NWT Election 2019: Hughie Graham’s Range Lake interview

Last modified: September 20, 2019 at 4:33pm

Hughie Graham hopes to become the next MLA for Range Lake.

“Collaboration and communication are two key pillars in my campaign,” said Graham, a public servant who has lived in the district for 22 years, as he launched his bid for election.

Speaking to Cabin Radio, Graham said he felt the past government had focused too much on a “social mandate” without doing enough to stimulate the NWT’s economy.


Graham wants exploration incentives doubled and a renewed emphasis on partnership between levels of government, while he also wants a “concrete plan” for the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, prioritizing those that relate to intergenerational trauma.

Calling for the NWT’s polytechnic university to be headquarted in Yellowknife, Graham said the institution can become a world leader in topics like permafrost or Indigenous health and wellness. Envisaging the university as a destination for foreign students, he said: “The North is still exciting. I think we forget that, living here all the time.”

Below, find a transcript of the full interview.

Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. Graham’s interview air date is September 17.

More information: Hughie Graham’s campaign Facebook page


More interviews: Browse our 2019 NWT election coverage so far

This interview was recorded on September 10, 2019. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: Why did you decide to run?

Hughie Graham: I decided to run because, in the 18th Legislative Assembly, there was a big mandate for change. I was excited about that. Being a Yellowknifer and choosing to live here for 23 years, I didn’t see a lot of change, didn’t see a lot of collaboration, didn’t see a lot of communication. I saw a lot of priorities that were kind-of sprayed all over the place. And, you know, I thought that there’s got to be a better way.


What’s the biggest change that you wanted to see that you feel like you didn’t?

I think a focus on the economy. It was great that we had a social mandate. You know, I think that social mandates can be met when you’ve got a healthy economy. And as we see the downturn in the mining sector, you know, the potential closure of Diavik in 2025, those big mines closing, we’re not out there exploring. We’re not doing enough to bolster our economy and diversify it.

So, to you, there was too much focus on the social side of things and not enough done to further the economy.

I would think so, yeah.

What would you do that the GNWT didn’t do to bolster the economy?

I think we need to be partners with industry, we need to bring in our Indigenous, Aboriginal governments and have them partner up. We need to bolster the mining incentive to get explorers out there exploring. So today, we’ve increased that to a million dollars. You know, the last three years have been almost 100-percent subscribed, which is a great thing. We at least know there are people wanting to explore. I think we need to double that to $2 million and have them continue exploring. It takes years to find a mine, it takes years to make sure that it’s economically viable, to start doing good work that all residents of the NWT can benefit in.

As much as you’re critical, you have in the past said the GNWT has done good work, on Taltson, for example. Would you include the Slave Geological Province access road in there as well?

Absolutely, you know, we certainly need that piece of infrastructure.

That being the case, what more could the GNWT have done? We have these big infrastructure projects that are under way now. Obviously, the NWT itself will never have the money to build those, it needs to go to the federal government to do it. When it comes to actual concrete action, what more could you have seen, do you think?

Again, I think it’s the exploration piece. You know, we need to get out there and map so that explorers can get out there and explore. We need to partner again with Indigenous governments. We’re seeing 30 percent of the Northwest Territories protected today. That increases. We’re not ensuring that we have corridors to get to the resource development or resource exploration. And we need to partner to be able to do that. And I sometimes think that that’s missed.

Speaking of partners, during our latest internet outage about a month ago, you said the GNWT needs to work with business partners to ensure redundancy. How would we go about achieving that?

Well, you know, again, working with our partners, and whether it’s the big provider, which is Northwestel, or maybe there’s a business case to bring in other partners – maybe SSI is able to partner up with a group to bring a redundant fibre line into Yellowknife. We know that running the same path that it runs today will, or potentially leads to, you know, the same kind of terrorism potential that I would say happened twice before.

So if we run it around the other side of lake, or in a course that business decides is probably the most practical, you have a potential to pick up other communities along the way and provide them with high-speed access as well. You know, we’re the territorial capital, we’re the seat of business in the Northwest Territories, we should have that redundancy.

Listening to that – I mean, I’m no expert – it sounds extraordinarily expensive.

