Jackson Lafferty is set to be acclaimed as MLA for Monfwi on October 1.
After his fifth term as a territorial politician, Lafferty has stood in most places in the legislative assembly including as a regular MLA, member of cabinet, and most recently speaker.
In a conversation with Cabin Radio, Lafferty said the government needs to think creatively around the perennial issue of housing. Using tiny homes as an example, Lafferty said the concept “fits well with the communities” and could contribute to alleviating the situation of Monfwi residents who are homeless in Yellowknife.
While careful not to make specific promises for his next term, Lafferty said some infrastructure and energy projects need action. These include the road through the Slave Geological Province, replacing the Frank Channel bridge, and alternatives to diesel to power communities.
“We can’t even have dry fish, dry meat hanging outside,” he said of the current situation in the smaller Monfwi communities reliant on diesel. “A lot of Elders are complaining over the years and now I think it’s time we replace those.”
After 14 years in office, Lafferty said the GNWT needs to do better on making decisions knowing the needs of the people, especially the remote and isolated communities. He urged new cabinet members after October 1 to visit the communities and put themselves in the shoes of Elders, vulnerable residents, and other community members.
“[Decision-making] has to be based on the needs of the community, needs of the people. And I don’t really see that happening today,” he said.
Without explicitly declaring his intentions, Lafferty said he would “seriously consider” a bid for the position of premier after speaking with the 18 other MLAs elected October 1.
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Lafferty’s interview air date is September 19.
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. Over the past four years, could you tell me where you believe you’ve made the biggest difference?
Jackson Lafferty: The past four years, as you know, I was the speaker. And I was a former minister as well. But the past four years, one of the key things that we’ve initiated was the introduction of Elders into our Legislative Assembly as a prayer and also introducing the language, preserving our language, and speaking more of our first language in the house. We have three elected officials that spoke passionately in their language and we have French language as well spoken in the house, and English. And we try to introduce other languages. And so we’re going to continue pushing that and introducing that outside of the Legislative Assembly, throughout Canada and internationally as well.
There are lots envious from other jurisdictions on how we introduce Elders into our Legislative Assembly and drumming into our Legislative Assembly. And just a different way of doing things and our uniqueness, our consensus-style government in the Northwest Territories that we compromise another day. We shake hands when we depart from our session out of respect, and I shake hands every Monday morning, or afternoon I should say, to members to say this is a great day to work together, respect each other. And let’s have an awesome day. Just shaking hands with 18 members, that goes a long way. I think that goes to show that respect from members onto the chair as a speaker. And the last four years has been a really smooth transition. And I say thank you to to the members, and to the Elders that came in and introduced a prayer and wisdom from the Elders onto the members.
As Speaker for the past four years, we haven’t heard too much from you in terms of issues. I’m wondering how you’ve been able to advocate for the constituents of Monfwi with this position that you’ve held?
I believe I was in a unique position as a speaker. The perception is that I don’t ask questions in the house. At the same time, I had direct access to the premier and executive over the last four years. So whenever issues arise from my constituencies, I raise that issue directly with the premier’s office or minister’s office, close the door and sit down with them. And within five days, I usually get a response. So even though I may not make noise in the house, I have a direct approach to the executive. And to that degree, I get a direct response. And I don’t have to argue with them. Sometimes I have to, but most of the time I lay everything on the table. And they usually come back with a response of “working on it” or “this will take some time” or “done.” So in my view, as a speaker, I was very fortunate to be in a role to deliver a message through the executive and positive response in my favour for my constituency over the last four years.
Sounds like it might even be more effective than being on the other side.
Well, you know, both sides, they have to work together. Regular members, 11 of them and seven executive, we have a common vision of a four-year mandate. And everybody has a dream of having a positive impact into the communities. Every election, even this election October 1, all 19 members will come in with their own ideas and solutions.
So they can have a handprint on the actual mandate document that we as 19 members have to fulfill for the next four years as goal and objectives.
I’d like to hear from you about the main challenges in your district. If you could look at three big challenges that your district faces looking forward…
One of the key factors I’m always hearing is, obviously, the housing issue. Housing is a huge challenge. It always has been in the past and always will be. There’s always a shortage of funding and a shortage of housing units available. There are long waitlists. And so you have to deal with the GNWT, local housing authority, the federal government.
The federal government, in 2038, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation will be depleted. And so we have to start planning now, 2038 is just around the corner.
So we have to think outside the box where we talk about so many things such as we’ve done our research into tiny homes. Why couldn’t we fit that into our system, the GNWT system as part of the housing corporation? So it fits well with the communities but we haven’t really pursued that yet, for some reason. And it just makes perfect sense. A lot of individuals are out on the streets homeless. My constituents are in Yellowknife, homeless. Last 15 years, it wasn’t there. Now it’s creating more of that. How should we be dealing with that? One of them is obviously, to think creatively of programs that we deliver.
