Frederick Blake Jr is set to be acclaimed as MLA for the Mackenzie Delta on October 1.
Blake has spent two terms in the Legislative Assembly as a regular MLA. Looking ahead, he told Cabin Radio settling land claims and signing self-government agreements must be a focus for the next government. This needs to be on the agenda during the selection of premier and cabinet, he said: “What their role is and how they see settling these agreements.”
How the territory’s economy will grow as mines get closer to their end of life needs to be a focus, Blake said, urging the NWT government to look at all areas of the economy – tourism, infrastructure projects, resource extraction – and work closely with land claim organizations as “rightfully, they are the landowners.”
Running for re-election in 2015, Blake said the delta faced a “severe housing shortage.” Four years later, he said he is seeing some progress, with the opening of a seniors’ home in Fort McPherson and other public housing in Mackenzie Delta communities. However, he said, local housing stock still has not increased and the government needs to lobby Ottawa while looking at ways to allow delta residents to become homeowners.
In his district, Blake’s priorities are building a school and an all-weather road to Aklavik, as well as improving RCMP and nursing services and possibly building an airstrip in Tsiigehtchic.
Blake said he’ll “most likely” seek a position in cabinet. He did not rule out an interest in the position of premier.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Blake’s interview air date is September 26.
More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far
This interview was recorded on September 19, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Emelie Peacock: I want to start with looking back. Where do you think you made the biggest difference in the Legislative Assembly over the past four years?
Frederick Blake Jr: Sitting on social development [a committee] with the other members, we made a number of changes working with the housing minister to change a lot of their policies. That was much needed, for the department to do their surveys and actually hear from each community. But a lot of times as MLAs we bring things forward, but it seems to me the departments want to hear firsthand from community members. It seems like that’s the feeling I always get, over the last four years anyway, they prefer to hear it from members in the community. It seems like they don’t always take our word for it. You know, we’re the voice of the people. And concerns I always get, I make sure I bring forward.
What were some of those changes that you referenced, with housing?
Well, just the different thresholds and taxes, a lot of the programs. Also, working with the department we finally completed the Elders’ home in Fort McPherson, which is a big relief. I know it will open up a lot of units in the communities, in Fort McPherson. We are seeing a big change already with people moving into new units and freeing up units for people that are on the waiting list.
You asked about that in the Legislative Assembly in August. So now they’ve already moved in, the Elders?
They’re starting to, yes. They had to wait to get a bunch of furniture. There are a couple of other duplexes, they had to get some work done since this winter and finally got meters installed. So those units are four units, two duplexes. So that’s four new units that opened up to community members. And I’ve noticed that they’ve moved in and it’s a big relief to a lot of families and to the community.
Before you were re-elected in 2015, you said there was a severe housing shortage in the Mackenzie Delta and that was your top concern. What is it looking like, right now?
It’s looking much better but we’ve still got a long way to go. Because what the department’s been doing is replacing units, which is great, but we’ve got to put more pressure on Ottawa to give us more funding to actually increase our units, like our housing stock. But that’s a big struggle we have up here is to actually have more homes brought into the community.
That’s something that we need to focus on over the next four years. Because we’re getting a lot of funding communities could access through CMHC, and I know the department’s working with communities to come up with projects, but we’ve got to start looking at ways to… instead of transferring it to housing, maybe keep it and give it to community members. We’ve got to work out something to actually have more homes instead of just the same number.
You mentioned pressuring Ottawa, and also perhaps giving money directly to community members. I imagine you’ve been working on some of those projects already over the last two terms that you’ve been in office. What is it that works, or what is it that you plan to push for over the next four years?
Maybe I’ll just use the funding that was given to the IRC as an example. They received $15 million, which is great. But we have to look at ways to actually increase our housing units because they transferred them over to housing. The reason why is because to manage them is a high cost and they don’t get funding for that. So they get transferred to housing and, in the end, housing just writes off some other units and disposes of them. So we actually end up with the same number.
So we have to look at ways, whether it’s pilot projects to build log homes or whatever is the best way, to spend that funding. I know there’s a few homeowners, especially starting to be Elders, that lived in their homes for 30, 40 years, that need new homes. So we’ve got to look at ways to set them up in a nice place, and whether it’s transferred over to them, because a lot of people want that independence. That’s something that we need to encourage as well.
Do you want to highlight any other successes or big projects that you’re proud of over the last four years?
Oh, just trying to find as much work for people up here, because we haven’t had any major projects since the completion of the Inuvik-Tuk highway. The completion of that over the last government was great. It did employ a number of people in the region, which was our goal. We need to find more major projects like that.
The Mackenzie Valley Highway, that needs to be one of our big targets, to connect it to Inuvik. And I think that’s what we need to focus on over the next four years. But just trying to find as much work for our residents, or my constituents, as I can. Because that’s what everybody wants is work.
I believe it was in 2017, you were expressing your concerns in the house about the government streamlining and cutting certain positions. At the time, you said the employment rate was just over 40 percent in Fort McPherson and Aklavik. What is it looking like right now?
It’s about the same. It actually went up a little bit since I first got in, but we always want to aim for 70, 80 percent would be great. We’ve got to find ways to get there.
And projects like the fibre optic line, which is supposed to start this winter. I know the communities up here are working closely with the Yukon. So I’m sure we’ll see a number of people working there, and we’re just trying to find any way to bring projects up here.
But one thing we need to go back to is building these housing units. Building capacity in the communities, training people, seeing more jobs in the communities once they start doing that.
And in terms of government jobs, are you satisfied with the amount of government jobs in the communities in your district?
