Sean Whelly has served two terms as mayor in the past, and he’s back in the race again this year hoping to finish what he started in Fort Simpson.
The current town councillor has lived in the NWT his entire life. For the past 18 years he has worked as a business development officer with the Deh Cho Business Development Centre.
“I want to make sure people are getting better services and benefits and they’re not being overly taxed in order to get those increases in services and benefits, and see a real change in quality of life,” he pitched.
Whelly is running against Pat Rowe for the mayoral position in the October 15 election.
Sarah Pruys: Why did you decide to run for mayor again this year?
Sean Whelly: Well, I wanted to sort-of complete what I had started when I first started thinking about running for mayor many years ago, and that really was to improve the quality of life for people here in Fort Simpson.
Taking some of my business background and experience and trying to apply it to the business of running a community, but with a heart. I want to make sure people are getting better services and benefits and they’re not being overly taxed in order to get those increases in services and benefits, and see a real change in quality of life.
I’m talking about small things to big things. Sometimes it’s just enhancing the municipal parks, the lookout spots, the green spaces around, maintaining them, ensuring there are more benches and bear-proof garbage cans. It could be putting benches down in our community cemetery, and some treed, shady space so people can just sit and contemplate; and making our sidewalks safer and cleaner in the winter for the people that walk.
I want to be representing all of the stakeholders, and it’s really important in this community because it’s not just business interests. Here we’re a primarily Aboriginal community and it’s really important to work closely, and establish good communications and good partnerships with local Aboriginal governments here. An example of that would be, and it started while I was doing my last term as mayor, we negotiated a long-term lease in a proposed new office building that Nogha Enterprises, owned by the band, is going to build here in Fort Simpson. It’s going to be the new Nahanni Parks building and probably house offices of the band as well. So, to me it was a collaborative venture, and really important to show that the community worked together as well to basically help with economic development.
When you were talking about sidewalks and garbage cans, is that something you did last time or that’s something you want to do this time around?
Things we had started. Basically, a new park area that we started while I was the mayor down by the ball diamond overlooking the Liard and Mackenzie rivers. For whatever reason during the last term that was sort-of neglected, and I’d like to see that completed with signage, properly grassed, and perhaps some shade from the sun so people when they’re sitting there can look out. There should be signage there for the tourists… a bit of a better idea of the natural beauty of the area. So, these are small things, but in the end, they matter if you neglect them. It’s not just the big infrastructure things, you know, finishing the streets and delivering the water. When you get those core things done there’s a lot of smaller things that are good to do.
Why don’t we talk about some of these bigger things. What would you like to work on there?
One of the main things is I want to see all of the streets in Fort Simpson, on the main island, chip-sealed, at a minimum, over the next three years.
Probably half of the town has chip seal on it, or pavement. Our main street is paved, one of the main streets on the side is chip-sealed, but there’s a lot of connecting streets that are just gravel. A combination of pavement, chip seal, and gravel creates a bit of an issue when you’re trying to keep the streets clean because gravel and dirt and mud is being spread all over the place from the streets that aren’t chip-sealed. It’s a dusty, hard-to-walk-around area in the community. So I’d like to see the entire area chip-sealed.
It’s an accessibility issue for people on bikes, wheelchairs, people pushing baby carts. It makes it safer and easier for everybody to walk around, and it keeps the streets cleaner, makes the town look nicer, and in the end, in my mind, it improves people’s quality of life. So that’s a big thing, and I think that Simpson has to lobby for the funding and one way or another – take a big loan, do what it has to do – to get the job done and pay for it over time. But let’s complete that job.
Do you know how people feel about taking out a big loan to get the job done? Have you talked to the community about that idea?
That’s something that’s well within the capital budget of the Village to do, and their borrowing limits. I think that people do really want to see these streets completed. Not everybody’s going to talk about exactly how we’re going to finance that. I think that’s up to the politicians to find a way to do it and then explain how that won’t impact people’s pocketbooks. Put it into the capital budget, make it work, find new funding: there’s always federal funding assistance in areas of sewer, water, roads, there’s GST monies coming in, capital budget monies, lobbying the territorial government for increased municipal funding.
These are things that have to happen. We can’t just sit back and sort of hope for the best, we’ve got to take active control over what we perceive to be our destiny here. I’d like this community to be having chip-sealed roads for sure. It’s what I hear people want. They’d love paved roads, but that’s probably going too far. We’ll see.
What are some other things people have been saying they’d like to see in the community?
One of the things that I’ve heard people ask for is that sewer pump-out services be incorporated into their water and utility bills. Here in Simpson, there’s a lot of off-island housing, which is serviced with a pump-out sewer truck and that’s delivered through a private service and has nothing to do with the Village. We deliver water, but we don’t pump out their sewer tanks. That’s just not something we do – it should be though, because it is a basic, municipal service. You shouldn’t be able to drop water off and then not have a solution for people to take it away. I think that it should just be built into the water and sewer bill and people should pay the same price whether you’re on the island or off the island and just incorporate that into the budget.
Right now, they have to pay out of their pocket. Sometimes it’s quite expensive, we’re talking hundreds of dollars a month for people to have a pump-out service. And so I think we can work with the private provider right now to incorporate it into a Village service. It’s just a way of doing here in the village. We do deliver water off-island. It costs us a lot more money to deliver trucked water than it does to deliver it by pipe, but it doesn’t matter, we charge everyone the same rate for water. In the same way, I think we should charge them the same for sewer.
That will make it easier for people to develop housing off-island, which happens to be the only real available land base. Most of the land on the island is taken, so we’re developing off the island and it creates a lot of problems if people are thinking too hard about installing septic fields or pump-outs, and what are those costs going to be like… I think it should just be the same across the board for everybody in the community.
