secure financing and that could be done through the development of a sound business case. But without financing, we have no project, whether you're going to build a school or a house or a road. So we need to secure financing and we need to do that in a regional group, a collaboration effort with the GNW,T and we have tools to form and substantiate and strengthen that collaboration system. We have a land claim that is to the advantage of the people. That's a tool that could be used and taken advantage of.
What is the business case for the Mackenzie Valley Highway?
The business case, I would probably say, in using the acronym of TPR. TPR is taxpayers' return. Building a business case to show the federal government that by connecting the Sahtu region, you're not only connecting the Sahtu but you're advertising and opening the resources and the assets that the Sahtu has to contribute towards the territorial and national GDP.
Take tourism for example. In the Sahtu, the land-water quantum makes up 26 per cent of the territorial landmass. Within that area, we have tourism potential. Some of the first mine discoveries were on the shores of Great Bear Lake. We've got oil and gas. So there's a huge amount of potential to create taxpayers returns.
I want to touch on education, I'd like to hear from you how you see the state of primary and secondary education in your district. And if elected, what are the improvements you would advocate for?
Yes, that's a very important issue to the Sahtu region. It's important to the parents, the public, the children, and the leadership that really has identified the education system as important to producing security to the children.
First of all, we have to identify the weaknesses of the system in order to review and develop a plan to improve. Now the Education Act has been drafted and legislated in 1996. So first of all, it's outdated to today's application. So that review needs to happen. And this system has to be done in collaboration with the whole region.
And I look forward to moving forward on redesigning and reforming a system that everybody supports and everybody had input into, that we all feel comfortable in implementing.
I'm wondering if we could talk as well about self-government agreements. Your region is leading the way with several communities having either achieved self-government or in the process of negotiating it. Over the past four years, how have you worked with these groups? And if re-elected, how would you continue that path forward?
My previous four-year support was given to the parties that are pursuing self-government. So in each community you have the Indigenous group pursuing self-government. So I wasn't involved or having a seat on the negotiating table.
But representing the people that are sitting at the table, I supported both the land claim Indigenous organization and the government during their deliberations and negotiations to arrive at a self-government agreement. So it's really up to both parties to negotiate that and I just shared any support that I could, as a regular MLA. And I look forward to maintaining that support.
So if you're elected, are you planning to continue as a regular MLA, or will you be looking into a cabinet position possibly?
I wouldn't say possibly looking at it. In my first term I did put my name forward for a cabinet position. And this second term, if elected, I will put my name forward again. And I think being a minister could give you extra advantages to the benefits that the people could see.
Would there be a specific portfolio that you'd be looking at?
I have my wishes, but first of all, I want to get elected as an MLA. And lobby all over again to get into cabinet. And I'll make my decision known at the time.
How about the top job? Are you vying for that?
No, I feel that I'm not appropriately ready for that type of a political ambition. There are other candidates, I feel, that have more to contribute to that role than I do. I feel in some degree that I'm still learning to be a political figure in the assembly. And I look forward to learning more.
The Sahtu has quite an interesting race going on right now with four candidates running. Some are new to politics and others have long political backgrounds. So I want to give you a chance to speak about what separates you from the other candidates, other than your experience as an MLA?
First of all, I want to wish the others luck here in their campaign. And I would say probably one of the biggest strengths that I bring to the table or the running is having served one term as the MLA for the Sahtu and the teachings or the experiences created by a first-term MLA on how government operates, and the functions, policies and procedures to follow to best serve your intelligence and your experience to carry on for a second term. So I would probably say that would be an advantage that I have on the experiences created from the representative seat during the 18th Assembly.
And how about your personal traits and your background. What makes you an ideal candidate this time around?
From my previous background, number one would be the business experience I had and some of the experiences I had with the negotiating of the Sahtu land claim back in the early 90s. And sitting as a community councillor for the community council of Fort Good Hope.
So those are the types of things that I think have created some experiences that I would bring also, aside from the experiences learned as a first-term MLA. I look forward to listening to the voters here during my campaign and hearing and sharing some of the concerns that we can jointly design and move forward on.