A waning mining industry; a gloomy economic forecast and a high cost of living that’s intrinsically tied to many of the territory’s social woes — these issues and more were addressed, and debated, by MLA hopefuls vying for a seat in three Yellowknife electoral districts during a well-attended public forum held at Northern United Place Thursday night.
The economy-focused debate, the third of its kind hosted by the NWT Chamber of Commerce and the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, heard from candidates hoping to take a seat in the 19th Legislative Assembly as representatives of Yellowknife Centre, Yellowknife North and Yellowknife South.
Challengers took on one-term incumbents Julie Green and Cory Vanthuyne, MLAs for Yellowknife Centre and Yellowknife North, respectively, while Caroline Wawzonek and Gaeleen MacPherson squared off as they look to fill the seat of outgoing, three-term MLA for Yellowknife South and two-term Premier Bob McLeod.
Candidates running in each constituency fielded the same questions, about the future of mining, the economy and cost of living.
Here’s how the hopefuls responded.
Growing the economy
“I see opportunity on a weekly basis in terms of what we could be doing in Yellowknife and in the North.”
Asked how he would boost the economy amid sobering reports of a looming economic slump, Niels Konge — a veteran municipal politician who made his debut in the arena of territorial politics Thursday night — said the capital remains a “land of opportunity,” even when facing challenges.
Citing reports from the GNWT, Konge said the territory will need an additional 258 assisted living beds in the NWT by 2026 — 48 beds in Hay River, 48 more in Fort Simpson, another 48 beds in Inuvik, and 72 in Yellowknife. Facilitating this critical need for the territory’s senior population will also create jobs for Northerners — between 80 to 90 in Yellowknife alone — said Konge.
Julie Green, elected in 2015, said tourism, which continues to show a lot of promise, needs to be supported by more infrastructure development, namely a “visitors’ centre here in Yellowknife.”
“The retrofit economy offers a triple benefit’
Green touted the economic benefits of a retrofit economy. “(It fosters) job creation while reducing heating and power costs along with greenhouse gas emissions,” said Green.
Green also cited increased supports to child care services as a means of pushing back against economic downturn.
When kids are looked after, it means parents can stay in the workforce; child care professionals can find work, and “most importantly, it means children will have a structured early childhood development, which is crucial,” said Green.
‘Send a signal to industry’
To boost the economy, it’s going to take a continuation of “vital” infrastructure initiatives, including the Taltson Hydroelectricity Expansion Project and the proposed Slave Geological Province Corridor Project, said candidate Thom Jarvis.
“This sort of thing is going to incentivize and send a signal to industry that we actually do have something to make their investment a little bit more realizable,” said Jarvis.
Partnerships are paramount
An improved economy can only happen with strengthened partnerships between the GNWT and Indigenous governments and communities, said candidate Arlene Hache.
“People need to look at the fact that the people who have money in the NWT are largely not Indigenous people or Indigenous communities” said Hache, adding the Indigenous collaborations touted by the GNWT often don’t amount to much.
Hache, a proponent of economic diversification, said the GNWT has talked for decades about the same thing, but it hasn’t been achieved due to “an almost single-attention to the mining industry.”
The future of mining
‘First thing: settle the land rights agreements’
As mines in the territory slowly wind down, Cory Vanthuyne said the best way to ensure mineral exploration continues is by settling land claims.
“That allows Indigenous governments to contribute to the process of developing land use plans which lay our the general aspects of what can and cannot happen on certain lands,” said Vanthuyne.
That sentiment was echoed by MLA hopeful Jan Vallillee, who agreed land claims need to be finalized. “There are some companies petrified to come and do any exploratory work because of the land claims. They don’t want to invest time and money only to find out this might of been all for not,” said Vallillee.
Vallillee also lamented regulatory “red tape” when it comes to mining in the NWT, saying she often hears complaints from mineral exploration companies about bureaucratic barriers.
‘Our Indigenous governments will be the leaders of mining’
Rylund Johnson agreed settling land claims are a pressing priority, but said the GNWT has proven a “barrier to settling land claims.”
“It takes real, meaningful steps and that’s hard for bureaucrats to do,” said Johnson.
Collaborating with Indigenous governments in the context of exploration requires “reframing narratives,” he added. “Our Indigenous governments will be the leaders of mining. Our mines will be green mines …,” said Johnson.
“First step is establishing a vision that’s collaborative and unified.”
Outlining her economic goals, Caroline Wawzonek also called for less red tape to attract business to the North.
If elected, Gaeleen MacPherson said she will focus on tourism, mining and the polytechnic university as economic drivers. She added there’s ample opportunity to expand the tourism sector in Yellowknife by becoming a year-round attraction.
More to come.