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Politics

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh by-election: Mary Rose Sundberg’s interview


Mary Rose Sundberg is one of six contenders running in the upcoming Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh by-election to represent the communities of Fort Resolution, Łutsël K’éDettah, and Ndilǫ in the NWT Legislative Assembly

Nadine Delorme, Steve Norn, Richard Edjericon, Ernest Betsina and Clinton Unka are also in the running. The by-election is being held because former MLA Norn’s seat was declared vacant in November.

Voting will take place by mail-in ballot as a pandemic safety measure. Ballots must be received by February 8 at 8pm.

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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 28, 2022. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Sibley: Can you talk about why you’re running in this by-election?

Mary Rose Sundberg: I believe I am ready to help communities with issues and concerns. I’ve been asked several times in the past but when you have losses and disappointment in your life, you need to give yourself time to heal.

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I am honoured to finally say yes to these people. One thing I was raised with is, don’t push yourself to get nominated, if people can see if you can improve their lives, I believe they will seek you out and that’s what happened. One of the things I have a hard time with is pushing myself because I was never raised to boast or talk about my accomplishments. My father always told me that other people will do it for you if you’re doing a good job. I’m having a hard time with that, but no other issues.

What will some of your first priorities be if you’re elected?

Mainly two or three areas: housing, wellness and economic development. I believe without wellness, you’re not able to help yourself, other people, or communities.

First of all, the Elders always told us that if you’re not well, maybe you’re clouded with alcohol and drugs, how are you going to make good sound decisions. I believe wellness has a lot to do with being a leader, and when you have wellness everything falls in place – I believe that. Everything is connected to wellness, whether it’s your language, your culture, your job, housing, prosperity.

It’s important to start having on-the-land healing, it’s so important – there’s power on the land. When you’re out there, there’s no worries, you have relaxation time and you get focus again. I’m looking into this and I know that it can’t be overnight or I cannot make it happen alone.

One of the things that I think is important is to review the GNWT’s mandate, which was put in place in 2019. I think it’s important to review that, what has the government done so far, and also what has the community done or what hasn’t been done? It all needs to be reviewed.

You mentioned housing as an area where you’d want to see work done. Can you discuss some of the issues you’ve seen and solutions you’d like to see implemented?

That’s a really huge issue, not only for our communities but the whole Northwest Territories. A lot of communities have the same kind of issues. I think what has to be looked at first of all is what’s in place, because there’s a strategic housing plan that’s in place and what level is it at within the government and communities. Some of the rules, policies and regulations also need to be looked at because from what I’m hearing in the communities, a lot of these policies don’t fit into people’s situations or lives.

For affordable housing, we have to work together. When I say affordable housing there’s a lot of issues that in the olden days, even for myself, I wouldn’t have built my home if it wasn’t for my family and my father helped get it built. We all need to come and work together and make this happen to help each other.

Tiny homes is another area that we really need to look at. Maybe we all need to think about going back to basics, we were all happy in the olden days when we all lived in one-room houses, sometimes with 10 people in one home. There was no problem there because everyone has their own roles to play, everyone in the family has a role to play from the Elders to the baby. So when I say back to basics, I’m talking about the wood stove, if you have one obviously you have to go out and get wood – it’s a bit of work – but it’s energy efficient and the warmth of a wood stove is incredible. I have a wood stove at home and I’ve lived with one all my life, I know it takes a little bit of extra work but it’s worth it.

The third area you mentioned earlier was economic development. How would you try to get more jobs in the region, if you’re elected?

I think every community is struggling with this right now because of the pandemic, but we’re almost at the end of it, I believe, and things are going to start picking up. We really need to look at these policies and rules of the government because there’s a lot of people that don’t qualify to go to school or they’re not able to get grants or there is money out there, but people just don’t fit into the categories that they’ve asked for. That needs to really get looked at and also the industry, like what’s out there and how else can we help our people?

Slowly, people are starting to come and voice their issues and concerns about a lack of jobs in the community and what has been done or tried, and how can we take a look at things differently. Most of our communities have resourceful, skilled, knowledgeable people out there. Right now, we don’t have tourism that goes into our communities but I believe with the people that are in them, I know most people would love to only work part-time on a seasonal basis where you work for a few months here and there or work a week, because it fits into their lives.

We have a lot of people out there that are really skilled for the land, they know everything about the land from the animals to the plants, place names, history, the culture. We also need to start introducing our own people to go back on the land because everyone has been traumatized with residential schools or the Sixties Scoop. We need to educate people and we slowly need to start getting people back on the land. This is one of the areas that a lot of the people are willing to do that, they want these kinds of jobs.

