An exhaustive and exhausting candidates’ forum was held in Hay River on Sept. 19 for the upcoming territorial election.
It was exhaustive in that a wide variety of issues were covered.
The almost three-hour gathering was also exhausting, at least judging by the fact that about half of the 150 people attending were gone by the final pitch from candidates.
The two candidates for the Hay River South constituency – incumbent Wally Schumann and challenger Rocky Simpson – were on hand.
R.J. Simpson, who was acclaimed as MLA for Hay River North, was also there.
Invitations were also extended to the two candidates in Deh Cho – incumbent Michael Nadli and challenger Ronald Bonnetrouge – but only Nadli attended.
Rocky Simpson said his platform will be based on what he hears from the community.
“I don’t want to tell people what they want or what they need,” he said. “They have to tell me that.”
The would-be MLA said the biggest concern he hears is health care.
Schumann pointed to his experience as minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment and minister of Infrastructure.
“It wasn’t always easy, however it was an incredible opportunity to make sure Hay River’s voices – your voices – were included in both the territorial and federal decision-making tables, and it was worth it,” he said. “Together we jumpstarted the local economy, improved local health care, brought many new jobs and education opportunities.”
R.J. Simpson, who has served four years as MLA, listed numerous issues he will focus on in the Legislative Assembly, such as health care, the cost of air travel, the high cost of living, economic uncertainty and unsettled land claims.
“In the next assembly, I am going to continue working to address these issues, but this time I want to do it in partnership with municipal governments, with Indigenous governments, with the private sector, with the public sector, with the non-profits who deliver services and with the public,” he said. “The my-way-or-the-highway attitude that we’ve seen from the old boys’ club over the past number of years has not worked to address these issues. Instead, it has fractured relationships, entrenched divides and caused members of the public to lose faith in our government and our democracy. It’s time to change how we do business.”
Fort Providence’s Nadli stressed his experience.
“Three things that I note in my campaign for re-election is I have experience, I have leadership and I’m a hard worker,” he said, noting he has served two terms as MLA for Deh Cho.
“For the most part, my platform is different. It’s kind of consistent with perhaps the Dehcho First Nations in recognizing that we need culturally-appropriate programs and services,” he added.
Plus, the MLA stressed the importance of advancing land claims and self-government, which was a recurring theme at the forum.
R.J. Simpson said it doesn’t need to take generations to complete land claim agreements.
“I think we need a change in that mindset,” he said.
Rocky Simpson said he would look at whether the GNWT even needs to be at the negotiating table, or just parts of it.
And Schumann, as a cabinet minister, made perhaps the most surprising suggestion on how to move negotiations forward.
“I think the real hard choices have got to be made with the Executive Council,” he said. “Do we change up some of our staff within Indigenous Affairs? And that’s a pretty bold statement to make publically, but I think there needs to be some movement and some people to bring some creative ideas to the table.”
The three candidates and one acclaimed MLA were also asked about the idea of the premier being elected by the people in a separate vote.
“There’s always room for improvement in terms of the current consensus government system that we have,” Nadli said, suggesting the 19th Assembly should put together a committee to consider the idea.
Schumann said he personally likes the idea of electing the premier at large. “I think it’s an interesting concept.”
Rocky Simpson said discussion is needed.
“It kind of makes sense to have that position elected by the people of the Northwest Territories,” he said, but he also pointed to the cost of travel for anyone campaigning to become premier.
R.J. Simpson expressed opposition to the concept.
“Personally, I don’t like the idea,” he said, explaining it would mean a focus on Yellowknife with half the NWT’s population, and it would likely result in a Yellowknife premier with a Yellowknife mandate.
Plus, the MLA noted that the best candidates would likely run for premier, meaning the unsuccessful ones would not be in the Legislative Assembly.
On a related note, R.J. Simpson and Schumann were asked how it would benefit Hay River if one of them is elected premier in the next assembly.
Schumann said he has never publically said he would run for premier.
“My message has always been, if I’m lucky enough to get elected as the MLA for Hay River South, I would have a look at all 19 members in the Legislative Assembly and see what their priorities are, and at that point I would make a decision if I could lead the crew,” he said.
R.J. Simpson has previously announced his plans to run for premier.
“I think Hay River would benefit because the voice of Hay River would be heard,” he said, adding he would make government more accountable.
The candidates’ forum was sponsored by the Hay River Chamber of Commerce.
The territorial election is set for Oct. 1.