The Northwest Territories’ 19 MLAs-elect broadcast a day-long priority-setting session on Wednesday, the first opportunity for the newly elected politicians to begin shaping their government’s agenda for the next four years.
Each of the MLAs-elect – they do not become MLAs, officially, until sworn in on Friday – had up to 15 minutes to set out their vision for the territory.
As candidates spoke, themes emerged of addressing urgent needs in healthcare and housing. Land claims and Indigenous government relations, infrastructure, and education were among topics MLAs-elect raised throughout the day.
Most MLAs-elect called for the NWT to better support mining and exploration but also invest more in tourism for their regions.
Often repeating campaign pledges, given so little time that has passed since the election, candidates spoke in broad terms of the issues facing the NWT but found it harder to identify specific solutions.
The process of drawing up how these priorities should be addressed will take place over the coming weeks, particularly once new ministers are appointed in late October.
One by one, what they said
Deh Cho MLA-elect Ronald Bonnetrouge, speaking first, opened the meeting by declaring: “I look forward to a unified and collaborative approach to governing.”
Bonnetrouge, focusing on relations with Indigenous governments and peoples, said many of his constituents felt as though they received “second-class” healthcare in the NWT.
Bonnetrouge, who defeated Michael Nadli in last week’s election, also asked for a greater focus on housing. He urged the territory to “look at traditional economies” to tackle the cost of living and help smaller communities.
Each of the MLAs-elect was asked to speak about their vision for the NWT over the next four years; where they would like the NWT to be in 10 years’ time; and which specific actions should be taken to achieve that vision.
“There’s nothing like putting us on the spot,” said Katrina Nokleby, MLA-elect for Great Slave, noting she was speaking live on TV in her second day of orientation.
“If we don’t have money to pay for anything, we aren’t going to be going anywhere,” said Nokleby, pushing the NWT to work on expanding the life of its existing mines while it works on alternatives and grows the exploration sector.
Returning to a theme of her campaign, Nokleby said more all-weather roads were needed to both boost the economy and ensure communities are not “left stranded” as the climate changes, threatening winter roads in the longer term.
“We are not seen to be a stable, reliable place to invest money,” Nokleby said. To change that, she said the NWT must “offer better infrastructure” while ensuring mines are “paying their fair share.”
Nokleby said there was a “disconnect” between residents in Yellowknife and other communities, pledging to help ensure this government was not “Yellowknife-centric” and “every person has the same opportunity to move forward.”
Deh Cho’s Ronald Bonnetrouge was first to address the legislature.
Katrina Nokleby was the first Yellowknife MLA-elect to speak on Wednesday.
Rocky Simpson, in his opening remarks as Hay River South MLA-elect, read out the names of the four missing Hay River fishers. “I’d just like them and their families to know, our prayers and our thoughts are with them,” Simpson said.
Simpson said residents want access to healthcare, a well-documented issue in Hay River, “addressed immediately.”
Simpson, who defeated former minister Wally Schumann, enters the legislature with his company owing almost $2 million to an arm of the territorial government.
Having earlier stated the Alberta oil slump caused his own company’s difficulties, Simpson – who did not address the debt issue while speaking – took aim at what he characterized as southern contractors coming up to the NWT and taking work while northern businesses sit idle.
Rocky Simpson focused on healthcare, the South Slave’s economy, and education.
Diane Thom, the member-elect for Inuvik Boot Lake, called for NWT government employees to receive mandatory education on the history and culture of Indigenous people.
Discussing wait-lists more than a year long for certain procedures, Thom urged work to address the territory’s healthcare issues.
Turning to climate change, Thom said: “Our Elders have told us for years that something is not right. I’d like to ensure capacity and support is available to continue moving forward in this area.”
Lesa Semmler, Thom’s colleague representing Inuvik Twin Lakes, said: “We have an increasing homeless population in our community that needs to be addressed.”
Calling for more treatment facilities and services to be made available within the NWT, Semmler said: “Sending our family members have not proven in past history to do any good. Let’s not continue to repeat this history.”
Semmler and Thom both spoke of increasing supports for Elders. “Without this, families get burned out. Elders get neglected and eventually end up in long-term care before they need to be,” Semmler said.
On housing, Semmler described Inuvik residents waiting years for appropriate accommodation and sleeping rough in the meantime.
Semmler raised the subject of “social passing,” in which students are advanced through the education system with their peers. “By the time they get to Grade 10, we are seeing what we call ‘the Grade 10 bottleneck.’ They are having difficulties advancing past this stage.
“We need an education system that is equal to, or better than, the rest of Canada. If we had kids aged zero to five in programs that will enhance them, by the time they get to kindergarten, they will be ready.”
Diane Thom, MLA-elect for Inuvik Boot Lake, speaks on Wednesday.
