New NWT health minister pledges action to strengthen Protect NWT
New NWT health minister Julie Green says her top priority is strengthening Protect NWT and the 811 hotline so they provide quicker responses to residents.
With the creation of a new Covid-19 Secretariat to centralize the NWT’s pandemic response, it’s not yet clear who will control Protect NWT heading into next year. Green said work to sort out “who’s doing what” is still taking place.
“That line needs to be fully staffed,” the newly appointed minister said of the 811 number provided for residents with queries about travel or enforcement of public health orders during the pandemic.
“Answers need to be provided as quick as possible. What I’m getting from constituents is they have a certain amount of patience and then it’s like, ‘Well, I’m just going to do my own thing.’
“So if we don’t want people to take that route, then we have to provide them with more timely information. That’s an important gap.”
In an extensive interview with Cabin Radio, Green said she believed the territory’s pandemic recovery plan can be improved but added the chief public health officer, Dr Kami Kandola, would be left to manage it without political interference.
Green said the coming weeks would be “crucial” in ensuring the pandemic recovery plan met residents’ needs.
“I would like to see the plan stay ahead of what people want,” said the minister, who replaces Diane Thom in the role. Thom is now responsible for infrastructure after a cabinet reshuffle followed Green’s replacement of ousted minister Katrina Nokleby.
“I don’t want people to get frustrated and give up and do their own thing, because I think that won’t be effective at all,” Green said.
“We’re really in a crucial moment here with what’s happening with the school reopenings and the return of people to their workplaces and so on. Are we going to hold the line on the number of cases there? Are we going to see a new growth in the number of cases?
“I feel like we have a few more weeks, but we don’t have an infinite amount of time.”
Green said she stood by her previous remarks that spending on health, such as child protection, should not play second fiddle to infrastructure spending in the NWT.
Big-ticket infrastructure items like the Slave Geological Province highway to Nunavut, the Mackenzie Valley Highway, and the Taltson hydro expansion are key to her government’s mandate for its four-year term.
“I recognize that infrastructure is necessary. It is a priority of all the members to advance infrastructure projects,” said Green, “but not at the expense of child and family services.
“I will continue to repeat that and make an issue out of it.”
Read a full transcript of the interview below. You can listen to the interview on the September 11, 2020 edition of Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News.
This interview was recorded on September 10, 2020. The transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What qualifies you to be the NWT’s health minister?
Julie Green: I asked to be the health minister, I felt that I had some subject matter knowledge from being in the Legislative Assembly during the 18th Assembly and for the startup of the 19th Assembly. I felt like I had accomplished some good work on the social development committee in that time. And prior to that I had worked for myself and for the YWCA in the nonprofit sector. And so I had a pretty good grasp of health-related issues and social services-related issues from that work. So all in all, I’m gonna say I had 10 or 11 years of work life and then volunteer life before that. So I felt like it was a good fit for me.
It’s been your job to question the health ministers of the day, to hold them to account. How do you hope to evolve that role and the approach of the NWT’s health minister to the pandemic, now you’re switching from being a critic to the minister?
That is a big transition to make and it’s complicated by the fact that there’s now a Covid Secretariat that’s going to take on some of the functions that the minister of health might have had previously. So some of the initial work is sorting out who’s doing what in each of those roles.
We are told by the media all the time that a second wave is coming, and that we need to be prepared for it. And we’ve been briefed as regular MLAs – and I know the media has, too – about the pandemic plan and about the precautions that will be in place to take in large numbers of cases. We know from the chief public health officer what kind of preventative measures are in place that we’re trying to abide by. We also know that there is going to be the unknown – I mean, none of us could have expected we’d be here today, when we were in the midst of a campaign this time last year – that there would be so much focus on health and on government response to health, even more so than usual. It’s always a hot-button department but now it’s an unusually hot-button department.
What I’m hoping to do is to provide leadership that supports the good work that’s already under way and identify gaps that we need to work together on filling to provide a robust response to Covid. The one thing I’ve heard consistently is that people are appreciative that we only have five cases. And that the measures, while sometimes onerous, have been effective. And so the question is how do we keep going with that? How do we keep people engaged in that work for our common good?
You say it’ll be part of your job to identify gaps. You must, in the course of being a regular MLA, have identified some gaps. Where are the ones that you think are most critical for you as health minister to address?
I’m going to say that my number-one concern right now is Protect NWT and the 811 line. I know they’re not fully staffed, they’ve just lost their summer students. They’re looking for additional staff in that area,. Given the fact that people have questions, have concerns about enforcement, and that kind of thing, that line needs to be fully staffed. And answers need to be provided as quick as possible. What I’m getting from constituents is they have a certain amount of patience and then it’s like, ‘Well, I’m just going to do my own thing.’ So if we don’t want people to take that route, then we have to provide them with more timely information. That’s an important gap.