And another one is the high cost of living in the Northwest Territories. In my region, of course, I serve three communities that are isolated and no road access except for a winter road. Now that we have construction being built to Whatì, an all-season road, that will benefit the community. Hopefully lower some high costs there. That’s always been a challenge.
And one other area that we talked a while back ago was Whatì mini hydro. That was in the works and for some reason the parties backed up on that, and now they’re focusing on the transmission line. So anything that can reduce the high cost of living in the community will definitely benefit the community. So obviously, we have to continue to monitor that and how we can improve it to reduce the high cost of living in the communities.
And so 19 of us will come in, and we’re going to have our own ideas on how we can deal with the high cost of living. Just hearing the forum last night and probably tonight too, how to tackle the high cost of living in the community. This is an area of interest for me, personal interest, we need to have some solutions to it. So in the 19th Assembly we’ll certainly have to deal with it. I guess you can say a high cost of living captures almost everything in the Northwest Territories.
And just having health and wellness of our community members, educated community members. They talk about the University of the North. So that was brought up yesterday as well at the forum. We need to have some sort of enhancement, where we have educated people ready for the workforce. We currently don’t have a resource pool, educated and with experience too.
So those are just some of the areas that have been brought to my attention from my visits to my constituents. So that will be my drive. When we all come in with our own ideas, I’ll be on the table and sharing other perspectives as well and develop a mandate from there.
So once you are acclaimed on October 1, do you have specific actions within these challenges that you mentioned? Do you have specific actions that you are going to push for?
I believe all candidates will be bringing in their broad platform. The details will be hashed out later on. I’ve only given you high-level areas. Of course, the details will be worked out later. But those are just some of the three big topics. There’s others as well.
I want to hear from other perspectives as well, the other 18 members and what’s their interest? What’s their important issues or topics that they want the Northwest Territories to address? And obviously, I have my own that I’ll bring to the table as well. But I think from other members, you’ll be hearing a broad perspective, a general idea of what they want to pursue. Not so much getting into detail because we have to figure out what’s there before us, program dollars and so forth, a budgetary process. And we can’t make promises and say, “OK, well, this is what I want to pursue.” And if it doesn’t work, you’ve kind of broken the promises. So I’m giving you a broad term. And once we know what’s before us, then we can certainly work with it.
Infrastructure was a focus of the last government and your region benefited from that, including most recently the groundbreaking of the Whatì all-season road. Do you have specific infrastructure projects, such as the larger-scale power and road projects, that you want to see advanced in the next legislative assembly?
Yes, infrastructure has been a key factor for the last few years, actually, not just this past four years. Whatì all-weather road has been a huge infrastructure, as well.
But at the same time, there’s talks about the Frank Channel bridge. I guess you can say, the gateway to the South – when you travel by vehicle – that hasn’t been replaced for the last 30-plus years, and it’s deteriorating. And I drive that almost every day. And so I know the situation that it’s in and now the territorial government is in favour of replacing that bridge, working with the federal government. The federal government has given us a nod that yes, that should be a priority. So there is a proposal in place and working with the federal [government].
And the Slave Geological area as well, the road from Nunavut to the Northwest Territories or vice versa, those are the key factors that are in play with the federal government. So there’s a lot of infrastructure, obviously, that will come into play.
As I stated, members will be having their own wish list, part of that will be infrastructure. And within our jurisdiction, high cost of living, again I have to stress that hydro initiative. Whether it be mini hydro, Taltson, Snare, how can we enhance that further onto the communities?
We have a diesel plant that’s in the communities. It’s not working well for us, we can’t even have dry fish, dry meat hanging outside. A lot of Elders are complaining over the years and now I think it’s time we replace those. Whether it be hydro, whether it be a transmission line, anything that can get off the diesel in the community. So that will be one of the wishes.
I’m sure it’s not just me, other isolated communities that are in the same challenges. Yeah, just reduce the overall high cost of living in the community.
You’ve held a number of different cabinet positions, speaker, regular MLA. What are you looking to the next assembly? Are you looking for a cabinet position?
I guess the time will tell. I’ve been a regular member for two years, as a chair of priorities and planning in 2006. And eight years as a minister of education, minister of justice, so I’ve had some experience at the cabinet table. And there’s been some real challenges of pushing some items through, some projects. But I did manage to do that. And some of those are starting to show up through ECE, education, thank goodness. A foundation was laid, now it’s coming out and it’s very positive changes.
And now as a four-year speaker, I wanted to have a well-grounded experience within the Legislative Assembly, which I’ve done as a regular member, minister, speaker. So after the election, I will be talking to members-elect and seeing where their views lie and what their interests are and who’s interested in what positions whether it be speaker, ministers, premier. So I’ll definitely be talking to them. And I have my own perspective as well. Where I want to be, obviously, I want to be part of the change, positive change for the Northwest Territories.