Well, we could always improve. We’re supposed to be giving more opportunities in the communities, decentralizing a lot of these positions, but we really haven’t seen it as much as we were hoping up in this region. So I think that’s something we need to have another look at, come up with a better strategy.
You’ve been in office for two terms now and your third term, you’re set to be acclaimed on October 1. Are you looking toward a cabinet position or are you staying on as a regular MLA?
I’ll most likely seek a ministerial portfolio but out of respect for the other members we’ll see who gets re-elected or gets elected. There’s two seats for the North so I think we need to sit down and work things out and see how we could work together and make sure that we’re on the right page over the next four years.
Are you considering at all the position of premier?
Not right now. Once everybody gets in we’ll all be travelling to Yellowknife the week after the election. At that time, I’m sure we’ll have discussions and if you’re encouraged to, you’ve got to consider it. I mean, I just don’t want to jump too far ahead here just out of respect for everyone. I just want to see who gets elected and we’ll have a good chat once we get to Yellowknife I’m sure.
You’ve been in office for longer than many others. And it’s your first term without Premier Bob McLeod at the helm. I’d like to hear from you how you think this government should look and what you think some of its broader NWT priorities should be?
There’s going to be a lot of changes, for sure. And we can see in the news, there’s a lot of concerns about the Indigenous governments. We have to work closely with them. We always have anyway but we just have to try to make sure that we settle some land claims at least and maybe some self-government agreements. We don’t want to rush anybody but we now have a common interest to settle those claims or self-government agreements, and I know we have our own mandate for settling those agreements. So we have to have a good look at that and have that discussion, too, when we are selecting cabinet and the premier. What their role is and how they see settling these agreements.
We really have to have a good look at what is our territory going to offer next? The mining is getting close to the end here and we have to think of something. Work closely with the land claim groups and other organizations because rightfully, they are the landowners, to develop whether it’s natural gas or whatever they feel is… In the last government, when our premier did travel to places like Vancouver for the mining conference, I know a lot of investors were really willing to work with us because we had such a good working relationship with Indigenous leaders. Those are the comments that we heard.
In terms of what the territory will offer next, obviously mining is always going to be a key component of our territory, but what other areas of the economy are you looking at as a focus?
Up here we’re kind of limited to tourism operators and there’s a big demand for it. So I know, our territory, even a number of tourists go to the Yukon. So I think we need to really set up up here in the Beaufort Delta, whether it’s aurora viewing… Just offer more, whether it’s boat tours, everything that the people want to see. Even in the winter, there’s a lot of people from Germany that like to come up here and travel around, see the country.
There’s a lot of opportunities out there that we need to take advantage of and I’ve always said, when I did statements on the Mackenzie Valley Highway, that there’s so much money that’s being spent in the Yukon from this region that the people in the south part of the territory are not aware of. That’s where we buy all our vehicles, snowmobiles, boats, you name it, pretty much all comes from Whitehorse. So building the Mackenzie Valley Highway would be a big benefit to our territory. So I think, in my opinion, that needs to be our number one priority because it’ll be work all down the valley.
We do have some financial commitments, how do you move the project further along?
Just keep lobbying Ottawa. Whoever is our Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, they’re usually the ones that lobby the most down there. Our ex-premier. Like I said, once we get to Yellowknife we all have to set our priorities, and hopefully, that’ll be one of them.
We’ve touched on housing, some infrastructure, what are some of the things that you’re focused on for the next four years?
My priorities are whatever my constituents tell me and I still have to have that conversation. Once we get sworn in we’ll have more resources to hold community meetings because I always like to hear from the people what they want their priorities to be.
Most people in the Aklavik would like to see an all-weather road into the community, so that’ll be one of my priorities. And then also a new school there that they’ve been pushing for a long time. We got commitments, but they just never did follow through with them. So that’s two for that community.
And Fort McPherson, we need to have a community meeting and see what they want as their priority. Whatever the community wants is what I’ll be pushing for, because my priorities might be different than theirs. So I just go by what my constituents want to see so that’s what I’ll be doing.
With Tsiigehtchic their priority has always been to have a nurse and RCMP in the community and we’ll continue working on that as well. The thought of an airport came up a couple of times. Freeze-up and break-up, they’re kind of isolated and rely on helicopters, so it would be nice to have an airstrip there.
You’ve been talking a while about wanting to have a nurse and RCMP in the community. Can you tell me what it looks like right now in Tsiigehtchic?
In our last session, the minister did commit to having a nurse come in a day ahead, that way they have a full day in the community. It was kind-of limited before when they drive in and just get three or four hours here and then have to drive back. So a little bit of an improvement. But I know the residents here want to see a full-time nurse, here in the community full-time. So that’s something we have to keep working towards.
How about the RCMP?
The RCMP, I know sometimes they come in on the weekends, spend a night or two in the community when they can. They’re kind of shorthanded right now, plus they always have new people coming in. There are a lot of changes so I’m sure they’re just getting familiar with everything. We’ll just work towards trying to get somebody here maybe at the same time as a nurse and make sure that whatever the community is satisfied with, that we could work something out.
I’m wondering if there’s anything else that you want to share with our listeners at this point?
I’d just like to once again thank my constituents of the Mackenzie Delta for their ongoing support. I look forward to serving them for the next four years and also would like to wish all the other candidates all the best in the election. We’re coming up close in the next couple of weeks here to see what happens. I am just looking forward to the next government.
I’d also like to take the opportunity to thank our Premier Mr McLeod and also Mr Abernethy, Robert C McLeod, and Alfred Moses, who decided not to run again. It was an honour working with them over the last number of years here, some were eight years that I’ve been with in the assembly. Sometimes we may not see eye-to-eye but at the end of the day we usually try to do what we can for our constituents and I’d just like to thank them for their service.