The first evening of numerous public forums scheduled over the next month was held Tuesday night at Northern United Place featuring three electoral districts in the city.
Hosted by the NWT Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, residents were treated to three hours of candidate forums that included two candidates from Frame Lake, two from Great Slave and six from Kam Lake.
All three forums were structured around three questions brought forth by the hosts based on survey results and election priorities identified by chamber members last month. They included red tape and barrier to entry for businesses, cost of living and specific actions need to improve address a projected decline in the NWT economy.
First in the evening was the two-candidate race of David Ramsay, a former MLA and cabinet minister who is seeking to gain back a seat after losing Kam Lake in 2015. His opponent is one-term incumbent Kevin O’Reilly.
The riding is considered a hotly contested as both Ramsay and O’Reilly acknowledge that serious decisions have to be made over the next term.
Both candidates discussed their long histories of political and community involvement and focused on their legislative experience as to how the NWT economy should be shaped and directed with diamond mines set to close over the next decade.
O’Reilly touched on his accomplishments in the last assembly, including with the construction of the Stanton Territorial Hospital in the district as well as the introduction of 911 service, a territorial ombudsman, expanded MLA code of conduct, and a cremation services private members bill.
“The next assembly will have to deal with an economic transition as some mines is closing,” O’Reilly said. “Mining has its place if done properly done and brings local benefits. More of the same won’t cut it with the climate crisis and disappearing caribou.
Pushing cold weather testing, a polytechnic university, tourism and other sectors will be important for economic development, O’Reilly said.
Ramsay also emphasized his experience of 12 years as Kam Lake MLA, including four as a Cabinet minister. He also touched on being director with Fortune Minerals and Denendeh Investment Incorporated, a small northern business consultant and president of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region non-profit.
“I have come to see the roadblocks and challenges that aboriginal people across the territory have faced in dealing with the GNWT and that is what put the wind in my sails to get back involved,” he said, adding he wants to fix the challenge private companies face when working with the territorial more efficiently.
Ramsay touched on the need for responsible mining and using the NWT’s resources to meet the needs of a greening economy – including with minerals like cobalt and rare earths. He said the GNWT needs to do a better job of promoting all aspects of the economy.
Ramsay and O’Reilly also took part in a forum hosted by Open NWT at William McDonald School on Wednesday night. That forum had a theme about homelessness in Yellowknife and both candidates committed to making the area safer in the next term.
The second forum featured the Great Slave race, characterized by two candidates with no MLA history and with a contrasting generational divide. Katrina Nokleby, who is advocating for better women representation and science-based decisions discussed her vision alongside Patrick Scott, a small business owner and longtime Northerner stretching back to the seventies.
The electoral district is the only one of three from the night without an incumbent, as Glen Abernethy stepped down after last term.
Scott said there needs to be better use of tax dollars with the two main economic drivers – government and mining, but while doing so ensuring Indigenous people and northerners gain from full employment. Job investment needs to address cost of living and ensuring money stays in the North, he added.
“We can’t turn our back on mining sector but it is vitally important that mining community continues its collaborating with aboriginal governments and including the need of northerners to get jobs,” he said.
Scott also said the GNWT needs to focus on expanding other sectors of the economy including tourism and infrastructure expansion.
Nokleby said it is unrealistic for the NWT to turn its back on the mineral sector as the economy slows down but there needs to be better leadership for the industry.
“First need, we need to understand that mining is 30 percent of our GDP, so we need to get the mining sector going again,” she said.
“We need action but also need to be strategic in planning so that in 10 years we have something(in place) when we no longer have any diamond mining going.”
MLAs also need to work to maximize the life of mines right now, support the spin-off jobs that the mining sector supports and have clarity and efficiency in government when seeking infrastructure dollars from the federal government to support the industry.
The final installment of the evening featured the six person race of Rommel Silverio, a Yellowknife city councillor and health care advocate, Abdullah Al-Mahamud, a longtime business owner and operator, Cherish Winsor, a GNWT senior advisor and social advocate, Robert Hawkins, former Yellowknife Centre MLA, Caitlin Cleveland, a businessperson and former GNWT policy advisor, and Kieron Testart, one-term incumbent.
Renee Comeau, executive director with the NWT Chamber of Commerce said she was pleased with the turnout from both those who attended and those who viewed a live streaming of the event. Although people were coming and going throughout the evening, she estimated that about three-quarters of the chairs set out were filled.
“I think it went really well and we had a really good turnout,” she said. “It was really good to see people engaged with the territorial election.”