Lesa Semmler, representing Inuvik Twin Lakes, thanked Robert C McLeod for his service as she opened her speech.
Caitlin Cleveland, for Kam Lake, said: “We must work with the success of the entire NWT at heart.”
“We need people,” Cleveland said, “and we need to ensure we have the appropriate supports for people who choose to make the North home.”
Cleveland, reading from a list of concerns she heard during her campaign, did highlight some specific actions, such as the introduction of more “navigators” to help residents through the healthcare system. Acknowledging the difference between communities, she said each should have “unique wellness indicators” established to help guide the NWT government as it evaluates programs and services.
Cleveland and others said finalizing land claims should be prioritized – a priority shared by the last government but not achieved, leaving outgoing Premier Bob McLeod to bemoan his name joining a list of other premiers unable to solve the issue.
Caitlin Cleveland defeated incumbent Kieron Testart in Kam Lake.
Frederick Blake Jr, acclaimed to a third term as Mackenzie Delta’s MLA, said his main goal is a new school for Aklavik.
“My constituents want to see more dentists’ visits, more doctors’ visits … as well as physio, counselling, and the list goes on,” he said. ” Colleagues: we want more healthcare, and we need more relief for our health and social services workers. We need them to be healthy.”
Jackson Lafferty, acclaimed for the second successive time in Monfwi, said through an interpreter he believed cabinet and regular MLAs must work well together. Their failure to do so was a widely expressed criticism of the past four years. Lafferty is one of several MLAs-elect hoping to become the next premier, a decision that MLAs won’t make until October 24.
Lafferty, addressing specifics, said he wanted to see the NWT Housing Corporation’s policies amended to better serve communities’ needs. He said the NWT should ensure all communities can benefit from eco-tourism.
Lafferty also called for increased efforts in the area of language and culture preservation, such as creating a pool of language teachers and knowledge keepers. He said the NWT’s next leaders should meet with Indigenous governments to identify their perceived challenges and potential solutions.
Rylund Johnson, representing Yellowknife North, called himself “by far the youngest member” of the legislature, at 29 years old, as he rose to speak. Johnson spoke even as a recount took place in his district, which unofficial results show he won by five votes over Cory Vanthuyne.
Johnson said the NWT should “change the way we do business” over the next four years and “push for big strides to better our society.” Johnson said he intended to remain a regular MLA and urged colleagues “not to let this process [of selecting cabinet and a premier] divide us.”
He pushed for a universal basic income alongside universal daycare that “does not discriminate” across the NWT. “Some priorities may not be accomplished in one election cycle but we cannot lose sight of them,” he said. Johnson added settling land claims would be the “single most powerful thing” the NWT government could do to address reconciliation.
Johnson believes the government should as a priority “declare a climate emergency” and take meaningful action, citing green mining technology as an example.
“One of the best things we could do is have a gold mine right outside our boundaries. I recognize that is scary,” Johnson said, “but we must have faith in our land and water boards, and that new mining technology will not allow another Giant Mine disaster to happen.”
Rylund Johnson said the issue of the NWT’s university had become “unnecessarily divisive,” urging colleagues to “think bigger.”
Shane Thompson, returning in Nahendeh, called for four years of governance built on “trusting relationships.”
The Mackenzie Valley Highway “needs to be completed first and foremost and will have an impact on all communities” in the region, Thompson said. “This is how our residents move forward.”
Similarly, he asked for Highway 1 from Fort Providence to Wrigley to be chipsealed. “Come drive our highway,” he told colleagues. “We need to fix this.” Thompson joined Rocky Simpson in questioning whether northern contractors were receiving enough work compared to southern competitors.
Jackie Jacobson, returning to politics in Nunakput after a four-year absence, echoed Semmler’s words when he said: “Social passing has to stop.”
Flitting between subjects, Jacobson said: “My riding has many issues.” In particular, he said his district was seeing climate change “sooner than anyone else,” including Tuktoyaktuk’s shoreline falling into the ocean. “We are not going to move,” said Jacobson. “This government is going to make a way to fix that shoreline.”
Describing families of up to 10 people with limited access to clean water in some NWT communities, Jacobson urged: “Things have to change.”
Caroline Cochrane, who like Lafferty is bidding to become the next premier, said more work on education would help to decrease the need in the NWT for social assistance and housing supports. “New parents, young parents, and struggling parents should have supports that help raise their children to be the best they can be,” she said. “Schools should not be allowed to try to meet the needs of students with the same, or less, funding.”
In healthcare, Cochrane said, “there is a feeling that we are at a crisis point.” A new recruitment and retention strategy is needed, she said.
Cochrane said the next government should list fewer priorities than the last, which created a 230-item mandate. She said other priorities should include land claims and a continued focus on adequate housing.
