N.W.T. Election 2023: RJ Simpson’s Hay River North interview

If re-elected, Simpson says he will focus his efforts at the next assembly on improving healthcare in Hay River by merging health authorities, introduce legislation to address public safety concerns, and advance housing through collaboration.

During Hay River's many challenges of the past few years, Simpson says he worked one-on-one with constituents to help address their situations.

As education minister, he says he led efforts to adopt a new curriculum, implement a cost-cutting childcare agreement with the federal government, and update Income Assistance.

He also points to the establishment of the Career and Education Advisor program, which connects students with career advisors in every region of the territory.

More information: RJ Simpson's campaign website

Greg McMeekin, Michael Wallington and Hans Wiedemann are also running in the district.

This interview was recorded on October 24, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Simona Rosenfield: You've served two terms – one as a regular MLA and now as the education and justice minister. What were your greatest successes within those portfolios over the past assembly?

RJ Simpson: With Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) I came in as minister and at that time, I hadn't been a minister. So I didn't have a good sense of what government could do, what they couldn't do. And so I came in and I wanted to change everything and I gave the department a pretty big mandate.

We have done a lot with education, with renewing the curriculum, moving to British Columbia's curriculum, early learning and childcare, implementing the new agreement with the federal government to reduce the cost of childcare, the transformation of Aurora College, and a lot of work has gone into that.

So there's a number of areas, including Income Assistance. We made the biggest changes in a generation to the Income Assistance program. Same thing with the Student Financial Assistance program. We did a lot of work across the department and I'm very appreciative of the work that we put into that, because I realize now that maybe a lighter load at the beginning might have been a little better. But in the end, we got it done and we made a lot of progress.

Q: I'd like to talk about student success. Upgrading is common for northern students seeking post-secondary education. Can you speak to the kinds of changes you'd like to see to promote student success?

A: The delivery of education happens in the classroom. A number of changes have been made in the classroom.

The big one is the curriculum. That's a new way of teaching, a new way for students to learn, and the hope is that it's going to engage students in a different way. It's not just memorizing facts and spitting them back out. It's about learning how to think, learning how to comprehend, learning how to problem-solve. And so I'm hopeful that that is going to engage students more, because one of the big issues we have in the territory is attendance. It's tough for students to learn if they're not in school. And in a lot of places, we have very, very low attendance rates. Just getting students in the classroom is a challenge. And if the move to the curriculum can make that easier, I think that in and of itself is going to make a big difference.

Beyond that, we need to work with the students where they're at. During Covid, maybe some students didn't get as much education as they would have in other years. We have to acknowledge that and then work with them based on where they are.

We've also made some other changes, like implementing the Career and Education Advisor program across the territory so there are career and education advisors in every region. What those people do is they work with students starting in Grade 9 to not just help them figure out what they want to do when they grow up, but get them thinking about what they might want to do, what their skills are, where their interests are. And then work with them to determine what courses will you need, what are your options after graduating, and really engaging with students in a way that perhaps happened in places like Yellowknife but, for the most part, the rest of the territory didn't get those services. I think that's going to help students out quite a bit as well.

Q: Over the past three years, Hay River residents evacuated multiple times due to wildfires and floods. How do you feel you've made a meaningful difference to those affected?

A: It's been a tough few years for Hay River, there's no doubt about that. And it really goes back to five years ago – when the highrise was evacuated, a number of people were homeless.

Then we had Covid. During Covid there were actually in-town evacuations. Old Town had to evacuate because of flooding. And then we had the three evacuations that followed that as well. And it was tough. I mean, it was tough on everyone. When we evacuated to Yellowknife, I was at the evacuation centre every day, listening to constituents, working with constituents, helping them through the process, advocating for more support from the government, helping people who needed hotel rooms get hotel rooms.

What I think about most during those times is the one-on-one work with constituents to help people – who were traumatized in a lot of cases – work their way through the system and get the supports they needed. Although not everyone got the support they needed. It's been a tough go and it's still going.

Q: Looking forward, how would you advocate for residents affected by the floods and fires in the next assembly?

A: I think the government's core role, if it does nothing else, it's to help ensure the safety and security of life and property. That is at the core of why we need a government.

It's imperative that going forward, we learn from the past few years and don't repeat the same mistakes. I guess we just need to be more prepared. Everyone needs to know what their role is. Government departments need to know what their role is. We need to know how to deliver programs to residents when they are evacuated, even if the majority of the government has also evacuated. We need to do a lot of preparation so that we can avoid evacuations, because that is the last thing you want.

I've been out of my house for two months this year. That is a long time. It's only October now. That is tough on people's mental health, it's tough on their pocketbooks, it's tough on the economy in general.

