At a candidates debate for Kam Lake on Tuesday, all MLA hopefuls agreed: the cost of living is too high, and it’s largely driven by skyrocketing power bills.
But of the six candidates – Kieron Testart, Robert Hawkins, Abdullah Al-Mahamud, Caitlin Cleveland, Cherish Winsor and Rommel Silverio – who spoke to a packed crowd at N.J. MacPherson School, not all shared the same views on how to reign in power rates for Yellowknifers.
Robert Hawkins, a Kam Lake candidate and former MLA seeking to regain a seat in the assembly, and incumbent Kieron Testart sparred over the right solutions for the capital – and the territory at large – when it comes to power costs, after being asked whether or not the city should end its franchise agreement with power supplier Northland Utilities in a bid to lower the cost of living.
The suggestion has been discussed by some in other electoral districts, and the subsequent discussion centred largely on Hay River, a town that recently severed its ties with the power company after a decades-long relationship.
“We need competition,” said Hawkins, who called power bills in the city “outrageous.”
The former MLA stressed he’s not against Northland Utilities, calling the company a “good corporate citizen.”
But Hawkins – noting Hay River residents were paying power rates that were far too expensive before the breakup – said the NWT Power Corporation, which is a public entity that currently sells power to Northland, should be allowed to compete with the private power company in Yellowknife.
“(Northland Utilities) has a monopoly. If we don’t open up the door to the franchise agreement process for the NWT Power Corporation, Northland Utilities will put in the same bid over and over,” said Hawkins.
If not, he said, prices will increase year by year, “without justification.”
“This is not crazy thinking. This is about opening up competition so we can help working families survive,” continued Hawkins. “We need fair competition and if (either side wins) they win, because they’ve been competitive,” he added, saying the process will better serve Northerners.
In 2016, Hay River councillors voted to end the town’s agreement with Northland Utilities, passing the power pact along to the government-owned NWT Power Corporation, a move that led to arbitration, and then an – ongoing – civil case.
“I don’t think high rates of power are driven by a private monopoly,” countered Testart during the debate, who joined Hawkins in not supporting the elimination of Northland. “They're driven by a public monopoly through NTPC, which generates the power."
"Northland buys the power from NTPC and has to pass on that purchase price to consumers,” said Testart, adding it’s a “complicated” issue.
To take pressure off of rate fares, the incumbent said there’s a need to expand power to markets outside of the territory.
“It’s a systemic problem and it lies within the power of the corporation itself,” said Testart.
“At the end of the day,” replied Hawkins, “the monopoly is still in control of the power. Why did NTPC outfit (Hay River)? Because they can provide the same service, cheaper,” said Hawkins.
All of the candidates seemed to be in agreement on one thing when it came to reducing energy costs: if energy infrastructure increases, prices will go down.