The other important gap – which I know the health and social services department is on – is testing and contact tracing. We know that they’ve made efforts to get rapid testing online and it is available, to a certain extent, in Yellowknife. They’re setting it up in Hay River or they plan to set it up in Hay River. They’re setting it up in Inuvik. We need to get people results as quick as possible to minimize the amount of time that they’re spending in isolation, so that they can go to work and their children can go to school, and ife can function alongside the pandemic. The pandemic is not going to go away any time soon. We know that. So we have to learn to adjust to it. And this rapid testing and efficient contact tracing is obviously key to that. So those are things I spoke about as a regular member, they’re still relevant.
The recovery plan – you’ve risen in the House before and had questions around the clarity of that plan, the exact when and how of the NWT moving from phase to phase. Now that you’re the minister, how satisfied are you that the plan – as it exists – is as clear, as easy to understand as you would want it to be?
Well, I think it is possible to improve it, but within the scope of the chief public health officer’s office and orders. Obviously, she’s taking the lead on this and she’s now within the whole-of-government approach that’s offered by the Covid Secretariat.
I guess, like everyone else, I’m waiting on phase three to come along. It’s going to give us much more freedom than we have now. And when is that going to come along? I think the answer I’ve heard her give – and I support – is we have to see what that second wave looks like. We don’t want to do what Britain has just done, or BC, where things have opened up and then they’ve clamped shut again. I think people will be very dissatisfied with that. So I think we have to be patient enough to let the situation evolve for a few more weeks and see: did the return of teachers and students produce more cases? Is that a thing that we need to be concerned about? And if it turns out that was not a significant factor in driving new cases, then I think there’s a better argument to make that we can advance in reopening to phase three.
When we talk about advancing in reopening, what do you have in mind?
Well, as a matter of fact, this plan was done without my input. It was done by the chief public health officer, the Emerging Wisely plan, and I don’t have any input into how that’s going to be implemented. It’s really up to her. It’s her plan. So the best I can do is say, ‘Listen, people are telling me that they are ready for phase three, they support going into phase three,’ and provide her that kind of input. But the decision is hers.
The decision might be hers but the political accountability is yours because, of course, she’s an unelected official and you very much are an elected official. You are the person who will be standing in front of our microphones at Cabin Radio or in the legislature and defending that plan when it rolls out. Are you happy that plan is defensible?
The plan is what it is, Ollie. I can’t change it. I recognize the need to defend it politically. I recognize that I may be able to provide some – not advice to the chief public health officer, because this is really a medical position and I’m not a medical person – but I can certainly relay the concerns of my constituents and the residents of the NWT in wanting to advance. As I say, I would like to see the plan stay ahead of what people want. I don’t want people to get frustrated and give up and do their own thing, because I think that won’t be effective at all. So that’s something I’m going to keep talking about.
And do you think the plan is doing that? Is it staying ahead so far?
So far, I think it’s fine. But I think that we’re really in a crucial moment here with what’s happening with the school reopenings and the return of people to their workplaces and so on. Are we going to hold the line on the number of cases there? Are we going to see a new growth in the number of cases? And I think people have some patience for that, there are people still returning to their workspaces. I feel like we have a few more weeks, but we don’t have an infinite amount of time.
Your portfolios now span seniors, disabilities, health, social services, everything from Stanton to medical travel to child and family services to oral health to long-term care. Where do you think, outside the pandemic, your attention most urgently needs to be?
I have to focus on the priorities that we all set as the 19th Assembly and bringing those to fruition. Certainly all of those things are on my plate. I have the opportunity to add a couple of things. And so it won’t be a surprise to you that I’m very interested in a robust aftercare regime for people who are returning from treatment in the south. I feel that that is an area that needs bumping up pretty considerably with housing and support services, so that people can extend their sobriety for as long as possible, so they are set up for success. That’s very important to me.
The second one is to implement the Home and Community Care Plan. A review was done and released in the last session and it talks about where we’re serving seniors well and where the gaps are. We need to get on to that. Our population of seniors is growing rapidly as we all know and we want them to age in place. That’s something that all the MLAs have agreed to and that residents want. So in order to make that happen, we need to provide more personal support worker care – which is for everyday tasks, like going grocery shopping and cleaning the oven – and medical care, which will allow people to stay where they are for a longer period of time. So those are two particular priorities. But, you know, honestly, it’s a giant list of priorities.
To pick up on one of those priorities: will you, as a minister, advocate for the reintroduction of northern treatment centres for addictions?
No. I don’t think northern treatment centres have proven to be effective. There have been a number that have operated in the time that I’ve been in the Northwest Territories and they have closed because of a lack of qualified staff, a lack of clients. What I saw when I toured the treatment centres down south is that they can offer immediate intake, confidentiality, a robust program, some aftercare availability or transitional housing ability, and they are sensitive to Indigenous and northern needs. There isn’t just one person in each place from the Northwest Territories. So I feel that they can meet our needs more efficiently than we can meet them here in the North. And so I’m not going to be advocating for a return to a northern treatment centre.
To pick up on your second priority that you outlined, you have spent time in the past seeking a renewed strategy on Elder abuse at territorial level. Is that something you’ll be looking to advance?