So incorporate what is now a private service into a municipal service – everybody pays the same price. That to me is part of the fairness principle to living in a community. We all share the costs and enjoy a better life in Fort Simpson.
Now I’m just looking through your pledges to the community, and you have 20 different points here. We haven’t talked about tourism – you said you’d like to make a solid plan for a visitor information centre. Could you talk about what you’d like the Village to do there?
This is the thing: the municipal offices of the Village of Fort Simpson are located now in what was traditionally the visitor information centre. It is still the visitor information centre but only a part of it. The building was built 25 years ago or so as a visitor centre; it was actually a regional tourism centre, the territorial government funded it. Eventually, the Village ran out of office space and they relocated to the visitor centre and displaced a lot of that visitor service area, and it’s no longer a regional tourist centre as such.
The Village takes on the role of providing visitor services in partnership with Industry, Tourism, and Investment and it’s kind of a small backwards step, what happened there. The Village, by signing a lease with the First Nation to move into new office space once they’re built – the new Parks and Village offices as well as most likely the Band offices in the new two-story office building in downtown Fort Simpson – will mean what is potentially possible is that the visitor centre can go back to being a regional tourism centre, perhaps even owned and operated by the territorial government.
They have the funding, they have the money to do that, they’ve even indicated in the past that they’d be willing to take that building back and move office staff related to tourism in there and run it exclusively as a tourism building. Then, the chamber of commerce can be partnering in that building as well with their tourism members, and really, let them run it the way they want to run it. That’s hopefully the way that stakeholders can become more involved in tourism using a big infrastructure with the assistance of the territorial government in a way that everyone is partnering and doing something really good.
Right now, it’s not performing the way I think it should. The focus isn’t on tourism in this community, on information services the way it could be. I’m not clear enough about how that changeover could happen.
You also had supporting community economic development on your election platform.
Well I want to make sure that land developers are not hindered by any archaic rules or personal interests. I want to see people investing in the community. Our economic development is going to come from the people that live here. Maybe that’s partly from me being a business development officer; I see people want to invest in their own community, sometimes they’re held back by zoning or community plans that aren’t really working for the community. So I think we have to make sure that we’re not holding back investment in our own community.
That is one thing: that we’re actually encouraging development; diversification of the economy, of course is important; and tourism, an increased focus on tourism and the visitor information centre once the Village offices have moved out of there would be a good thing.
Lobbying for better transportation to the area will help tourism as well. Eventually the Mackenzie Highway will be built. I think in those 20 points that you mentioned that I put out there, I do have something about lobbying the territorial government to look at a bridge study across the Liard River to Fort Simpson. It sort of baffles me as to how that hasn’t been done yet because the territorial government is saying that the Mackenzie Highway will be completed in the next 10 years, except for, in about three days from now, Fort Simpson isn’t even going to be able to get across the river because the Liard is so low.
The trend has been that water in the Liard has been drying up sooner and sooner every single season. So if it were to shut down in the next day or two, we’d be looking at probably two months before we could even get across. The government is spending about $100 million on the Bear River Bridge up by Tulita and they said that bridge would increase the amount of time that the winter road could be open for about one week, but yet Fort Simpson might be left, in the coming years, blocked off for up to a quarter of the year.
We’re at the start of the northern section of the Mackenzie Highway here, and I can’t understand it. So that’s going to have to be a big lobbying effort to make sure we get a study or alternate ideas on how to run the ferry here, maybe different approaches. Maybe an access road could be built down to the Mackenzie and take a ferry to Fort Simpson Island instead of crossing the Liard. But something has to be done to help our transportation here. That’ll help costs, help business. Nobody wants to invest in a place that’s cut off for three months of the year.
On that note, you’d also mentioned diversification of the economy?
From the Village’s point of view, you lobby, you promote, you work with other stakeholders.
What you can directly do, though, is make sure that development is easy in your own community. You welcome people, including all of the tourists that you can get, you make sure that the infrastructure is here that people would like.
I would like to get back to lobbying for a new health centre. We’re the only community that never got a new health centre. Every other community got one. Yellowknife’s got a $300 million hospital, Norman Wells got one, Inuvik got one, Fort Providence got one, even Trout Lake [Sambaa K’e] is getting a new health centre.
Fort Simpson did not get a new health centre. They said at the time that the footings were going bad in our health centre, so you need one, then later on, because they couldn’t find the land base here to build a new health centre, they suddenly said that the footings of your old health centre are fine, you can keep that. That wasn’t the issue with anybody else’s health centre; they got a new health centre regardless, everybody. We didn’t. That’s a huge $30 million dollar project that should have come to Fort Simpson, never did.
I really plan on taking the territorial government to task on some of the neglect in funding that’s been going to the smaller communities like Fort Simpson. If we can’t get those things, forget about diversified economy.
And just briefly, can you talk about your skills and abilities, and why you think you’re the best candidate for mayor?
Well on top of my business experience with my job, I do have an MBA which I obtained through Thompson Rivers University. I’ve also run my own small business for probably 25 years.
I think that I’m well-connected in the community, I know a lot of people, I’ve drawn on a lot of experiences I’ve had in the community to guide what I’m proposing to the community.
I’m a doer, I get a little excited sometimes, I stand up for people’s rights – and that’s just a personality thing with me. I want to be fair to people, I want them to have a better life here. I plan on staying here, I’m not going anywhere, I’ve been here 35 years.
I’m not in it for the money. Like I said, the mayor’s job is for free. I’ve often wondered why some people would run and you’ve really got to love it. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be running for mayor. You’re not getting paid for it. What you’re going to get is the satisfaction of having done something for people, and that’s all you’re going to get. That’s why I’m really running.