Monfwi By-election 2021: James Wah-Shee’s interview

James Wah-Shee, an NWT MLA in the 1980s, has decided decades later to run again for the position of Monfwi MLA. He says there’s a need for a stronger working relationship and close communication between the Tłı̨chǫ Nation, territorial government, and federal government. 

Wah-Shee, who lives in Behchokǫ̀, said his focus would be ensuring the Tłı̨chǫ land claim and self-government agreement are implemented.

He also noted education, climate change, housing, and a sustainable economy as key parts of his platform.


The former politician also floated the idea of the NWT looking at becoming a province, and said the territorial government should work with Indigenous governments to create a constitution for the North.

Cabin Radio has approached all four candidates in this month’s by-election for interviews. Polling day is July 27.

Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast.

This interview was recorded on July 15, 2021. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Pruys: Why did you decide to run?


James Wah-Shee: Well, essentially, it has to do with the working relationship between the Government of the NWT (GNWT) and the Tłı̨chǫ Government. And that also includes the federal government and implementation of the Tłı̨chǫ land claims and self-government agreement, which was negotiated over a 12-year period. And it was finally concluded then approved by the Tłı̨chǫ Nation, the federal cabinet, and the GNWT, and in the end the Tłı̨chǫ land claims and self-government agreement ended up before the House of Commons, and it was approved. And then finally, it had to go through the the Canadian Senate. So all of this was done in 2005, when it was concluded.

So my interest is the working relationship for the implementation process, which started in 2005. And it will continue to be implemented far into the future because it has a lot of chapters in there. And it has to do with the responsibilities that the Tłı̨chǫ Government will be taking over, over a long period of time. A lot of these responsibilities still lie with the federal government and GNWT but the Tłı̨chǫ Government also has its own responsibility in the agreement and, fundamentally, it has to deal with the implementation. And it’s not only the implementation of the Tłı̨chǫ agreement, but also the whole issue of reconciliation, the residential schools, and so forth.

And also, my interest is in the education of our children, the standards. And so when our students here in Behchokǫ̀, Whatì, Gamètì, and Wekweètì complete their junior high and high school and they graduate, and if they want to go through to post-secondary schools and universities, a lot of times they have to take upgrading. So our standard of education has to meet those standards – I believe that we’re following the standards of the province of Alberta, because most of our students go through post-secondary school and university in Alberta.

I’m interested in the general economy of the North. I think with the climate change and so forth, we have to do things differently. So our economy has to be ecosystem-friendly. A lot of times in the past, the economy was fluctuating back and forth, up and down, in a cycle over the years because most of the mines that operate have a lifetime of about, on average, 15 to 20 years. And then the history is that the cleanup has to be done by the companies. And when they receive the permit to explore and to operate a mine, they have to do the cleanup in the end. We have experience where corporations were going under and then the cleanup is left with the taxpayers. So that’s been the history.

And so what I’d like to see in the economy is more emphasis on an ecosystem-friendly economy, like tourism, ecosystem adventures for people that like to come up here to do camping, photography – just essentially experience the beautiful country we have up here. So that would be my interest, but my focus would be on the implementation of the claims, because that takes cooperation and understanding between the three levels of government.

The other thing is that the pandemic has created a real challenge for society. And so things have to be done differently. And the the other thing is that we have to take a look at what are the lessons that we have learned through the pandemic and isolation, and also the impact that has on the mental health on the people of the North. And not only in the North but also in southern Canada, and the mental health of families, and children, Elders, and people that work in the offices.

So I think the nature of employment, perhaps, will change over time. But we should take a review of what we have learned thus far, and what changes could be made to make things a lot more comfortable for people that are struggling with their physical health and mental health. Society really went through a major change in the past year, previous to that we haven’t experienced a pandemic.

The issue of climate change, too. We have to have cooperation between the federal government and GNWT and the Tłı̨chǫ Government and all the Aboriginal Nations.

Do you agree that housing is a major issue for the Monfwi district?

Well, as I understand it there’s been a recent announcement by the federal government to make available financing strictly for housing and they have allocated money for housing in the North, for the Tłı̨chǫ Government, for instance. And also, the other monies would also be going to GNWT for social housing and so forth. So I believe the something is being done about it and now it’s a matter of continuing to have cooperation between the federal government, GNWT, and the First Nations self-government for housing in each of the communities.