The biggest thing we need to do is do what we can to prevent having to evacuate. And that's going to take planning, that's going to take coordination among all levels of government, it's going to take investments in infrastructure. And in the worst-case scenario, I think people themselves need to be prepared. As residents, we all need to take it upon ourselves to think about the possibility of another evacuation and what we are going to do in that situation.

Q: Beyond disaster recovery, what do you want to see addressed at the next assembly?

A: One of the big things for Hay River is the health system. Right now, the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority is separate from the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority. And from what I can tell, there are times when Hay River will have no doctors, or maybe one doctor, but there are multiple doctors in all the other regional centres – in Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, Norman Wells, Inuvik, and there's a bunch of doctors in Yellowknife. And I'm not sure why we have no doctors when there are clearly doctors in the territory. And I believe it's because of our exclusion from the NWT health authority.

That also puts us in positions where we're facing strike votes, potential strikes. It is unfair for the people of Hay River that we're on the outside of the the territorial health authority looking in, because we don't get those benefits. And I think that is something that really needs to change in the next government – merging the health authorities.

That's one of my top priorities.

Q: Is there anything else on your platform that you'd like to speak to?

A: In Hay River, we've also had a number of drug deaths, drug poisonings. That's been hard on the community. With the influx of drugs that also brings other crimes, it brings organized crime. There needs to be an enhanced focus on public safety.

I know the RCMP are doing what they can, but the tools they have traditionally used to combat drugs and gangs – those over the years have been eroded by changes to the criminal code, decisions of the Supreme Court. And so as a territorial government, we need to look at what we can do to give the RCMP and communities tools.

There are pieces of legislation, like the Civil Forfeiture Act, which they have everywhere else in Canada, for the most part. And it's used frequently by police. We don't have that here, and that's a tool that they can use. Scan legislation, that's something that communities can use to help shut down buildings that are being used to sell drugs.

There are things like that, that we need to help address that drug crisis, because it's gotten out of control in Hay River. At certain times it's worse than others, but it is always here. It's always persistent and we need to do more to address it.

The other issue in Hay River is housing. I know that's an issue everywhere but in 2019, we lost the highrise. It's 130 units in that building gone overnight. I don't know if that's ever happened anywhere in the territory before. And then that was followed by the flood – 500 homes damaged or destroyed. And then wildfires.

We're in a real crunch with housing here. Luckily, the Town of Hay River and Housing NWT have developed a strategic housing plan for Hay River and I think it has good stuff in there. I think it has some achievable goals, but what it needs is cooperation between the territorial government, the municipality, NGOs and Indigenous governments. We really need to address that as well.

Q: Previously, there was progress on a 48-bed seniors' extended care facility, which would have brought 60 new jobs to Hay River. However, it was reduced to 24 beds. Can you explain that decision?

A: That wasn't my decision. There was a study done in the previous government that said we needed a certain number of beds. They went back and they looked at their methodology, and they chose one that they felt was more appropriate for the territory, that came back with a different number of beds. You'd have to ask the Department of Health to really elaborate on that.

There are jobs in Hay River. We have jobs we can't fill. We don't have enough people to fill the jobs. We can't get people to move to town to fill the jobs because we don't have the housing for them. So, my concern isn't so much jobs for the sake of jobs, it's ensuring that we have enough long-term care spaces.

If you like the old methodology, or you like the new methodology, that's going to determine which side of that you're on. But the bottom line is we need spaces for our residents who need them, and we need to get started on that construction sooner than later.

Q: On another note, how vital do you think it is that the next premier would come from a community other than Yellowknife?

A: Yellowknife gets a lot by default. They get a lot because that is the centre of government. And so, I know that people have been upset about the fact that we've had – term after term after term – premiers from Yellowknife.

I think that the next premier will be from outside of Yellowknife, and I think that it's important for that to happen. But no matter where the premier's from, they need to be the premier for the Northwest Territories. No matter what community you're from, whether it's Yellowknife or somewhere else, you need to be the territory's premier – and you need to travel around to the communities and get to know the communities.

Q: A last question. Can you share with voters why you are the right candidate for the job?

A: After each of my terms, I always thought: I wish I knew what I know now, when I started. I had a term as a regular member and that gave me a really good outlook on the entire government. As a regular member, you look at every single department. You look at their budgets, you look at their operations.

Then, as a minister, you really understand how government decisions are made. You learn what kind of decisions can be made, how to make decisions, how to ensure that things are followed through on. With the experience I've had over the last eight years, I really want to put that to use. I want to be able to hit the ground running and begin to implement changes at the beginning of this term, this upcoming term, that will lead to real changes by the end of the term.

I want people, their lives, to be noticeably better in certain areas by the end of the term. And I think with the experience I have and the knowledge that I have now, I feel confident that I can help drive that change.

Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.

Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio