On Saturday afternoon, Yellowknife North constituents cast mock premier ballots in place of a real vote.
While a secret vote among MLAs will select the NWT’s next premier, the constituency’s MLA Rylund Johnson invited residents to share their picks, with Johnson’s official vote likely going to a candidate with the clearest consensus of Yellowknife North constituents supporting him or her.
Hay River North MLA R.J. Simpson garnered a clear majority of 11 votes, ahead of four votes for Range Lake MLA Caroline Cochrane, three for Jackson Lafferty and one for Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos. Residents also voted on cabinet, though Johnson said this would only inform his vote, not decide it.
However, he asked that attendees refrain from the “rumour mill in Yellowknife” that’s dogged territorial politics and led to “some of the backroom dealing.” That said, he reiterated comments from last week’s meeting that there was an air of renewal with the new batch of MLAs.
Prior to the vote, people at the meeting sounded off on the issues facing Johnson and his colleagues in the new Assembly. Their concerns ranged from calling out the NWT’s reliance on federal funding to ensuring Johnson’s premier pick had actionable priorities on issues like work with Indigenous governments.
Wendy Bisaro, who served as Frame Lake MLA from 2007 to 2015, cautioned Johnson on publicly sharing his early support for Simpson and Cochrane, considering a large push to place Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty in the premiership.
“You know there’s a large push behind Jackson,” she said. “And you know if there’s a large push, he’s promising things.”
Johnson said he was drawn to Simpson’s proposed systemic changes to Assembly that promise to limit political infighting, and that he also appreciate Cochrane’s vision for the territory.
Other residents drew attention to the protest votes of the past two elections aiming to bring significant change after years of frustration.
“Because of the process, we have with the election process, we really can’t have a unified set of principles that we vote on. We vote for people,” resident Sam Taylor said.
“I don’t see that change happening if the system stays the same” — which for Taylor involves the public service holding a tight grip over government operations.
City Councillor Shauna Morgan pointed to “specific issues of governance in the GNWT.” She called for evidence-based decision making.
“What is the outcome we’re trying to achieve and how are we going to get there,” she said. “And how we know we’re going to get there because we’re looking at what does and doesn’t work.”
She told Yellowknifer it’s possible for residents or politicians like herself to rail against government later, but it’s more effective to participate early on “so we all decide how things are going to go before it’s set in stone.”
She said in the past that engagement has sometimes been lacking, but that these early talks with constituents seem like a good thing.
Bisaro told Yellowknifer she found turning to residents before she voted for premier was helpful.
“It’s a very closed community over there,” she said. “You can very much head in … there and forget about the rest of the world.”