Caroline Cochrane said the last government had tried to work on too many priorities.
RJ Simpson, acclaimed in Hay River North, noted his town is one of the few places in the NWT projected to grow. He said the NWT government has ignored opportunities associated with that.
“We can no longer ignore the criticisms of industry,” said Simpson, saying regulation of mining and exploration should be streamlined. “Resource development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive,” he said.
Simpson said there is a territory-wide public government “for now,” but more should be done to partner with and empower Indigenous governments. “Nothing should be off the table” in getting land claims finalized, he added.
Paulie Chinna, in her first public speech as the Sahtu MLA-elect, paid tribute to her Sahtu political forebears, Cece Hodgson-McCauley and Ethel Blondin-Andrew. Chinna said she was “humbled” to have her new role.
“The nurses’ surgery is probably smaller than the office that you work in,” said Chinna, describing a catalog of hardships faced by residents of the communities she represents when attempting to access healthcare and education.
Chinna said areas of her district, even as they are opened up by projects like the Mackenzie Valley Highway, should be carefully protected.
Paulie Chinna paid tribute to two of the Sahtu’s best-known female politicians.
Frieda Martselos said Fort Smith should be the headquarters of the NWT’s new university.
Frieda Martselos, the Thebacha MLA-elect, stood to demand that colleagues “maintain the promise that Fort Smith remain the education centre of the NWT.”
Previewing one of the first potential confrontations among politicians who have pledged collaboration, Martselos said: “The headquarters must remain in Fort Smith.” Other MLAs-elect have suggested the main campus should be in Yellowknife, or there should be no central campus at all.
Martselos went on to say the new government should “set the stage for hope, cooperation, equality, and ensuring Indigenous issues are truly dealt with.”
Steve Norn, representing Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, said: “We have job certainty for the next four years. A lot of our constituents do not and, for me, that doesn’t sit right.”
Norn, who does not plan to stand for cabinet, said: “My first duty is to my communities.” Describing a vision of his, he looked ahead to a future where Indigenous communities had maintained their language, and culture, while having access to the education and supports required to fill important jobs in all fields.
Julie Green, re-elected in Yellowknife Centre, said: “Not just adopting, but implementing Undrip [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] will provide Indigenous organizations with … land certainty, and the result of that would be good for the Northwest Territories and our primary industry, which is mining.”
Green said the NWT’s “best infrastructure investment” would be childcare capacity in schools. She added the territory had to “come to terms with the cost of our power,” finding ways to bring that cost to residents down, particularly as ageing infrastructure will need replacement in the near future. “I don’t see Taltson happening soon,” she said.
Highlighting services for seniors, Green said “not one new unit” of seniors’ housing had been built in Yellowknife over the past four years. “What we end up with is a six-year waiting list at Avens. We also have seniors in emergency shelters. We need housing for seniors.”
Kevin O’Reilly, fresh from a recount which confirmed his seat in the legislature earlier on Wednesday, acknowledged his narrow victory over former industry minister Dave Ramsay as he observed Frame Lake had been a “much-anticipated race.”
O’Reilly described an ideal future in which seniors can age in place, all communities were “self-sufficient in their energy needs,” and caribou could thrive. He envisaged a “confederation of regional Indigenous governments” with roles and responsibilities alongside those of the NWT government.
Appearing to defend the NWT’s regulatory regime where others had suggested it be changed, O’Reilly said: “Our resource management systems are different by design.”
“We need to invest more into our people, not just infrastructure projects,” he said, returning to themes of guaranteed basic income and universal childcare.
Speaking last, Yellowknife South’s Caroline Wawzonek said “we can be a leader in establishing modern relationships with Indigenous governments.”
Saying the NWT can become a “sought-after” place to invest, Wawzonek said there is an “opportunity” to carve out programs and services tailored to specific communities, making the territory “a leader in government driven by positive outcomes for its people.”
On housing, Wawzonek said the NWT faces a shortage “across the continuum” and should be partnering up with Ottawa and the private sector to address it.
She continued: “Universal childcare, to me, should be the end goal. It has so much potential for children, it helps parents who may want to return to the workforce, it has potential to lowe the cost of living, and will make the Northwest Territories somewhere people will want to come. It will make us a unique place in all of Canada.”
Wednesday’s session was not a debate. Politicians spoke in turn, without being interrupted or challenged. Interpretation was provided in Tłı̨chǫ, Chipewyan, and French.
Following Wednesday’s session, all 19 will gather to begin the process of generating a formal priority list for the next four years.
Some old faces of NWT governance lingered at the assembly. Robert C McLeod, the outgoing finance minister, and cabinet colleague of the past four years Alfred Moses were watching from the gallery.