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What do Yellowknife candidates have to say on the issues?

So you’ve met most of those who are running for territorial office in Wednesday’s edition of Yellowknifer. But there’s a second part to that and it’s appearing today.
The wildfire season was the major story in 2023 when it came to Yellowknife. We asked candidates what they would do to improve the territory’s response to such disasters. NNSL file photo

So you’ve met most of those who are running for territorial office in Wednesday’s edition of Yellowknifer. But there’s a second part to that and it’s appearing today.

We asked every candidate running in Yellowknife five questions we think are the most important as the campaigning rolls on. The answers we’ve received will be numbered in the order of how we asked the questions. They are:

1. Every year, we move closer to the NWT diamond mines shutting down, and with that will go the engine of the private-sector economy. What is your plan to stimulate the territory’s economy?

2. How would you improve the territorial government’s response to wildfires and floods?

3. Several land claims have been signed in the NWT and more are in negotiations. Where do you see opportunities for the GNWT to work cooperatively with Indigenous governments to make life better for residents?

4. The NWT’s high school graduation rate, hovering around 60 per cent, hasn’t improved much over the past decade. What are your plans to strengthen education in the territory?

5. Many Canadian jurisdictions, including the NWT, are struggling to recruit doctors and nurses. How do you propose to bring more health professionals to the NWT, and what else in the medical system needs fixing?

Some of the answers were very detailed and we thank the candidates for that. For that reason, we will be publishing the first ones we received in order. If you don’t see your answers here, the next edition of Yellowknifer will feature the next batch of answers published in the order they were received.

Jon Howe (Yellowknife North)

1. I’m not sure that stimulating anything is going to be of much help. It might even make things worse. Not sure if you played hockey in the 1990s, but taking Sudafed an hour before the game and Nyquil afterwards when you got home was pretty much a guarantee for short-term gain, but long-term pain.

Government services aside, I expect that the main pillar of our economy will continue to be resource-based, so keep blowing up the Canadian Shield, basically. As a bonus, weathering rocks could prove to be a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide.

2. First, I would find the shiny red ‘Save me Jesus’ button that must exist somewhere and cut the wires to it.

Second, I would rewrite the GNWT manual on how to panic (if such a document exists) to add a few intermediate steps between ‘everything is fine’ and ‘run for your life’. If this was Gotham City, Commissioner Gordon would at least have picked up the Batphone before calling for a complete evacuation.

Third, it seems to me that the folks at 4570 48 St. weren’t talking to the folks at 4807 52nd St. If the city’s shelter in place plan was complete dog poop — and I’m not convinced that it was — there should have been at least some discussion on what else could be done. And that discussion could have taken place at least a day or two before my phone blew up with the alert.

Fourth, regarding floods, build an ark. If any of that was caused by Alberta and B.C. messing with their dams on the Peace River, we should get our premier to make a couple of calls.

3. I have no idea. I haven’t thought about this, and likely won’t between now and Nov. 14.

4. This answer might require two parts: one for Yellowknife and another for the communities, as I thought that graduations rates at Sir John Franklin High School and St. Pat’s were fairly good, and that they are well prepared for post-secondary.

For Yellowknife North specifically, I don’t foresee any issues other than maybe finding bus drivers.

5. You don’t want to know exactly what I think needs fixing.

Your average doctor is so rich, their biggest problem is likely to be how to fit a fourth Lexus into a three-car garage. What inducement could I possibly dangle to make this place look better than any other place in Canada, or the U.S., for that matter?

And I don’t see the point of hiring a surgeon just to say we have one, all the while keeping the operating room hours down to practically nothing because we can’t fund the ward. Please don’t get me wrong — doctors, nurses, and hospitals are great, and we do need them. But I am worried more about health, and less about health care. We need to stop stabbing each other over an ex-girlfriend or a case of beer for God’s sake. We need to stop driving hammered and rolling our cars into the ditch.

Instead of one surgeon, I would hire five carpenters, and get them started on framing all of those new houses we need. And I would remind them to not squat their thumb with the hammer because the wait time in emergency is going to be forever because we don’t have a doctor for the emergency room.

