Wilfred McNeely Jr is hoping to become the MLA for Sahtu.
Formerly the Chief of Fort Good Hope and Grand Chief of the Sahtu Dene Council, McNeely told Cabin Radio he has the experience necessary to “hit the ground running” if elected October 1. McNeely said he has also been involved with the land claims process in the Sahtu since 1994.
McNeely’s focus going into the election is on three challenges facing the region: housing, training, and education.
While he doesn’t have a “silver bullet” solution to housing, McNeely said he has innovative ideas to take to the territorial level from tackling Fort Good Hope’s housing crisis. And tackling housing must come first, he added, before other issues are dealt with.
“If a person doesn’t have a house then they can’t work. If a person doesn’t have a house then they can’t raise a family and can’t get a good education,” McNeely said. “So housing seems to be the main thing that’s built on to develop all the other areas.”
Another goal for McNeely is the establishment of a training facility in Norman Wells, to train Class 1 drivers and other trades including mechanics, plumbers, and electricians. He believes this would prevent Sahtu youth from leaving the region for education.
A review of education in the Sahtu is long overdue, McNeely said, as students are finishing high school without the knowledge needed to progress to post-secondary. “If my children are going to graduate with a certificate from a diploma from Good Hope, and they can’t even get into Aurora College, then something’s wrong,” he said, adding he sent his own children south to finish high school.
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. McNeely’s interview air date is September 24.
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on September 13, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Emelie Peacock: Tell me about yourself and why you decided to put your name forward for MLA this year.
Wilfred McNeely Jr: A little bit about my background: I’m originally from the Sahtu, I’m 51 years old. I’ve lived in the Sahtu all my life, in Fort Good Hope. I have three children, all graduates. One of them is still going to NAIT and the other one took a year off and presently, he’s gone to school to be an ENR officer. And my daughter, oldest one, lives in Edmonton and was in private school in Edmonton, with our grandson.
When the land claim agreement was signed in ’93, I was part of the board right away in ’94. I’ve been on the board and working with Sahtu Secretariat Incorporated from 1994 all the way till 2009. So I worked with the land claim for that long time, on the regional level, on the district level, and then on the community level. I have been the Grand Chief of the Sahtu from January 2016 to July 2019, when I didn’t get elected as chief. I was Chief of the Fort Good Hope band for the past four years, I first got elected in 2011. And I lost the election in 2013. And then I won again in 2015 to this past July 2019.
So I come with a little bit of experience with respect to Sahtu politics and that’s the reason why I decided to put my name in for MLA, because I have been working with the chiefs at the regional level, working on things such as guardians and a training facility. The chiefs have been looking at trying to set up a training facility in Norman Wells. And I hope it’s still their wishes to open a training facility in Norman Wells.
This is the number one reason why I submitted my name to become MLA: because I think a lot of our youth in the Sahtu need training in respect to plumbers, electricians, mechanical, Class 1 drivers’ training. There are a lot of youth with good potential. And I think they’re having a little bit of difficulty trying to get into the entrance exam. And I think we should somehow, someway accommodate them. And if we all come together as leaders and all look at one goal, I think we can accomplish that. So that is the number one reason why I submitted my name for MLA, because I know the issues.
We put together a couple of plans and how to go about executing them. And they’re still in the process with respect to housing. That’s one of the biggest issues in the Sahtu and I’m quite familiar with a lot of the issues. I don’t have a silver bullet answer for any of the problems.
All I know is that I can work hard to make sure some of these problems are solved. I’m hoping to help solve them. And I hope a lot of people see it in me that we can probably work with these issues. And I do work hard. I know I do work hard. We did a proposal on housing. And I’m hoping that we can utilize those on a going-forward basis.
So the problem is there. Everybody knows the problems. They’ve been around for a long, long time as everybody has different views on different issues. So if we can all come together and work towards a path to success, I’m positive we can accomplish it.
In your view, what are the other challenges facing the Sahtu?
You probably know about the job turndown. The oil companies are not around any more, we don’t have any mines in the Sahtu. All we have now is reclamation of Norman Wells and reclamation of some of the bigger mines that were around the Great Bear Lake area.
And I’m familiar with them. I know they’re in existence, but because I’m from Good Hope, and we don’t operate in those areas, we try not to get ourselves involved in other districts’ politics. If it’s within K’asho Got’ine area we have rules where it’s our concern and we deal with those issues. Or if it’s on a regional level then, if it’s the Sahtu Dene Council, if they have a way to work with it, then they will. Other than that, we usually just stay away and respect the other community’s wishes. And that’s how we’ve always operated.
Tell me about your platform. If you’re elected, what are some things that you would like to see accomplished?
Well, I’ve been going around to the communities and I’m well aware of some of the issues there. But I don’t think I can accomplish those things by myself, I need everybody’s input on how to go.
