The second of three election forums held by the NWT Chamber of Commerce and NWT & NU Chamber of Mines got underway Wednesday night with candidates in Range Lake and Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh squaring off.
The chamber’s event at Northern United Place was monitored by David Connelly, a member of both the chambers of mines and commerce, and posed three questions to candidates addressing economic development, cost of living in the NWT and rejuvenating the mining industry.
The constituency for Monfwi was scheduled for the normally three-hour event, but incumbent Jackson Lafferty will be unopposed this fall so no debate was held for the district.
Hughie Graham, a senior commercial leasing manager with the territorial government, and past president of the NWT Chamber of Commerce, is taking on incumbent MLA and Minister of Education, Culture and Employment and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Caroline Cochrane in Range Lake.
Both having business experience, the two candidates presented different ideas as to how they would revitalize the NWT economy, which has been forecast to slump in the coming years.
Graham described the pending slump as a great opportunity to make strategic investments in infrastructure. He noted the Taltson hydro-electric project was a great opportunity for jobs and the project needs to be moved ahead quickly.
“The best thing about an economic slump is that you get the best bang for your buck when you do infrastructure projects,” said Graham.
“It gives contractors good value on their projects and has benefits for Northerners such as jobs.”
He pointed to the Tuktoyaktuk highway as a great example a project that benefits the North through jobs and opportunities for training as well as providing infrastructure for the next boom of resources.
Cochrane, on the other hand, wants to see more investment made in the Northern tourism industry.
“Over 110,000 tourists come through NWT last year … we need to promote that,” said Cochrane.
“We see them walking our streets looking for something to do so I believe the GNWT needs to put more money into tourism.”
She said the commerce, mining and arts communities need to work together with multiple levels of government to promote the industry because it’s an opportunity that is already here.
Cochrane would also see a large focus on the polytechnic university being built for both jobs and education opportunities.
“It’s one thing to pump up the economy but if we don’t educate our youth, they won’t have opportunities for employment,” said Cochrane.
When it came to mining, both candidates want to see further collaboration with Indigenous governments before increasing exploration.
Graham promoted the idea of devolution of the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act and partnering closely with industry.
Cochrane focused on streamlining the mineral resource act for promoting the industry.
“Canada is really well known for having a lot of junior companies who are usually small and have high risk within those companies so we need to have a regulatory regime so they know exactly what they’re getting when they come here,” said Cochrane.
Cost of living being one of the most talked about issues on the campaign trail, Cochrane wants to re-examine the GNWT’s business incentive program and find a way to ditch the carbon tax.
Graham discussed making housing a non-taxable benefit for employers and a “pipe dream” of his – removing personal income tax in the NWT.
“It’s an interesting thought, in reality Alaska does it and it’s how they’ve grown their population to where they are today and they’re in the Arctic not dissimilar to us,” said Graham.
Beyond that Graham mention investing in legacy infrastructure to at least stabilize the cost of power.
For the second and final portion of the night’s forum only two of the five candidates for Tu Nedheh-Wiilideh attended the forum, former RCMP officer Steve Norn and manager at Det’on Cho Corporation Paul Betsina.
Betsina promised a balanced approach to mining for improving the economy and ensuring there is adequate oversight to prevent future slumps in industry.
“There needs to be a plan of action,” said Betsina.
He pointed to the success of the Det’on Cho Corporation as an example of how elders and Indigenous communities can get involved in business and find success.
Norn said he wants to see a greater emphasis placed on tourism and eco-tourism across the NWT.
“We need to find opportunity where we can,” said Norn.
“We need to look at Yellowknife and the North as a tourist destination and get behind it and support it and look at ways to expand it.”
Norn also noted that mining will persist and it needs to be done responsibly in a culturally sensitive manor.
When it comes to mining, Norn noted finalizing land claims to being crucial before exploration can even be talked about. Betsina said permitting and regulatory processes is slowing down the development of mines which needs to examined and streamlined.
Both candidates spoke candidly about seeing the cost of living in the territory having an impact on the lives of Indigenous people in small communities.
“Overcrowded homes is a viscous cycle that needs to end and it’s because of cost of living,” said Betsina.
Betsina praised programs like Nutrition North for providing discounted food to Northern communities and proposed more crop-boxes and promoting grass roots agriculture in addition to an increase in hunting subsidies.
“Hunting and fishing around here is plentiful and we need to get back into those roots,” said Betsina.
Norn proposed a committee to re-examine tax structures in the territory and finding a way to reduce the cost of fuel, the life-blood of isolated communities.
“Subsidies are great but we need to keep our taxes down,” said Norn.
From the audience, Chief Edward Sangris of Dettah asked the candidates how they would directly change legislation to improve affordable housing in their communities.
“A lot of policies NWT Housing has in place are restrictive,” said Norn. “We need to humanize them again and make housing more accessible and affordable.”
Betsina proposed finding a way to make the system easier to navigate, especially for elders and easing rules around public housing to improve accessibility.
The third and final installment of the NWT Chamber of Commerce and NWT & NU Chamber of Mines forums will be taking place on Sept. 12 starting at 6 p.m. at Northern United Place. The final forum will feature candidates from Yellowknife North, Yellowknife South and Yellowknife Centre.