Kieron Testart (Range Lake)

1. There is no one strategy that will create growth and jobs. Instead, we need a multifaceted approach that fosters growth, innovation, and prosperity, benefiting all residents.

This means revitalizing mining in the NWT through regulatory improvements, infrastructure development, and incentives for research and development; offering tax breaks and incentives for Northern businesses; closing the municipal funding gap and transferring all unused public land within municipal boundaries to local authorities to bring new investment into local economies; doubling the Mining Incentive Program to $3 million to spur new exploration into the critical minerals sector; and strengthening the labour market with new immigration programs and expanded opportunities for education and skills training with the new polytechnic university.

2. Northerners can’t wait for another disaster caused by climate change — it’s time for proactive measures to safeguard lives and property, and reduce severity of climate disasters.

Through expanding emergency training, investing in resilient infrastructure, developing early warning systems, fostering community participation, and seamless communications and streamlined emergency responses, we can create a safer and more resilient society, where timely and effective responses to emergencies protect lives and livelihoods.

3. The future of the NWT as a territory depends on the relationship between its public government and Indigenous nations. We have to restore trust and respect between these governments and aspire towards a Confederation within Confederation.

That means new offers at each unsettled land claim table within one year of taking office, establishing an Indigenous-led child welfare system, full implementation of modern treaty provisions, and integrating the Council of Leaders and Intergovernmental Council into the legislative assembly as a formal body within our democratic institutions.

4. Education and skills training are essential drivers of economic growth, individual empowerment, and community health. We need to ensure that teachers have the resources to effectively reach students who are at risk of dropping out of school.

The recent changes to British Columbia’s curriculum in the territory is a good start that we need to build on, integrating more local traditional knowledge into lessons, and ensuring an education program that is more culturally in tune with the North going forward is key to raising attendance rates and ensuring the graduation of the next generation of students in the territory.

5. We can address the shortage of territorial doctors and nurses with a new plan for recruitment and training, including providing funding between $500 to $10,000 per student per year to cover applications, MCAT and interview travel cost reimbursement; improving clinical educational opportunities by allowing students to job shadow physicians and nurses any time in their medical program; and introduce return-for-service agreements to alleviate cost burdens for medical education and encourage the return of medical professionals to the NWT.

It’s time to prioritize transparency, responsibility, and efficiency in our health care system. We must shift the focus from purely measuring health care outcomes and cost-cutting to emphasizing accountability for how resources are used. This will encourage health care authorities to be more responsible in their decision-making, financial stewardship, and patient care.

This ensures that health care resources are allocated wisely, without compromising the quality of care, and that health care officials are held accountable for their actions and decisions in order to provide better, more cost-effective health care services.

Aaron Reid (Range Lake)

1. It goes without saying that we need to increase the Mining Incentive Program as much as possible to spur further exploration to find future mines. This will have immediate direct and indirect economic benefits for Range Lake and the NWT.

The program is being well used with previous years hitting the $1.5 million cap, so it would be money well spent if we could double it or more. That said, we have to be realistic that it will take years for new mines to come online when they’re found.

So we have to ask, what else? What else could be the next big thing besides mines and other extractive industries? I believe we have a unique opportunity to help the rest of the country and the world reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time, growing our economy with a long-term, stable source of income. And that opportunity would be establishing the world’s first large scale commercial data center North of 60.

A data center would be that customer that would help justify both our power and fibre connectivity build out, likely across the lake. A facility built at scale can use tens of megawatts of power, comparable to a mine. But it’s long term, it’s not extractive, it doesn’t have an end of life date and is an industry that’s only growing. And the rest of the world needs this.

Data centers in the south use upwards of 40 per cent of their energy and large amounts of water just to cool themselves, two resources that are increasingly in demand for multiple other needs during peak heat waves in the south.

We should be seriously promoting Yellowknife as a prime candidate for a Northern data center.

