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Guest comment: Not necessarily nice to elect a ‘nice’ MLA

So, we have another election coming up in just a few days, and I am scared. I am scared because somehow I think maybe the results will be, what some would say, is the ‘same-old, same-old’, and I am not sure that what I see, and feel, from election to election, that things are a whole lot better, or maybe not better at all.
Election signs dot Franklin Avenue as candidates in the 2023 territorial election begin jockeying for votes. Guest author Ian Gilchrist says it’s not always necessary to elect a ‘nice’ MLA. NNSL file photo

So, we have another election coming up on Tuesday, and I am scared. I am scared because somehow I think maybe the results will be, what some would say, is the ‘same-old, same-old’, and I am not sure that what I see, and feel, from election to election, that things are a whole lot better, or maybe not better at all.

Today, in Yellowknife and right across the country, we have government that pretty well follows all the bells and whistles of the old English parliamentary form of democracy, a kind of ‘political colonialism’. For instance, if we think about all the time recently devoted in our legislature to ‘rules’ and an inordinate amount of time going to fussing about one breaking one rule and then another breaking another one, and looking for the right punishment of the offenders, while very large numbers of problems being felt by people across the territory were not to be heard about at all, might lead us to think that MLAs saw themselves as ‘rulers’ of the rest of us.

Ian Gilchrist is a former chief medical health officer of the NWT.
Ian Gilchrist is a former chief medical health officer of the NWT.

So do those folk now choosing to run for seats in the assembly see their roles as doing anything differently from the last group, or from other places in Canada? Do they see a lot of hard work ahead, and work that if it is going to really be meaningful needs to be that will last not just the three or four years that they may keep their seats, but that looks away ahead, for all the young people who are just growing up now, but whose lives are going to be very affected by who we put in place in this election?

In my last year working for the GNWT, there was a deputy minister of Health and Social Services who got together with the deputy ministers of another couple of departments. They chose a few of us who had been working on different jobs in the departments and gave us one year to look at what the lives and living environments of the NWT’s peoples had been in the past 10, 20 or 50 years: what things were like now, and how things could be seen as better or worse, and as well to tell as best we could, to say why.

We were then to look at the many ways that things might go in the next 10, 20 or 50 years, and what we felt would be the way most likely to make the NWT and its peoples healthier and happier, and what might the GNWT, with that information, choose to work on to make sure that good days lay ahead. Shouldn’t all parts of government do that?

Towards the end of the year, this work was presented to the GNWT cabinet, because we the people of the NWT are not just bits and pieces, we are all pretty complex wholes, and we and our environments are well (or not well), we are happy (or not happy), we do great things (or don’t) depending on what many parts of government (very often in narrow little ways) know about other parts of government.

For example, we have all just lived through a wildfire crisis. And yet, for a good many years now, we have had news stories of fires ravaging the Russian boreal forests, we had devastation in Alberta, B.C., and Alaska. We even had a taste of it almost a decade ago here, and a doctor from among us, pointing out how our smoky atmosphere could set our health back. And yet who in the legislature, and its cabinet, was thinking that it was critical for us to have crisis management plans, and preventative strategies to face the risk we had? It doesn’t seem like too many members were looking beyond the day-to-day problems of their four years.

Now, each department has a minister, and all the ministers together are the cabinet. Once upon a time, the cabinet used to see itself as knitting together all the ways in which their work was interconnected: Health and Social Services, Municipal Affairs, Environment, and so on. Has cabinet become something that has shed responsibility for bringing things together in a way that we can see?

Often, the ministers put in charge don’t actually know very much about the departments that they are to run. So the premier chooses, and hires, and appoints, for each one of them, a deputy minister to work with the minister. Now very often, these deputy ministers do know lots about some of the subjects assigned to their departments, but nearly always, they (or the assistant deputy ministers) have learning and training that they have got from somewhere in very different places

And yet, because they play a big role in running the departments, we might be able to call what comes out technological colonialism, where colonialism means doing things the way you learned, which often means doing things that are not actually so good for the different environments, different histories, and different cultures that the authorities are now in.

And yet these people are not really bad people when that happens, but because they have been put in charge of the work by the GNWT, some may develop an arrogance, thinking that the GNWT must feel that local ways of doing things are not what are wanted. But, for example, in my own special area of public health and society, I often look around at all the incredible people in Yellowknife, Ndilo, Dettah, and the Ingraham Trail communities, where I live, and I see things like the guy who takes old bottles (or old bikes) sparing the environment of waste and making all kinds of people happy creating art and useful products.

I said to him one day, “Wow, the Department of Health and Social Services should be proud of you!” But he said no, he didn’t think he had ever heard that. Yet every reader will themselves be able to think of all the clubs, groups, businesses and plain individuals who brighten up our lives and our communities.

All this by way of pointing out that this place has the most magnificent health collective. Wonderful protectors of our bodies and our minds, that the Department of Health and Social Services, or the GNWT for that matter, must appreciate, consult, learn from and partnership with. Surely people running for MLA seats ought to know that the work they will be doing, if elected, will only be really useful if they understand how much people and societies are integrated wholes.

Health and Social Services has great people and wonderful facilities, but make no mistake — you, the people, already make the chunk of good health, and your choices for MLAs will decide how healthy a government we will get, and how colonial it will be.

Maybe we should have MLAs who are not always just ‘nice’, or ones who don’t always agree with us (or with the premier), but are not just trying to please us and will tackle hard stuff as part of their job and who will know the past, understand the present, work with respect for all the good people out there to create better things for our children and grandchildren right into the time after which we are gone.

We should choose carefully, and avoid petit-politicians who aspire to be petit-rulers.

—Ian Gilchrist is a former chief public health officer of the NWT.