Gaeleen MacPherson hopes to become the next MLA for Yellowknife South.
Saying it is “critical we take action” on the economy before the NWT’s two largest mines close, MacPherson launched her campaign with a demand that taxes be re-examined, education overhauled, and “seasonal low periods” in tourism explored to maximize the economic benefits.
Speaking to Cabin Radio, the mining executive said tax-related northern hiring incentives should be implemented to stop companies moving positions south and maintain investment in the North. She also believes in expansion of Yellowknife’s airport to accommodate direct flights from overseas.
MacPherson believes the territory’s current tax regime may be doing more harm than good, driving residents away. She asked: “Are the taxes really doing what we intend them to do?”
Arguing she brings a “unique perspective” as an Indigenous, female candidate in Yellowknife who has been a lifelong northerner, MacPherson added her broader business background makes her able to make tough decisions and communicate them.
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast. MacPherson’s interview air date is September 20.
More information: Gaeleen MacPherson’s campaign website
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.
Ollie Williams: What motivated you to run for MLA?
Gaeleen MacPherson: I’m a lifelong northerner. I’m born and raised here. I was born in Edzo and lived there until 1987, when my parents moved my family here to Yellowknife. So I attended school at St Patrick’s High School – go Irish! – and attended the University of Lethbridge after high school, where I got my bachelor of management degree with honours in human resources and labour relations. So I continue to live with my husband here in Yellowknife, and our six-year-old son Lachlan, and we also have our 18-year-old niece, Kelsey, who lives with us and she’s attending St Patrick’s High School as well. And our little dog Gigi, who joined our family over a year ago from the NWTSPCA and is a bit of a an escape artist. So we see the lovely posts on Missing Furry Family and get the folks in the neighbourhood to call us every time she jumps the fence. But I think I’m proud that my family, including my parents, Murdo and Elizabeth McPherson, and my siblings continue to call Yellowknife home.
I began my career in Yellowknife with the Government of the Northwest Territories and worked as a human resource officer before I was hired by De Beers Canada in 2005 and worked there until I was recruited then by Dominion Diamond Mines in 2013. I’ve held a number of progressively senior positions in the diamond mining industry and was promoted to the role of vice-president of corporate affairs most recently. Some really good accomplishments in the mining industry and I wanted to take those strengths and experiences and be able to contribute to the North in a bigger way than I have in the past.
So that really is my drive to run as MLA, you know? I’ve watched as some of these companies have moved south, or made decisions that have impacted northern hire, northern spend. And it pains me as a northerner, to continue seeing that, and I want to change that trend. Likewise, you know what, I’ve walked down the street here in Yellowknife as a teenager and, back then, you know, it didn’t feel unsafe. I didn’t feel that there was going to be any violence in any way. And unfortunately, we’re not seeing that same sense of community as we once did. So these are a few of the things that really drive me to want to make a difference.
You have a platform on your website. Of all the topics that you touch on in that platform, which do you believe is the number one for the NWT to get right over the next four years?
We really need to get a hold of setting our economy back on the right track. And the reason I say that is, yeah, absolutely, we have social issues. You know, we have a number of other things. But unfortunately, with the size of our territory, we don’t have the economic means to support the any programs that will address those issues without development of some sort. So we need to continue supporting mining, we need to… whether its existing diamond mines, whether it’s diversified mining in the new mines that are coming on-stream or trying to come on stream, whether it’s a new focus on tourism and tourism diversification, I think there’s a greater effort that needs to be placed on the economy right now.
You talk in your platform about creating the right incentives and environment for exploration and development. What kind of incentives are we talking about other than the ones that we already have?
Well, for people that have been paying attention to the mining industry, one of the bits of feedback that we continue to get is related to the socio-economic agreements. The fact that they have no teeth, so to speak. We have commitments in there where we’re saying to businesses, “You must achieve this level of hire, this level of spend.” But when they don’t, there’s not a lot that the government can do to hold them to that. So what do we do as a government to in a sense, give those agreements teeth?