2. We need to recognize that the problem has grown an order of magnitude beyond our ability to deal with it using existing systems and structures. Look at Enterprise — they had the Firesmart stamp and had done everything correctly based on existing policies, but they were still devastated. So we need to admit that what we have isn’t sufficient and an incremental increase in response here or there won’t cut it.

We need to enact legislation and take other steps that require all communities in the tree line in the NWT, which is a majority, to have significant permanent fire defense measures and the necessary infrastructure to use and maintain them on an ongoing basis. Just like it’s law that all cars have seat belts and all homes have smoke detectors, so, too, must we make fire defense measures the seat belts of the NWT.

We need to create the wildfire equivalent of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. One of the recurring patterns with wildfires is that a tremendous burden is placed on a very small number of professional shoulders and this won’t cut it moving forward. We’re too remote and too spread out to assume that professional help will always be able to get to us in time and with the right numbers. So we do need to look at something else, and that something else is you and me.

There are many people who wanted to help during the wildfires this summer but did not have the means to do so. So let’s give people those means and help build the structure and distribute the workload from a few hundred shoulders onto a few thousand, when needed.

3. Land claims have been ongoing with many unsettled since I moved here 19 years ago. We need to get past this with honest negotiation in good faith and done transparently between the GNWT and Indigenous governments.

Self-determination is one of the cornerstones of UNDRIP and that won’t happen without settled land claims, whatever that may look like. If we’re serious about this, we need to walk the walk and actually show meaningful progress. Once the land claims are settled, this will open up multiple opportunities for meaningful growth, reconciliation and progress on multiple fronts.

4. I believe that students won’t succeed unless they believe they have real options and a meaningful future here. We need to look at the youth who aren’t graduating and find what works best to get them motivated and engaged.

A lot of this is trying to help connect the dots between what they’re doing in school and practical careers for them in the future. Part of this would be more vocational training options as one progresses throughout high school as a means of keeping students engaged and motivated in situations where they might otherwise give up.

This would also significantly benefit local businesses and industry as it would be a win-win to connect possible future employers with staff in a reciprocal and mutually beneficial arrangement.

5. This is incredibly difficult as already stated, this is a national issue. What we can do is:

Promote more local training programs and education assistance specifically for local students who wish to go into health care and stay here.

Create the right environment that makes healthcare professionals want to stay here. More money is always good, but it’s of little value if the environment behind the scenes is full of internal conflict, or that extra money comes at the expense of no quality of life due to multiple shifts with ridiculous amounts of overtime. That this is already happening is public knowledge, so we might as well address it openly and plainly.

We need to look at what’s happening in the rest of the world. AI is an incredibly powerful tool that can and has helped reduce workload and improved organizational problems for multiple organizations. We should be looking at how we can use this to reduce the workload on already over-stressed healthcare professionals. It’s not about making someone’s position unnecessary — that will never be the case with the multiple ongoing vacancies — but about making the lives and careers of the people we do have easier and more manageable.

Shauna Morgan (Yellowknife North)

1. Over the last 25 years, we have failed to fully capitalize on the opportunities presented by the diamond mines. Cumulatively over that period, only 47.5 per cent of mine employees have been NWT residents and by 2022, only 37 per cent were residents.

My economic plan would focus on increasing the supply of decent, affordable housing; investing more in early childhood education; better recruitment and retention of health care workers; more holistic mental health care and addictions treatment; and improving training opportunities in the trades, health care, education, and social work.

This is not the first time mines in the NWT have shut down, and it will not be the last — that is the nature of non-renewable resource extraction. The point is to cultivate a workforce that is healthy, skilled, resilient and flexible in responding to shifting opportunities. Our economic future will never be grim if we build up our people.

2. We have been seeing increased frequency and severity of wildfires and floods over many years, but the climate crisis became too painful to ignore this summer when more than half the NWT population had to evacuate our homes. We need to set up emergency management structures we can all have confidence in, rather than chronically under-funding these departments during ‘non-emergency’ times and then scrambling to figure things out in the middle of a crisis.