Like I said, building a path to success is the way forward. If a person such as myself goes after and tries to solve these problems with my own wishes, it’s never going to succeed. We need everybody to be involved in getting these things done. We have regional bodies, through SSI, we have regional bodies through the chamber of commerce in Norman Wells, we have leaders in each of the communities that all need to be consulted. They all need to bring their ideas forward and I’ve got my own ideas. And we can all sit down together. And if we have a plan.
But it’s easy to accomplish a plan if we all come together rather than throwing my own views on the table and saying, “This is the way we should do it.” It doesn’t work. I know it doesn’t work, I’ve seen it. So I’m kind of hoping that I can move in that perspective rather than trying to throw my own ideas and implementing my own ideas. I know that doesn’t work. If I’m going to work for the people, the ideas have to come from the people.
Now you say you don’t want to prescribe solutions yet. But what are some of the major areas that would be a focus for you if you got elected?
Well, I was told long ago by other people – old leaders that have been leaders for a long time – is that if you pick two, three or four of them, shoot for three. There might be 10 huge problems, but you can only work with three. And the three that I would like to work with is housing as one of the bigger ones. And then training and education. These are the three main issues that I would like to work with.
We have worked on things in the community before and housing is the main one. There are studies being done and there are community meetings that happen around housing. And they’re saying that if a person doesn’t have a house then they can’t work, if a person doesn’t have a house then they can’t raise a family and can’t get a good education. So housing seems to be the main thing that’s built on to develop all the other areas. So I believe that’s what we need to do, is solve the housing problem. Is it homeownership? Is it public housing? These are the types of issues that come to mind right off.
Are there things from your Fort Good Hope experience that you would take forward to the territorial level?
I just think I could bring some good innovative ideas to the territorial level. One of them being log homes. We put together a pretty nice proposal with respect to log homes and it was a four or five-year plan with training involved in it.
And I believe that the youth… let them own it. If they owned something, if I owned it, I would probably work really hard to make sure that these things become… If I have ownership over something, it becomes a value. And then I can see it being built. I could feel it, touch it, smell it, all my five senses kick in. So if I know it’s mine, then I’ll work harder at it. That’s the way I try to move forward, because that’s the way that I was when I was younger.
So I believe that the youth are the same way. If they have some ownership into some of the things that are being built in a community, then they will work harder at it and they’ll work with a little bit of pride in what they do.
And I’ve seen it, I’m a contractor so I work with a lot of these youth. And a lot of them, you give them something and then they start working at it and then they’re good at what they do. It’s just they need a little bit more encouragement, a little bit more learning how to do it and using the tools. It’s good to watch when things start clicking for someone. For me, I get a lot of happiness out of watching somebody change when they get to work with their hands, accomplishing something. So it’s interesting to see.
Staying on the topic of young people, one of your priorities is education. And we heard, just at the end of the last assembly, education minister Caroline Cochrane was saying that the Sahtu needs an education review and Indigenous governments need to be more involved in how education is delivered. How do you see the needs of your region in education and how do you see some of the solutions?
As chief, I was meeting with a lot of the people that sit on these education boards in the Sahtu and a lot of them had concerns with the way things are being structured. And I actually got an email here from the NWTAC, which works with municipalities. And we see it in that area also. They’re requesting to maybe have a review of the education system. And I think it’s long overdue.
I believe that because I’ve got three children that graduated and they didn’t graduate in the community of Good Hope. And the reason is because, I think, the education system in Good Hope was just a little too low at the time. And so what I did was I had to send my children to education in Edmonton at a private school because I had strong beliefs that the education in Good Hope was too low. Everybody has their own view of how education is being done. And I was just of the view that, “OK, if my children are going to graduate with a certificate from a diploma from Good Hope, and they can’t even get into Aurora College, then something’s wrong.”
And you can talk to a lot of people in the communities and it does need to be reviewed. And I don’t know how they’re going to go about doing it. I hope the education minister, the new one if there is going to be or if it’s going to be Caroline Cochrane again, then they follow through with that request from Sahtu.
I don’t know how Sahtu people feel about if they do that. I think it’s long overdue anyway. And it’s not trying to say that maybe they’re doing it badly. Maybe it’s the curriculum, maybe there’s nothing wrong with it, maybe it just needs to be shuffled around a little to make it better. Who knows what it is? I’m not a teacher, I don’t think I have all the right answers. All I’m saying is maybe we need to talk about it to say, “OK, well, how could we make it better?”
Because we still have students that are going to school in these small communities and if they’re coming out, how do we make sure that there’s a measuring stick to say, “Yes, your diploma is worth something”?
Because a lot of the students that come out of there are going into OCAP and UCAP. So they’re using two years of SFA funding and you only get six years of it. So if you’re using two years of SFA funding and you should have come out of the school with those credentials, then maybe we’re setting ourselves up short. Because they only have four more years. I know of some students that were in school here that took two-year courses, needed an additional year because they needed to brush up on some of the areas. We can’t let them get out of school without the proper education.