One of the things that we can do is put into place incentives for companies to actually achieve those things. So an example could be, you know what, let’s use 60-percent northern hire as the basis. That’s your full corporate tax rate. Now, let’s do step increments where, at 65 percent, you get a bit of a lower tax rate. Seventy percent, 75 percent, and so on. That way, we are incentivizing them to actually be here. And they can’t use the excuse that it’s too costly to retain employees in the North when we do something like that. So that’s an example.
A part of your platform that I haven’t seen elsewhere is expansion of Yellowknife Airport. Tell us a little bit about what you envisage there.
The expansion of the Yellowknife airport really is tied to a number of different things, one of them being tourism. So right now, anybody that comes to Yellowknife as a tourist is coming through Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton. We need those flights to come directly from these key centres out of the country rather than, you know, going via Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton. That means that they’re going to likely spend more time here in Yellowknife and be investing a bit more in being in Yellowknife rather than coming via Calgary, spending in Calgary. So that’s one of the things that I do want to see in terms of, you know, extending the runway, being able to get international flights here. Even looking at… and I know there have been some studies around, you know what, do we have a hotel at the airport? So that means that when we get more cold-weather testing, as an example, we’re able to accommodate more of that business.
You also go on to suggest you’d like to take another look at taxes in the Northwest Territories – taxes on residents, taxes elsewhere. You suggest that in some cases, they may be doing more harm than good. Do you have specific taxes in mind when you think of that?
You can take all of the recent tax introductions and kind-of combine them together in terms of determining the total impact on residents, whether it’s individual residents, whether it’s business owners. It becomes death by a thousand cuts in terms of taxes. So what I mean when I’m looking at, OK, is it doing more harm than good, is, yes, we may be lining the government pocket with taxes but, by doing that, are we also making it more attractive for people to leave? And we end up losing our federal transfer payments. That needs to be a big assessment in terms of understanding what those impacts are, and are the taxes really doing what we intend them to do? Are they benefiting us, truly?
So on the one hand, we might be looking at maybe instituting a friendlier tax environment but, on the other hand, your platform calls more investment in healthcare staff, more investment in renewable energy, more investment in daycare and after-school care, money for more teachers and support staff, incentives for tour operators… Critics might look at their platform and say, “Look, you’re promising an awful lot of things there, but there’s no clear sense of where the money would come from.” Because for a lot of those things, if the NWT had the money, they’d already be paying for it.
Yeah. And absolutely. But some of the answer to that is being a bit smarter in the decisions that we do make. We’ve just spent multi-millions of dollars on the building of a new hospital, with the long-term goal of being able to increase the amount of services we’re giving to locals and to northerners. You can’t do that without staffing them properly. And so really looking at: what are the drivers to the shortage of staff there?
Some of it is because the GNWT doesn’t have the money to hire folks. But you know, when you’re looking and listening to feedback from the nurses that are being asked to work substantial overtime, when you’re looking at the feedback from why people aren’t wanting to move here or stay here, it’s because we’re choosing not to give people full-time employment with the thought that maybe it lessens our overall costs to operate the hospital, when in actuality we’re paying other people overtime at a higher cost, bringing in locums at a significantly higher cost. So there’s got to be a balance in how we assess those things and make a determination.
The other thing that you hear from a government perspective is, are all of these employees necessary? Now, I’m not saying that we need to cut the number of employees in the government, but we truly need to understand: are they distributed properly in the right areas? And that needs to be an assessment by the government as well.
How might you redistribute them?
When you look across governments, as an example, whether you’re looking at municipal governments, whether you’re looking at the territorial government or the federal government, absolutely, there’s going to be some duplication in terms of the services being provided. But, you know, when we’re looking at land claims, when we’re looking at, you know, what the Indigenous governments are going to be doing for themselves versus what the GNWT is providing versus what the federal government is providing, there could be duplication across all of those provision of services. That’s just adding to our overall cost here.
So I think we need to really look at those and understand, OK, you know what, we’ve got these outstanding land claims that we need to finalize. What does that mean, in terms of service? Who’s doing what? What stays under the remit of the GNWT? What goes to the community governments? And really looking at how we distribute the resources across those.
