Clinton Unka is one of six contenders running in the upcoming Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh by-election to represent the communities of Fort Resolution, Łutsël K’é, Dettah, and Ndilǫ in the Legislative Assembly.
Nadine Delorme, Steve Norn, Ernest Betsina, Richard Edjericon, and Mary Rose Sundberg are the other candidates. A by-election is being held because former MLA Norn’s seat was declared vacant in November.
Votes are being cast by mail-in ballot as a pandemic safety measure. Ballots must be received by February 8 at 8pm.
Cabin Radio has invited all six candidates to discuss how they would approach the role of MLA if elected.
This interview was recorded on January 20, 2022. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sarah Sibley: Why did you decide to run?
Clinton Unka: There’s been a lot of media focused around this by-election, how much it has cost in regards to the process as well as just better representing the constituents in this riding, obviously, they’re very separated geographically. With the amount of support that I’ve been getting from my friends, family and people that I’ve worked with previously, I thought it was a right fit.
With Covid right now, everything has proven difficult when trying to represent these communities, and not only the communities I’m running for. Every community in the Northwest Territories as a whole is wanting to have this representation. We saw in the news today they’re postponing the Legislative Assembly sitting until later in February and that’s directly related to the pandemic and keeping our families and our community safe.
Some of my platform, bringing it back to Covid, we’ve seen recently Fort Smith is basically giving up on any type of tourism. Tourism is very important for these communities, Łutsël K’é is a fly-in community, Fort Resolution is very close to the Alberta border and Hay River, and Yellowknife as well having access to the ice road right now to Dettah. For a lot of people coming to the Northwest Territories – if they’re able to come in – the restrictions just keep on changing, so making sure that we’re representing on a tourism basis.
Focusing on youth, like children right now to potentially be going back to school on Monday, but obviously it’s taken a toll on our education system, working from home, and then also the parents that are still having to tackle their own jobs as well as doing a teacher job. I know firsthand I have family members that are sitting at home with a two and five-year-old and you can imagine it’s becoming a new norm right now – but it must be difficult.
That’s where I roll into healthcare and mental health and addictions, I live alone at home, so I don’t know that dynamic of constantly having the added pressures of this pandemic. With the healthcare system it’s getting fairly difficult to access those services like counselling and having counsellors available, and that is important.
Dealing with isolation periods, I’ve seen several comments about the isolation period and [how] it’s always changing and sometimes if you’re talking to some person or calling 8-1-1, some people know what to say, some people don’t know what to say. It’s about having that education and getting the right information and having that support.
That’s the core of what I’m planning, the other thing that I forgot to mention is the housing in these communities. Our winters are harsh. Looking to Fort Simpson this past year with flooding and the flooding in the Delta, those put a strain on our communities.
For Łutsël K’é, Fort Resolution, Wiilideh and Dettah, it’s also access to housing. For social assistance or first-time buyers, making the process a lot easier. I just bought my place here and it’s a stressful situation. Having those brackets to look it up because if you make too much or too little money, you’re not eligible for assistance, so just making it a bit more accessible for residents. Housing is limited so committing to those communities and having increased funding, I know it’s been an ongoing issue in the past, it’s something that’s very important to me.
You mentioned a lot of issues there and these issues aren’t new, they’ve been in the communities for quite some time. What solutions do you have and why do you think your solutions could be the ones to change things for the region?
You’re correct, a lot of these issues are nothing new. It’s just ongoing and trying to gain access to more funding and working with different types of governments. It’s not to say that I have all of these great ideas that have already been done, it’s continuous work. You’re always continuously working with those avenues and other members.
It’s a collaborative effort coming to agreements because obviously the Legislative Assembly has a lot of different opinions. Working cooperatively, productively and making sure we’re listening to the communities. The constituents are the people that ultimately we’re responsible to represent and the communities we represent – that would be first and foremost for me, having and building those relationships so we can continue our process of government.
Right now, we’re doing a lot of things online, even with my current job. It’s becoming a new norm, working at home and having to juggle your life and having the distractions of home. So, keeping a clear focus on how to provide the supports for those communities for dealing with the pandemic.