The independent third-party investigation into this year’s emergency response needs to be completed in time for changes to be implemented before next spring, including detailed emergency plans for all facilities and areas of government responsibility. Expert recommendations must be followed; unfortunately, the conclusions of previous reviews such as for the 2014 fires went largely unheeded.

The territorial review must be integrated with the city’s review and include input from members of the public as well as partner organizations such as the non-profits running critical social services like shelters. We need to further integrate a climate change lens into all decisions, including planning and design for transportation, facilities and communications infrastructure.

We also need to integrate a harm reduction lens into decision-making that doesn’t pretend to eliminate all risk but begins by trying to understand people’s actual situations and the supports they need to stay safer.

3. Settling land claims is fundamental on so many levels: it opens up opportunities for economic investment, it allows for better long-term land use planning and environmental stewardship, it allows for more local control over housing and social programs such as on-the-land healing, and it enables communities to set their own priorities and direction.

Indigenous governments have their own direct relationship to the Crown, and have been negotiating federal funding agreements on things like housing and land stewardship. The GNWT may be able to play a supportive role, but would sometimes be best to just get out of the way instead of intervening with its own timelines and agendas.

I have taken part in many discussions and planning sessions in Northern Indigenous communities over the past 15 years where the resounding message has been more action, less talk. The small community staff teams seem to be drowning in never-ending meetings. GNWT efforts at collaboration need to be focused, action-oriented, and acknowledge and build upon past decades of similar consultations.

4. Low graduation rates are a symptom of our many failures to adequately support children and youth and their families. They need safe homes without overcrowding and family violence; they need enough healthy food along with basic income security; they need early interventions by Child and Family Services to support families in staying together; they need better access to primary health care; they need mental health counsellors whom young people can see regularly in schools and youth centres rather than expecting families to make their own appointments.

I also believe in the power of on-the-land education through my work with the Bushkids program based in Yellowknife. It feeds my soul to see young people come alive and connect with their own innate capabilities and curiosity while gaining a sense of belonging and connection to others and to the land.

Bushkids has been trying to support a growing movement in the territory, offering training and mentorships for educators both in Yellowknife and smaller NWT communities. The GNWT and school boards need to fully flesh out plans and adequately resource their intentions to integrate more on-the-land education into the mainstream school system.

5. While there are promising new initiatives, such as the Family Medicine Residency Program which produced its first two NWT graduates in 2022, the reality is that the NWT is losing resident doctors and nurses far faster than it can train them. Our system is increasingly dependent on locums, which is more costly and provides less continuity of care.

In the past year, we have flown doctors from across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to work in the NWT, paying their travel expenses and daily wages while travelling. This seems terribly inefficient and costly. The GNWT has claimed that these challenges are due to a nation-wide shortage in health care workers outside its control. But the NWT health care system is different from other parts of Canada, and we need to re-examine how our management and incentive structures are part of the problem.

In recent years, the relationship between the NTHSSA and the NWT Medical Association has become very adversarial, often turning to formal grievance processes. Many physicians feel they are treated like cogs in a system, to be tracked and policed, rather than valuable partners in the development of innovative strategies for service delivery. Meanwhile, locum emergency doctors have had a 20 per cent increase in pay while resident doctors have had a three per cent increase.

The answer is not necessarily to pay physicians more, but to value them by providing a collaborative and personalized working environment with some flexibility to accommodate individual needs and schedules, opportunities to be part of decision-making, and more supports to address the challenges of working in tiny teams while living in remote NWT communities.

Salaries for nurses in the NWT need to keep pace with other jurisdictions. I have also heard from nurses who have left their jobs because NTHSSA would not consider more flexible or part-time schedules to accommodate family/child care responsibilities.

I would propose we establish a comprehensive withdrawal management and addictions unit based out of Stanton Territorial Hospital, similar to best-practice models in Sudbury or Edmonton. We should also establish a psychiatric ward specifically for youth.

Sir John Franklin High School’s class of 2023 had its graduation ceremony at Somba K’e Civic Plaza. We asked the candidates what they would do to strengthen education in the NWT. NNSL file photo