And we have to start thinking outside the box, to be creative and innovative as we move forward. Creating more business partnerships, even working partnerships with community leaders. We need to strengthen that. We have to go with a mandate together, whether it be going to Ottawa… why couldn’t we have a delegation, meeting with the federal officials? Because if they’re behind us, then they know we’re serious. Not just the premier going over there but with the true partners of the North. And I think that will go a long way. And I don’t really see that happening. Working closely with Aboriginal government as well, whether it be the Dene Nation, IRC, Gwich’in and other leadership out there, we need to strengthen that even further.
The top job in the territory is open. Are you entertaining the prospect of becoming Premier of the Northwest Territories?
Well, the last election, I’ve been approached by numerous people if I would consider then the top job. And at that time, I wasn’t prepared to take on the role. I still had my kids in junior high at that time. But now that they’re in high school, this is an area that I’ll seriously consider. Now I guess you can say I’m indirectly or directly elected now. I’ll be there for the next four years. So this is an area that I’ll certainly pursue.
You have perhaps more experience than anyone else coming in to the Legislative Assembly. In your long experience, what works with the GNWT and what doesn’t work, broadly?
Coming into the Legislative Assembly in 2005, I wasn’t sure what to expect but at the same time was very excited. I still am and I love my job. I love serving people, and not only my Tłı̨chǫ people, but the Northwest Territories as I’ve done as a minister.
And I think you just have to be a keen listener to make changes, positive changes in the Northwest Territories. And just having people surround you, whether it be the bureaucrats or whether it be elected officials across the Northwest Territories. It’s not just the Northwest Territories, it’s outside – provincial partners, we have to work with them, other leaders and the federal level as well. And also at the international level.
I was part of this Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I was executive for three years. So we’ve made the understanding that the Northwest Territories is open for any business or any opportunities that we can get our hands on. And part of the Samoan experience, guaranteeing seats in the house, that I introduced in the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly to increase female leadership as members of the legislative assembly. So that was just a working document, as an example, that we use from other jurisdictions.
You know, we talk about various programs within the GNWT, there are some programs out working. Some obviously need to be enhanced or improved. And some of the policies in play and policies are there for a reason. But policies can be amended as well. You know, there are times where we’re challenged and we’re pushing the corner… It has to be based on the needs of the community, needs of the people. And I don’t really see that happening today. Obviously, I’d like to see more of that. And I’ll be talking to members on that particular item. That’s coming from 2005 until today, I’ve seen so many changes.
And that’s one area that we can improve so much in program delivery, we need to be exposed into the communities and not so much, I guess you can say, directly or indirectly dictating from the headquarters in Yellowknife. Making decisions for small, isolated communities. We should be going to the communities, we should be going to isolated communities, sitting down – whether it be as a minister, premier or the top officials, the bureaucrats, they need to be talking to people.
They need to understand how people are living in the communities, what their interests are. And so they understand they’re having the final ink of decision-making. And they have to put themselves in their shoes. Homeless or a family of nine who do not have a house or a one-bedroom house, they need to see that. But it’s not happening. We need to see more of those individuals into the communities, whether it be on the phone, internet, or whatever the case may be, but they need to understand the process. Because we, in the capital of the Northwest Territories, we make decisions. But it should be based on community and individuals’ needs at the community level.
A lot of consultation is done through web-based consultation on many topics. But you’re saying that that’s not enough, that’s not capturing the communities’ needs?
Yes. Obviously we have done a lot of studies, surveys. You say consultation, I don’t really like that word, consultation. It is engaging, we need to engage the community members, what their areas of concerns are, what they want us to pursue, what they want to see change.
And it’s very difficult for an Elder that doesn’t speak the language to say those things. But they can easily address it to us, like myself, I speak the language.
But at the same time we have 11 official languages, nine are Aboriginal languages. We need to strengthen that as well. We need to preserve our language and cultural preservation. Because it is our identity, we have to deal with all the Elders in the communities.
And so I just want us to focus more in those areas, and engaging the public, engaging the community members, engaging the most vulnerable in the communities. And I think we can go a long way, sharing their perspectives. Like when I was minister of education, whenever I visited the community I went to schools. I talked to janitors, I talked to the clerk’s office, I talked to the classroom assistants, what their interests are or if there were any issues. Obviously they’re hesitant at times. But I’d say, “It’s just me, it’s Jackson. Talk to me.” And they talk and then from there I planted a seed into our discussion. ‘This is what I’ve heard from a local school,” let’s say in Tulita, “a janitor approached me and this is an area of concern. Can we address it?” A busing issue, whatever the case may be.
So we need to do more of that. So the 19th Assembly, whoever the leadership is of the day, if we can be out there and engaging people – the public, the Elders – I think that will go a long way.