Yeah, I think if you look at the Mackenzie Valley Fibre-Optic Link program, that was fairly expensive. But government and business is used to 10-year, 20-year payback, you know, business cases that aren’t following one-year, two-year, like you and I would say, you know: if I’m going to buy this couch today, it might last seven years. They need to think bigger picture. And again, pull in their partners. The NWT government did that with the fibre-optic link down the Mackenzie Valley, this is no different.

OK. Announcing your candidacy, you said the immediate issues are infrastructure and exploration, which we just talked about, and also reconciliation. And I wondered what you wanted to see done to further reconciliation?

Well, I think if you look at the MMIW report, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there’s lots of great recommendations in those documents. We need to put a plan, a concrete plan in place, to do that. And again, let’s talk about partnership. I’m all about partners, the federal government needs to come into that, you know, they’ve started to splash around money again. So let’s get involved in that. And let’s make it meaningful. And let’s do good work.

Which of those recommendations do you think are the priorities?

You know, I think children. You know, we’ve got intergenerational trauma affecting parents today. You know, we’ve got to teach parents how to be parents so that their children can be like everybody else, you know? Be productive citizens in the Northwest Territories.

When you say teach parents how to be parents, what does that look like in practice?

Again, I’m not a social worker. So I would, you know, make sure that we had programs in place to be able to take care of the health and welfare of our people.

Looking at the health and welfare of our people, how do you assess the last four years? What changes would you have made had you been an MLA at the time? What would you have advocated for?

You know, I would have advocated for community wellness programs, Child and Family Services programs into the community. We have done some of that already. The challenge is I don’t think a lot of those positions are being filled. So, you know, we have an attraction-retention challenge ahead of us as well, of getting social workers into small communities. So, you know, let’s bring back the social work program at Aurora College and, you know, teach our own people how to take care of our own people. So again, capacity-building certainly can take place.

When it comes to retention of staff, attraction of staff, is there something you think the NWT could try that it hasn’t already?

You know, I think we’ve done some good work as far as lobbying the federal government to get the northern residency benefit increased. I think it needs to continue to increase. I think we need to maybe look at NWT tax credits to citizens that actually live here and work here and don’t just have an address here. And we need to do those right away. We need to lobby the federal government for either more transfer funds or more tax credits that don’t affect our transfer funds.

You mentioned Aurora College just now. The transformation into a polytechnic will extend through the life of the 19th assembly, so it’s unlikely to be something that anyone in the next four years sees completed. But how do you believe that transformation should be shaped? What should be the key concerns?

I think the key concern is it needs to be brick and mortars in Yellowknife. You know, there is concern over campuses in Fort Smith and Inuvik. I think a holistic program can be brought together where Inuvik and Fort Smith both participate in the capacity they’re in, or grow their capacity. I mean, why are we not the world’s leader in permafrost studies in Inuvik? It’s full of permafrost and affecting the real estate up there. You know, as somebody who worked in Inuvik in real estate for 10 years, I saw that first-hand. The other thing is, you know, Fort Smith continues to participate and grow their programs as we morph programs throughout the Aurora College institution.

Your rival in this campaign, Caroline Cochrane is of course, or has been, the minister overseeing a lot of that. She has said very similar things in terms of making sure that there is a brick-and-mortar campus in Yellowknife, and making sure that Fort Smith and Inuvik have a large part to play – that it’s not necessarily about a headquarters anywhere, but about each community having a campus. Do you, broadly speaking, agree with the direction that she’s taken the university plan in?

I think Yellowknife should be the headquarters. I’m happy to say that. We are the seat of government. We are the largest population. You know, you see students wanting to leave their smaller communities and go to a larger community with more amenities. It’s no different than Yellowknife students wanting to go to smaller campuses that are affiliated with larger universities like Kamloops or Kelowna. This is not dissimilar than other students from smaller communities where, you know, if you go to Fort Smith, you go to Inuvik, we’ve got years to build the capacity in those communities and bring those amenities that those students would enjoy. So yeah, I think Yellowknife should be the headquarters.

And longer term, how do you imagine this university being self-sustaining? A lot of people say we’ll have to rely on foreign students coming in and on more students coming in from outside the North. How do we get that university to a place where it’s attractive enough for people to do that?

Well, I think Yellowknife is attractive. You know, I think we do have good amenities here. That capacity will build over time, that will bring a larger population not dissimilar from your small US university towns: sleepy communities in the summer of 20,000 to 30,000 people that explode to 100,000 people. We could be that in Yellowknife.

