The NWT's five federal election candidates faced off in the first of two broadcasts on Wednesday night, agreeing on the urgency of settling land claims but diverging on how to boost the economy.
Michael McLeod, the Liberal incumbent, spent time itemizing his record of raising money from Ottawa to address northern issues. Describing more than $100 million committed to NWT housing, McLeod said continuing to invest in housing would be the key to "dealing with 50 percent of our social problems."
Conservative rival Yanik D'Aigle attacked the Liberal moratorium on Arctic oil and gas development and questioned whether NWT residents were happy with the "status quo." D'Aigle said the federal government should be making more remediation jobs available to northerners, adding later Ottawa should not just "write a cheque" as a means of addressing reconciliation.
New Democrat Mary Beckett said she would hold a Liberal or Conservative government's feet to the fire and ensure they lived up to their promises, accusing the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau of failing on northern housing – an assessment with which McLeod strongly disagreed.
Paul Falvo, for the Green Party, highlighted his party's plan to create a "council of Canadian governments," including Indigenous leaders, that would "honour the true spirit" of treaties and ensure the understanding of those treaties "evolves as times change."
Luke Quinlan, representing the People's Party of Canada, said his party offered common-sense solutions and could prove it was possible to govern without being "out of touch or inaccessible."
In a well-behaved CBC-hosted forum, the candidates had to be cajoled by moderator Loren McGinnis to openly disagree with one another.
"Would anyone like to make a rebuttal?" McGinnis implored the five after an opening 30 minutes with few, if any flashpoints. Crosstalk, which had bedeviled a televised debate between federal leaders earlier in the week, did not feature.
Even when pressed, the brief flurry of exchanges that followed resulted in nothing more confrontational than a disagreement over the waning fortunes of natural gas in Inuvik, during which Beckett suggested D'Aigle was mischaracterizing the community's recent history.
D'Aigle had said the New Democrats were "looking to turn the tap off." Beckett said, "We had been told by the federal government there was no money for new drilling."
D'Aigle also decried the Liberal moratorium on Arctic oil and gas development, asking: "Why is it that right after Devolution, [the Liberal government] decided to arbitrarily put in a moratorium on the Beaufort [Sea] without consultation, and with less than one hour's notice to our premier? I'm still speechless."
In one of the night's more memorable exchanges, the candidates clashed on their parties' intentions regarding implementation of Undrip – the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Challenged by McLeod regarding whether his party would implement Undrip, D'Aigle said that was "up for review." McLeod responded by noting "every Conservative MP voted against it" when Undrip was presented for adoption by the House of Commons. He said the Liberals have "every intention of bringing it back."
Beckett, for the NDP, said: "The problem is everybody stands up and says all this great stuff, but then they don't do stuff." She pledged a New Democrat government would "make sure that as we're making programs and policies, we're not going to forget these things and leave them on the shelf."
Chiding McLeod, Green candidate Falvo said: "Just like you can declare a climate emergency and buy a pipeline the next day, recognizing Undrip might not be meaningful unless there's action."
How federal parties plan to engage with Indigenous residents and governments formed much of the night's discussion.
Asked about land claims, McLeod said Ottawa was now "engaged at 14 tables" having been "at a standstill" when he and the Liberals were voted into power four years ago.
D'Aigle said he would advocate for signing what he called "70-percent documents," meaning federal and Indigenous governments should sign off on areas where they do agree, then work on the remainder without having to rip up a whole agreement if new areas of contention emerge.
Which voice for the North?
Candidates rarely deviated from their party line or established campaign messaging during the show.
They were appearing live in a 90-minute broadcast from Ndilo's gym. All five are booked to appear in a second live broadcast hosted by Cabin Radio from 8pm on Wednesday, October 16.
Federal polling day is October 21.
As of Wednesday, poll trackers showed the Liberals with a narrow nationwide advantage of 34.2 percent to the Conservatives' 33.9 percent.
The NDP is tracking at 13.8 percent with the Green Party at 9.3 percent. The People's Party is polling at 2.3 percent of the national vote.
In a closing appeal to NWT voters, McLeod said the fact he was born and raised in the NWT sets him apart.
"I am passionate about quality of life in the Northwest Territories and I strongly believe we need healthy children and healthy families. In order to do that, we need to work with Indigenous governments," he said.
D'Aigle, in his closing pitch, dismissed the leadership credentials of Trudeau, regaling the audience with a laundry list of the Liberal leaders recent failings.
"Are you happy with the current plan and it's expected results?" D'Aigle asked. "Or are you ready to join me and invest in the North?"
Beckett told voters they "need a government that takes the biggest corporations and makes them pay their fair share so that ordinary Canadians don't fall behind," adding she plans to be a "strong voice for the North" no matter the identity of the governing party.
Though all candidates had recognized the North's continuing reliance on heavy industry, Quinlan closed by rounding on the concept of moving away from oil, gas, and mining. "It is not a moral or ethical stance to say we're just going to leave this in the ground or turn the taps off," he said.
Falvo spoke directly to residents considering a tactical vote in two weeks' time. "There is a tendency to vote for somebody you don't really want, to outflank your neighbours, who might be voting for somebody worse," he said.
"I would say to northerners, vote for somebody you truly want."