3 N.W.T. candidates tackle housing, health care, climate change and economics during CBC forum

·7 min read
The NDP's Kelvin Kotchilea, Liberal incumbent Michael McLeod and Independent Jane Groenewegen were the only contenders in CBC N.W.T.'s election forum Friday, after the Green Party's Roland Laufer sent his regrets.  (CBC - image credit)
The NDP's Kelvin Kotchilea, Liberal incumbent Michael McLeod and Independent Jane Groenewegen were the only contenders in CBC N.W.T.'s election forum Friday, after the Green Party's Roland Laufer sent his regrets. (CBC - image credit)

Three of the five candidates competing to represent the Northwest Territories in Ottawa came together Friday evening to discuss the territory's biggest issues ahead of the Sept. 20 election.

NDP candidate Kelvin Kotchilea, independent Jane Groenewegen and incumbent Liberal candidate Michael McLeod joined host Loren McGinnis to share plans for addressing economic recovery, health care needs, truth and reconciliation, affordable housing and environmental action.

The Green Party's Roland Laufer withdrew from the 90-minute forum due to illness shortly before it was set to begin. Laufer did attend CBC North's forum on Wednesday, which was rescheduled to Friday following technical difficulties.

Conservative candidate Lea Mollison did not respond to CBC North's invitations to participate.

Many of the questions — which candidates were given one minute to answer — were put forward by N.W.T. voters themselves. Here's what the three candidates had to say:

On health care

The question of vaccination came up early, and candidates spoke about their positions on mandatory vaccination, vaccine passports and approaching residents who are vaccine hesitant.

McLeod was steadfast in his stance that "vaccines are the way out of this pandemic." He maintained that the Liberal government would be keen on mandatory vaccination, particularly for travellers, but that exceptions would have to be made so those unable to get vaccinated would still have access to medical travel.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

He said implementing better ventilation in schools and businesses would create safer indoor spaces, ideal for a jurisdiction like the Northwest Territories which may not have the capacity to launch vaccine passports without federal support.

On how to approach vaccine hesitant residents, he said "education is going to be the way forward."

"This is not an issue that's going to go away overnight," he said. "For anyone who is not vaccinated, COVID is going to find them."

Groenewegen echoed McLeod on the importance of education and putting forth credible information "so that people can make an informed decision."

Groenewegen said she does not support the concept of vaccine passports, though she herself is vaccinated.

Since the territory can't control other jurisdictions, Groenewegen said vaccine passports would have to be available to N.W.T. residents wanting to travel elsewhere but those remaining within the territory may not need them to access services at home.

Kotchilea, meanwhile, said the NDP would work "very closely" with the territorial and provincial governments to ensure vaccine passports work smoothly between jurisdictions.

He also emphasized his party "will never do anything that compromises people's ability to travel, especially for medical travel," and that it would require heavy regulation so that it "doesn't infringe on any rights" when it comes to people's health.

On the topic of mandatory vaccines, Kotchilea said the NDP supports employer-mandated vaccines so employers can ensure a safe working environment.

"At the same time, we do acknowledge that people have the rights to refuse vaccination on religion or for medical reasons," he said.

On housing

Candidates went on to address questions of housing and affordability of northern living.

McLeod acknowledged the challenges of housing in the N.W.T. and listed many of the commitments the Liberal party has already made in supporting residents to reduce mortgage costs and prioritize affordable housing. The fruits of many of those investments, he said, will be seen in the next construction season.

He said a major obstacle of housing in Indigenous communities has been going through third-party organisations. This year, he said his party has been able to bring money directly to Indigenous governments.

Anna Desmarais/CBC
Anna Desmarais/CBC

Kotchilea emphasized the importance of capacity building. He said he would prioritize training so local people could be skilled in construction, plumbing and other trades so they could lead their own community strategies.

"Pumping in money doesn't always work without proper policy that ensures results," he said.

Groenewegen agreed with Kotchilea's point on capacity building. She said economic factors like lumber prices are outside of the government's control, but operating costs can be mitigated with the use of certain heating fuels and more efficient ways of building.

On truth and reconciliation

Asked how candidates would help the healing of residential school survivors, Kotchilea said the process needs to be led by Indigenous groups and governments. The MP's role, he said, is to support land-based programs.

He called on churches to apologize and said that justice is recognizing what has been done and moving toward healing and forgiveness.

McLeod, a former residential school student himself, said the fallout of residential schools is being seen in every part of the territory.

He pointed out calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that have already been implemented, and others that have been started. If re-elected, McLeod said he would provide more funding for Indigenous-led wellness strategies.

"The way forward is through forgiveness, but first we need the government to make it easy enough for us to forgive," he said, added that churches have a responsibility to acknowledge wrong-doing.

"We all have to make that effort to make it happen and the government could take that leading role," he said.

Groenewegen said "a critical part of the supports and initiatives undertaken really does need to come from the knowledge, experience and hearts of those affected by the chapter of residential schools."

She agreed the TRC calls to action are critical and said the MP's role is ensuring whomever represents Canada at the table with Indigenous governments are negotiating in good faith and not creating more obstacles.

On climate change

With a year of record water levels, significant flooding, in addition to the ongoing threat of wildfires and expected costs of protecting Tuktoyaktuk from coastal erosion, the Northwest Territories is on the front lines of the climate crisis.

When asked how they would protect communities from climate change, Kotchilea said the issue is shared globally and requires a global solution. "We need to all lower our emissions," he said.

He pointed out that as Aurora College transitions to a university, there is an opportunity to implement programs that educate students on green energy.

McLeod said the Liberals have continued to set targets and create legislation on emission reduction, tree planting, increasing carbon prices and committing to getting communities off diesel by 2030.

Tracy Fuller/CBC
Tracy Fuller/CBC

Groenewegen, noting that residents of the N.W.T. have a special relationship with the land, said in addition to doing its part to reduce emissions and plan for the future, the territory needs to be better prepared to handle emergencies like this year's flooding.

"Climate change is here now," she said, "and we're affected on a magnified basis."

On economics

In the economic section of the forum, participants were asked about their plans to bring long-term investment, industry and jobs to the territory.

Groenewegen spoke to labour market shortages and the need for skilled workers in the North. As MP, she said she would get together with industry leaders to identify shortages and work to build skills at home to increase a northern-grown workforce.

She also spoke about the need for government initiatives that encourage workers to move North. With that, she said housing and the cost of living are also key considerations, noting that employment is multifaceted especially when encouraging workers to relocate to the territory.

Kotchilea said to revitalize the economy he would prioritize investing in renewable energy. He said he would put money into hydro and getting communities off of diesel generators.

Since the transition to green energy is a long process, Kotchilea said it would create long-term employment and would open doors down the line for affordable housing because it would lower the cost of power.

McLeod said that from the start the Liberals have been forthright in investing in infrastructure and rapid housing. He said his party has a "pro-growth agenda."

Voters head to the polls on Sept. 20.

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