Housing has been a real problem and issue for a very long time, it’s been an issue as long as I can remember. So there is a housing shortage, for the young people, for the families. And over the years, there’s been overcrowding in all the housing that we’ve had. So we certainly require more housing for healthy living, especially for families. And also, the care of the seniors has to be looked at in terms of how we care for our seniors. In the past, and with all these changes, we have to start looking at the the health of our people.

What makes you the best person for this job?

Well, first of all, I’ve been an MLA before. I’ve been an MLA for 12 years, and that was up to 1984. And so I know the way the Legislative Assembly operates and the working relationship of the assembly members. Essentially, they operate on a consensus basis. That’s the system that we have now.

But it will evolve, now and into the future at some point in time. And so I’m not suggesting one way, but my hope is that you’ll have better communication between Aboriginal Nations that are negotiating their land claim and self-government and if there’s any further constituency review, and so forth, that this will be done by GNWT in consultation with all the First Nations because we’re particularly interested in the political evolution.

Right now we are a territory and some time in the future, the residents of the North might want to take a look at provincialhood and what changes have to be made toward that. So we’re still at the early stages. The Legislative Assembly started functioning in 1967, so we have come a long ways, all together, all the residents of the North and the Aboriginal First Nations. So the whole idea of political evolution of the North will require a meeting of all the First Nations and the GNWT. I think the the devolution of responsibilities from the federal government to GNWT has been taking place, say, since 1967, when Stu Hodgson and all of his staff arrived from Ottawa. That’s when we started having a sense of self-government in the North. And so the institution has evolved. And now, I think, with the land claims and self-government of Aboriginal Nations, of the Dene, Métis, and the Inuvialuit, we’re going to have to start looking at a formal relationship between Aboriginal Nations and the Government of the Northwest Territories. The Government of the Northwest Territories, of course, has the responsibility to represent all residents of the North equally, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

At some point in time, I think we should take a look at a constitution for the North country to formalize the relationship between Aboriginal Nations and GNWT in terms of further devolution from the federal government. And also, where do we go from here, in a political institution that represents both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of the North? That’s one of the things that we’re probably going to have to look at. And the major players will be the Aboriginal Nations and GNWT, to come up with a constitution to formalize the working relationship and cooperation, and implementing the land claims and self-government. But the focus will be on the creating a constitution, so that this way, you’ll have a formal agreement between Aboriginal Nations and GNWT to essentially state that GNWT is the government for all the residents of the North, and so forth. We’ve tried to come up with a constitution before but I think we had too many players. And now I think that focus has to be a government-to-government agreement and working relationship, in this case is between Aboriginal Nation governments and GNWT. And so that is something we should perhaps consider.

Are there any final words you want to say to encourage people to vote for you?

I intend to work for all the Tłı̨chǫ citizens of the Tłı̨chǫ Nation: Behchokǫ̀, Whatì, Gamètì, and Wekweètì, and want to continue to work in close cooperation with all the community governments and especially the Tłı̨chǫ Government. I want to ensure that there’s good lines of communication between the MLA that represents the Tłı̨chǫ people of the Tłı̨chǫ Nation, and also essentially having a better working relationship with the Tłı̨chǫ Government. And I want to work with all the programs that the GNWT has for the young people, especially upgrading, employment training, and sports.

And also, I want to see how we can have a good working relationship between the Aboriginal Nations and GNWT on climate change; it’s a new experience for all of us.

And also, the pandemic. We all learned something from it, and it takes cooperation. And I would like to encourage all the Tłı̨chǫ citizens to get vaccinated, get the first shots and second shots. I know that the problem associated with vaccination is the whole misinformation. I think it’s a real challenge. We’d like to get all of our young people vaccinated. And I know that what I hear is they’re concerned about the side effects, potentially. And a lot of us have had our first shot and second shots – I had mine and I haven’t experienced any side effects so I would encourage everybody to get vaccinated because that protects yourself and protects your family. It protects the your community and also has an impact on your travel. A lot of us in the North actually travel back and forth among each other and so forth, so we have to do so in the best interest for our health.