Your third area of focus is training. I want to speak about a project that I’ve actually heard from other candidates about quite a bit, and that is the Mackenzie Valley Highway project. How realistic is it to get the shovels in the ground on the Mackenzie Valley highway? And would you focus on this or would you see other infrastructure projects being equally important in the Sahtu?
I have always pushed for the Mackenzie Valley Highway at the regional level, at the community level, at every level because that’s what our community AGMs have always pushed for. They want the Mackenzie Valley Highway back. And that came out of my community of Good Hope and that came out of other communities. And that came out of the SSI area, that came over the STC meetings on the AGM.
So as a leader you have to accommodate people. When they say, “We want the highway,” then you have to get behind it. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The people want it, that’s what you have to do. There are some people that may not want it. But at the regional level, the AGM, when a community moves an AGM you have to go with it.
And this is the reason why we’re trying to push training and using Class 1 training. Not only that but we’ve submitted proposals where we were going to get a crusher into Good Hope. Good Hope has the idea that gravel is the biggest portion of a highway and Good Hope has gravel out your back door. That’s one of the commodities that we have in our community. And we’ve sat down with ITI people, we sat down with some of our more key people in the communities and we said, “OK, well, what can what kind of proposals can we submit, moving forward on some of the things that we have?” And one of them was gravel. They’re saying, “OK, well you’ve got tons of gravel, let’s utilize it.”
We built a proposal, we would have had a crusher. That crusher ended up going to Colville Lake because Good Hope at the time didn’t think they were ready for it. So Colville is going to end up with a crusher. And crushing? You need training, you need trained people. If you have a crusher that belongs to somebody, they’re going to train every year. You might not crush a million cubic metres of gravel in a year, but the highway is probably about five or 10 years down the road. We can do the training and gravel doesn’t go bad if you pile it over there. There’s gravel piled all over that the government does for community airports, and they’ve sat there. In Good Hope one pile sat there for 15 years before they used it. And they used it and there was nothing wrong with it. So you know, just little projects like that, that we could start capitalizing on now. And then that gravel is crushed. And then when it’s all piled there, we can sell it to them.
So these are some of the innovative ideas that the community was looking at. And then it puts you in a little bit better a position when you have trained people and you have crushed gravel, and it’s ready to roll and they know that they can crush the gravel. It puts you in the driver’s seat when the time comes to start building the road.
And then when you’re crushing the gravel you have to move the gravel around. Training components come into that, you can put Class 1 driver training into action. There’s a guy in the Sahtu that’s been bothering me for almost four years to get Class 1 training off the ground. And we’ve been working towards that. And that’s where we’re trying to open up that facility, Norman Wells, the training facility. We were even saying, “OK, instead of sending our people down to Yellowknife, down to Edmonton for Class 1 training, let’s bring it right to Sahtu.” And the only way you can have a Class 1 training that’s recognized in Sahtu is if you have a light. So I’ve been talking to different people to see if we can put a streetlight in Norman Wells so the credentials are recognized at the territorial level. So these are some of the obstacles that are in our way.
And I like to train people in the Sahtu. The reason why is because you train people in Yellowknife, you train people in Edmonton, they get a job down there, they don’t come back. They don’t come back to the Sahtu. So this is why I’ve been pushing that way because if you train people in the Sahtu, they’re going to stay in the Sahtu. Whether it’s Norman Wells, whether it’s Colville Lake, whether it’s Good Hope, they will stay here.
So this is what we’ve been looking at. And I talked to the chiefs about it. And I told them my views. And they said, “Yeah, we think you’re right.” They all backed me on those issues, and I’m kind-of glad that they did because we’re losing a lot of our trained people and losing a lot of our educated people because they go to school in Yellowknife. And then they build a new family, then they don’t want to come home. And that’s what ends up happening. And then we lose them. And how do you get them back? They need a job, they need a house, they need revenue, all these things that go with it. What are they going to do? Come to Good Hope and struggle with no house and no job? And how are they going to make payments?
So this is the way they looked at it. And then they start saying, “OK, well, maybe we should open this training facility.” So these are just some of the little ideas that I passed forward. And I was hoping that it will work.
We’ve only got about 30 seconds left. I want you to speak directly to the voters. Why should they elect you on October 1?
For one, I think I come with a lot of experience. I’ve been working the land claim for a long time. I’ve been chief for six years out of the past eight, I know the concerns in the community of Good Hope. I know the concerns in some of the other communities in the region because I was also grand chief for almost three years.
So I know we’ve been working hard building different areas and trying to make sure that we look at long-term plans for youth, because they’re all getting older, they’re going to be taking our places sooner or later. So we have to prepare them, get them educated, get them trained.
So I’m hoping that they would elect me because of my experiences with those areas and I can hit the ground running. You hit the ground running, you can get a lot done in four years. Four years goes by very fast.