You’ve talked about making smart decisions, Let’s take an example of somewhere where smart decisions are going to be needed, which is the new university for the NWT. What is your vision for that university? And what are the smart decisions that need to be made?
This is something that is very near and dear to my heart, in terms of my background. Training and development of northerners has always been something that I focused on from a human resource perspective. And I’ve been involved in the Mine Training Society in the past, supportive of Skills Canada here. So this is something that I see as very, very critical. We’ve always expected, and our socio-economic agreements with the mines expect, companies to contribute to a sustainable northern workforce. We’ve spent the last 20 years from a diamond mining perspective trying to contribute to that, but we can’t expect industry to do that alone.
So in my experience, there have been some areas that we’ve just not been successful in hiring from within the Northwest Territories, despite having 20 years of operating experience here in the North: things like geologists and mining engineers, we continue to get those types of skills from the south. So my vision for the polytechnic really would be focusing on those areas that we find tough to fill from within the Northwest Territories, whether it’s a mine technician program, whether it’s nursing, or a focus on remediation, something that’s on our doorstep. Let’s add in tourism-related programs and really ensure that we’re becoming a world-class location to get that education. That way, we are allowing our children to not have to go to school in the south if they don’t want to, but to truly build their careers here.
And we then can go to our industry partners and say, “Look, here’s how we’re going to contribute to this now, we then expect you to hire your summer students, your co-op students from our polytechnic.” That is building the connection with students to industry, that is getting them employment here in the North, that then builds that commitment to being here.
We don’t have too long left. I’ll accelerate through a few other things. I want to go back to something you said at the very start about the downtown situation here in Yellowknife. As a Yellowknife MLA, what would you be advocating for in terms of specific solutions?
I do 100-percent believe that we need a local treatment centre. We’ve had treatment centres in the North in the past, they haven’t been successful. And you know what, I’m not saying we follow that old model. What I’m saying is, let’s look at what didn’t work and make the necessary changes.
One of the big things that needs to be focused on are the mental health impacts that are resulting in dependency issues. So you know, here in the North, we have issues related to residential schools that we’re not able, or we haven’t been addressing adequately enough. So if we have a local treatment centre that is able to provide those services,that’s able to also ensure that we have aftercare programming that looks at partnerships outside of just the treatment facility to say, “OK, right, now this person has completed their inpatient treatment – rather than sending them home to one of the communities where we may be putting them back into an environment that contributed to their issues, let’s work with some of the other local partners.”
The Arnica project that’s trying to get off the ground right now is a good example of that, how do we work with those organizations to say, “OK, let’s transition this person into transitional housing, assist them in getting employment, and really building their lives so that when they do go home, if they choose to go home to their community, that they are able to make a living and be healthy and successful.”
You are attempting election in the district that of course was the domain of the premier, Bob McLeod. How do you assess his record as premier? Did he do a good job of running the Northwest Territories?
Yeah. The success really was in highlighting the need for there to be a focus on the North. You know, there is now an Arctic framework in terms of what should come next, he helped to ensure that that was a priority. He was a supporter of resource development and whatnot. So those are key things that helped to highlight the needs at a higher level with the federal government. So I think in those cases, yeah, absolutely. He was successful.
Just lastly, you are in a straight head-to-head battle in that district. I wondered how you would articulate what you believe sets you apart from your rival.
I think I do bring a unique perspective in the sense that I’m a northern, Indigenous female. I’ve seen and have lived all of the changes that have happened here in the North over the last few decades. And, you know, I remember when gold mining was coming to an end here in the North, and what the reality was that we were looking at before diamond mining came and, you know, we started enjoying our successes. I remember those realities and the importance of needing to make change and to make improvements. So I think I bring that perspective.
And I also bring a broader business perspective as well. And, you know, my background has not just been in HR training in mining. I’ve managed IT, legal and audit, and communications, community and government relations, for an organization that had international locations that I was responsible for. So my business experience, my ability to understand necessary business decisions and make tough business decisions and communicate those decisions, I think helps to set me apart.