Oh, absolutely. I fronted a motion on that in the last sitting and it’s very important to me that we develop a whole-of-government approach to seniors rather than piecemealing it through the departments.
Child and family services now falls under your watch – the subject, of course, of the auditor general’s critical reviews over the past six or seven years. Do you believe that things are now on the right track there? And what, if anything, do you intend to do to try to augment that?
Well, I do think they’re on the right track. I think the Quality Improvement Plan, which is available online for anyone to see, is the right direction to go in. I have not reviewed it recently. I don’t know how up to date it is. But it’s my understanding they were making an effort to keep it up to date. So that addresses the issues that were raised by the auditor general – those are specific compliance issues.
The bigger picture is who’s making decisions about children who need care outside of their immediate families? And Bill C-92, which came into force in June 2019. provides preeminent power and discretion to Aboriginal organizations to make decisions about children who are not living with their immediate families. It does things like provide a list of priority, of who should care for children who aren’t in their immediate families. It provides a lot of information but not funding. So what I hope to see happen is we work closely with Indigenous government organizations that are ready to take on that responsibility, so they can implement their own child protection scheme for their communities. I think that’s where that needs to be. And I support them in doing that. The Child and Family Services Act has a mandatory five-year statutory review. It needs to happen in the next year. So there’ll be plenty of opportunity for the public to weigh in on what their priorities are for the next five years,
Across the healthcare spectrum, do you believe it should be a priority for the territorial government to hand over as many of those powers as it can to Indigenous governments who are so equipped?
I think it has to be driven on the Indigenous side where the Indigenous people ask for that power, that they feel they have the capacity – the human capacity, the space, the funding to make all of that work. I don’t think we should be dumping things on Indigenous governments. I think that if they ask, we should expedite that transfer as much as we can.
For years as a regular MLA, you routinely expressed concern that cabinet was not keeping the regular MLAs abreast of developments. You weren’t getting the advance access to documents and policies that you needed, the relationship there was being strained. How will you change that now you are a minister? What commitment are you making to regular MLAs?
I haven’t made an explicit commitment to them but yes, I’ve just been through five years of this. So it’s pretty-much top of mind. I see that there can be more timely sharing, more fulsome sharing, and I think the other cabinet ministers who were regular MLAs are aware of that as well. That’s something that I’m going to push on within the realm of my department. I think that’s a way to work collaboratively instead of starting from a point where regular MLAs are mad because they didn’t find out about this except from Cabin Radio.
Speaking of the MLAs as a whole, the first year with the current group seems, if anything, to be a little more dysfunctional than the last four years were in terms of relations. How broken are those relations at the legislature right now, minister?
I don’t know how to quantify that. I guess I don’t have a firm idea in my mind of the first year of the last assembly.
It ain’t great though, is it?
No. You have seen with the motion – that was advanced, withdrawn, and then advanced and passed – to review Minister Nokleby, that was obviously a very difficult time.
Extraordinarily, the regular MLAs advanced the first one and withdrew it, and then the premier advanced the second one. I can’t think of a precedent for something like that happening.
That’s my understanding as well. And so my hope is that whole issue has now been successfully resolved and we can move on from it. It was very unfortunate that there was also the issue that was raised with the integrity commissioner – not that it was unfortunate that it was raised, but it was unfortunate that it was made public. Then it added to the perception that there were all sorts of nastiness going on in the Legislative Assembly.
Well, there clearly was all sorts of nastiness going on.
I don’t know if there was all sorts of nastiness, but there were obviously specific kinds of nastiness going on there which have all been made public now. I think it was unfortunate that not everyone could attend the caucus retreat in Fort Smith. It was an opportunity to socialize and have a more informal chat with people, and I know some people took advantage of that and made the best of it. So now what happens? Well, we’re all going to come back together for the business plans that start on September 21. And I certainly am going to make an effort to talk to everyone to find out what their needs are, their expectations, and I hope my colleagues in the executive council will as well, so that we can put ourselves onto a good footing going into the fall and into this very busy time.
In 2018 you said: “The fact that needs of children and families have played second fiddle to constructing a road to a gravel pit galls me. I don’t know how hard the minister worked to change this focus” – you were talking about Glen Abernethy at the time – “but the fact that he didn’t win is now a ball and chain around his ankle.” Is that a battle you now intend to win?
I stand by those remarks, it still does gall me, especially when I learn how much of that money is spent outside of the NWT on roads. We’ve seen astonishing figures for the road to Whati and the Slave Geological Province. We just don’t have the capacity, apparently, to do these projects ourselves.
I recognize that infrastructure is necessary. It is a priority of all the members to advance infrastructure projects, but not at the expense of child and family services. I will continue to repeat that and make an issue out of it. I think we have very significant human services deficits that the pandemic has really highlighted: the people who have – have jobs, have houses, have income – and those who have not, and who have suffered disproportionately as a result of the lockdown. I’m going to continue to talk about that. That is what’s in my heart.