You talked about building relationships in the Legislative Assembly. You’re going to have a shorter time in the Assembly if you’re elected. How are you going to ensure the concerns of Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh are heard?
Again, it’s just engaging actively with the community and constituents and representing them first and foremost. I am a longtime Yellowknifer and I know several of the MLAs that are currently seated.
I’ve been working collaboratively with my friend Katrina and several MLAs have reached out to me to congratulate me for running, so there already are connections there and I’m a likeable person, so I don’t think it’s going to be that hard.
But I’m definitely keeping in mind the voices of the communities.
In an initial press release you sent to Cabin Radio, you mentioned you want to expand access to healthcare in smaller communities. How would you do that for communities, especially Fort Resolution and Łutsël K’é that are farther away from bigger NWT hubs?
Łutsël K’é, being a fly-in community, it will be more challenging. Fort Resolution, being on the other side of the lake, as well. It comes down to what type of funding we’re getting to these communities.
Having worked in recruitment for the GNWT, I know first-hand it’s proven difficult to recruit for healthcare professionals, making it accessible for them to move to the North and to the communities. It’s a challenge and trust me, I’m very familiar with it.
It’s also retention and making it a buy-in for bringing these professionals to the communities, and bringing community members back to the communities when they have gone to school working with Aurora College and the programs they have. It’s proven successful bringing our northern graduates back home and there’s a big push for hiring our local Indigenous people back into the communities.
I know the GNWT has their internship program, they offer the Indigenous gateway program. There’s many programs that need to be utilized more and educating those communities about government and non-government programs, community-based programs that have scholarships for youth – that’s where the buy-in is. You’re bringing youth back into their community with an education and something valuable to offer, a lot of people are interested in healthcare.
Same with the trades, if you want people to build these houses, you need people to know how to build the houses. It’s important to me to advocate for these types of programs because sometimes the funding is there but people don’t know how to access it.
Earlier in the interview you mentioned tourism in the region. The last two years haven’t been easy on operators and those that rely on it. What kinds of solutions do you have to help that industry?
It comes down to, it sounds like a broken record, but Covid is the reality right now. What can we actually do safely, that’s what it’ll come down to.
Hopefully by the summertime we’ll see a different type of shift into restriction or isolation period time. If people want to travel [then] people are travelling, they just have to do it safely. Having those measures in place and making sure we set up those regulations with vendors or tourism groups. Smaller airlines in the NWT are definitely seeing a shift in going to lodges or to the Nahanni, it’s about working with them.
Also, looking at what types of grants are available, I’m not too familiar but that’s obviously something I would look more in-depth to. It’s also looking at what are the community needs, what is bringing people to these communities for their events and festivals and just being creative.
The pandemic is really dictating a lot of what we can and can’t do. Time will tell, there’s only so much you can do at this point due to all the restrictions and hopefully it does get better. But when it does, having those conversations with communities, listening to what their needs are, where they would like to see accessible funding and grants for specific relief means as well. Seeing what we can do and how the government can invest in these communities representatively.
Housing in the region is a big issue – what do you see as the first step in tackling the crisis in Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh?
With all the communities we need to figure out the need, there is already some information about what the needs are. Then it’s working with the government to see how we can facilitate giving accessible funding for these communities and making sure we’re doing it correctly with quality materials so we’re not revisiting these housing issues five years from now. It’s not trying to do a Band-Aid effect, it would be to try to actually create a solution.
Then there’s the accessibility to the type of funding that is available, there’s a lot of first-time buyers like I said earlier, so getting that information out to the community so they know how to access it.
There’s needs all across all communities in the NWT, it’s about how are we going to figure out the allocation of who gets to access that type of funding or how many houses are promised to be built in each community and making sure it’s fair. That comes down to working with all the members and all the local groups. It’s extremely important to ensure communities are involved with the process because it’s not just about us figuring out what is what, it’s also working with communities and local governments to see what their needs are first and foremost, and for community needs as well.