The mining industry won’t be there forever, so what I’ve been advocating for many years when I was on council is to start training our people to be plumbers, teachers and carpenters that can work in our own communities rather than always trying to have programs and training just for the mines. They are slowly working on closure and we need to start looking in other areas where our people will have successful jobs in the community, we need to train people for jobs in our communities.

I think it’s important that we start looking at – especially during this pandemic – we’ve seen a lot of things have happened like certain people with certain job skills that we’re not able to find in our community when we had an emergency. Because we’re so limited, we’re not able to go travelling anywhere for all those skillful jobs, we need to really take a look at all the communities because we don’t want something like that to happen again.

We also need to take a look at training right now and look to the youth and the young people and see what kind of jobs they can start training for to help the community – there’s a lot of jobs that our own people can hold. It’s really nice for other non-Dene people coming to our community and work for us because they have this professional skill we don’t, but it’s also a good idea to start training our own people that will stay in our community forever and help.

The other thing I wanted to mention was I didn’t say too much about the youth because the Elders are telling me the youth is integrated into all areas. We need to involve them in all areas to help because they have a different set of skills that can help an organization or First Nation, but they need to also learn what’s happening in our community and outside it.

The youth should be everywhere and guide them through and they say it takes a while but one day they’ll be powerful leaders if they know both worlds of our Dene way and the non-Dene way. The Elders always tell us these things and I’m guided by a few Elders that are really supporting me and they’re telling me to make sure this is said in and to the government. I think they’re telling us we need to start integrating our ways into the government system and the government needs to start learning our ways that work for our people rather than being regulated for everything. We need to take a look at that.

You’ve said getting people back on the land is good for health and wellness and something people have said they want. What do you see as the first step to making programs and getting on the land more accessible?  

I think we have a lot of programs now because of what we learned from Covid and what we’ve learned from all the homelessness that we have in our communities and regions. People are lost and some really need guidance to help them, so I think it’s important to educate people and get them back on the land.

The last two years has caused hardships for people working in tourism. What ideas or solutions do you have to help out the industry?

I did talk to a few people already in the tourism area and we need to utilize their camps for on the land healing to take families out. Those families, men, women and children can learn their language and culture, it’s important. It’s more meaningful and powerful when you’re out on the land when you’re using your language.

I say on-the-land healing because a lot of families don’t have the means of going out. They don’t have Ski-Doos or boats or camps to go to. We need to start introducing the families back onto the land slowly and these tourism camps are people that have businesses in that area can start helping our own people to go out there. I think it’s a starting point to introduce the people back to the land and learning their language

I know Łútsël K’é has had for many years an on-the-land program, and I wasn’t involved in the Dëne Sųłiné language committee, but we all helped to implement these projects in the community and that community has a very strong on the land program. Their language is getting stronger every time they’re out there. I think it’s important we help them in this way, not only for families but also for the schools because we have the resources to teach the children the history of our people, our area, place names, plants. In the olden days, we had our own governing system, our own health system, our judicial system. We had all that in place and it was working, and it works for our Dene people.

I think we can help them. We can educate people and students about all this and that’s how we can help the tourism industry. I think they open their camps to family healing, maybe it’s not quite healing, it’s just learning your language and a culture camp. But once you get out there, it’s a powerful feeling being out there.

Were there any other brief thoughts or ideas you wanted to share?

Climate change is another one that I’m starting to hear from a lot of people and we’re seeing a lot of changes to the land, such as the migration route of the caribou. There are changes our Elders have been telling us about like the animals that come from the south, which we’ve never seen before, slowly coming up here like cougar, deer or magpies – which have been up here a while but they’re not originally from up here. They’re even starting to see moose up in the barren lands and that’s very unusual.

Travelling on the land, you see overflows that you never used to see before, and you have to start making new trails because of that. I’m not a hunter or trapper but I’ve been on the land and I can see changes myself, some of the changes happening out there. I think all the people need to come together and help each other, educate ourselves on climate change and I think it’s very important so the scientific world and traditional knowledge people work together to help make a difference.

The other thing I wanted to say was, I remember a lot of things my late father always told me, and he said it takes a whole nation to make things work and it’s very important to listen to each other before making a final decision. That’s what he used to tell me.

I want to say mahsi cho to all of the candidates and wish them all luck. Every one of them have made some powerful statements, so mahsi cho for that and mahsi cho to our creator for sustaining us for generations.

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