How do you make it attractive? Again, Yellowknife and the North is attractive. People say they want to come here. When I was with the NWT Chamber of Commerce, we would visit other chambers of commerce down south and lots of people want to come here. The North is still exciting. I think we forget that living here all the time.

So again, when we become world leaders in permafrost, why is there not a reason to have, Inuvik have 1,500 extra students. To a town that’s 3,000 people, that’s a big deal. In Yellowknife, why are we not the world’s leaders on Indigenous healing and wellness? Lots of talk about why we don’t have a treatment facility here. It’s because we don’t have… and it sounds odd, we don’t have the capacity to build a facility. A lot of the time, it’s easier to send those people south with some cash. Why don’t people send people north to Yellowknife with some cash and work on Indigenous wellness?

Where would you put a brick-and-mortar campus in Yellowknife?

You know, I think that’s interesting. Could you assemble real estate downtown? You certainly could. It would help to build a thriving downtown. Again, it would take a lot of money to do that. I’ve often had a thought of just north of Frame Lake, the big Canadian shield is there and there’s an opportunity to put a brand new campus, obviously that takes a lot of money. Downtown is probably the easiest thing to do. But you’d have to assemble some land.

You’ve had a chance now to go door-knocking a little bit in Range Lake. What local issues to your constituency are you hearing, and how would you address them?

You know, I’m hearing the economy. People are concerned about the economy. There’s a lot of single family homeowners in Range Lake that either work for the government, they work for one of the mines, or one of the industries that services the mines. So the economy’s forefront. Second is the cost of living. The cost of living continues to be a boon. You know, we’re not seeing utilities go down. We’ll never see utilities go down, but we certainly should do infrastructure projects to stabilize those utility costs. And then, health and wellness. You know, there are a lot of people concerned about homelessness still. You know, we need to take concrete action on homelessness, and I think we’re missing opportunities.

I mean, the City has a 10-year plan to end homelessness. We have the combined day shelter and sobering centre, which is only a year old. That is concrete action. What do you mean when you say concrete action?

Well, you know, I was part of a group called the Yellowknife Homeful Group that advocated for Housing First prior to the last territorial election, federal election, and two municipal elections ago. All had candidates on the ground who promised us action on homelessness.

The Housing First program obviously needs wraparound services, we need to ensure that we’re working either with the Department of Health and Social Services, the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, or NGOs to deliver those services. You know, we all know that NGOs will do 10 times the work with 10 times less money. So we need to foster those NGOs. YWCA is a group, the Yellowknife Women’s Society is a great group, all doing good work – we need to make sure that they’ve got funding capacity to be able to do that work.

We’ve got the Arnica project that just needs to be pushed over the edge. The group’s worked really hard to get the CMHC to reprofile some funding. We’ve got a building with 48 beds ready to go, which is, you know, half of the capacity of the City’s 10-year homelessness plan. And the GNWT needs to participate. We need to get there.

Just in closing, and maybe this is a chance to tell people a little more about your background, I wondered if you could set out for our listeners what you believe sets you apart from your rival in Range Lake,

What sets me apart? Well, I would say that I’m not a politician. We’ve now got my competitor saying that she wants to be premier and not worried about the constituents in Range Lake. It seems like she’s–

That’s not really what she said, is it? She didn’t say the part about not being worried about her constituents.

Fair enough. But it appears that, you know, she’s more concerned about power than she is about the constituents of Range Lake. I think it sets me apart that I’m a communicator, I’m a collaborator, I’m a relationship builder. And, you know, it’s Range Lake first.

So to be clear, if the opportunity were there for you to be premier, you’d say no?

At this point, I’m only worried about the constituents or voters in Range Lake. I’m only worried about being elected.

You’d say no.

Again, at this point, it’s tough to say. I don’t know the makeup of anything in the legislature. Nobody knows at this point. I’m just worried about getting elected.

OK. Very finally, what’s the first thing, the very number one thing on your to-do list if you are elected?

The number one thing to do would be get the priorities straight of the Legislative Assembly. I think they were over-ambitious last time. I’m known as an ambitious guy, but I think I bring real-world thoughts to that. I think if we look at all the issues in the Northwest Territories and bring seven, five to seven per, you know? You look at 70 priorities or less and you hit home runs all day long.