Four candidates competing for MLA in the Yellowknife Centre riding traded ideas Wednesday evening on the economy, seniors' care, and the cost of living, but one issue seemed to be on everyone's minds: the state of the city's downtown, and what to do about it.
Thom Jarvis, Julie Green, Niels Konge, and Arlene Hache participated in the debate at J.H. Sissons school Wednesday, one of a set of single-riding debates put on by a group of community members and headed by OpenNWT founder David Wasylciw.
During their opening statements and in responses, each candidate touched on social issues in the downtown, which became magnified at the start of the campaign after a man died following an assault outside Yellowknife's sobering centre and day shelter.
Hache, responding to a question about how candidates would address the situation and get MLAs from outside Yellowknife to support their ideas, said that she's seen several attempts by the territorial government to implement programs to address the situation without addressing the issue of violence itself.
"Can you imagine how frustrating it is to watch Yellowknife completely deteriorate, when the government of the Northwest Territories funds seven different programs that are all the same program?" she asked, pointing to several past mental-health programs that have folded.
"The RCMP cannot be allowed to ignore their job," she said. "It still is a crime to be publicly intoxicated, and to harass people in public."
Hache suggested the territorial government could negotiate a more visible police presence in the downtown through contract negotiation, a statement refuted by Green, who said the government "just signs the cheques" when it comes to policing.
Green says "there's never been an issue" getting other MLAs on board to support projects in Yellowknife's downtown. She pointed to a plan in place to bring in other supports, including a purpose-built new building that will include housing, shelters and space to host a managed alcohol program that's "about three years away."
Konge, a city councillor, said that the issue "is not a Yellowknife issue," but a territorial one, noting that statistics say 83 per cent of Yellowknife's self-identified homeless come from outside the city. "We need to collectively come up with solutions."
Agreeing with Hache that the RCMP have a role to play, Konge advocated for getting all actors to the table — RCMP, NGOs, politicians, and the homeless population — to discuss solutions.
He also took issue with the shelter's location, noting that while it was meant to be a stopgap solution, it's one that's had "detrimental effects to the entire neighbourhood."
"I think it was abundantly clear that what was happening within the four walls of that location was going to spill out into the neighbourhood," he said, noting that he voted against the shelter because of the lack of a plan to manage those impacts.
Jarvis, who lives in the downtown, noted that the sobering centre is "a good start," but said several solutions need to be implemented, including strong enforcement from the RCMP.
"We've essentially developed a culture of lawlessness that has permeated downtown ... I go on my balcony and I see people getting beaten up, people getting abused.
"Where are the police? There's no police to be found."
Responding to a statement by Green that RCMP respond to 75 per cent of assaults on the other side of town, Jarvis said RCMP don't tend to come downtown "unless something gets called in," noting that the homeless population doesn't tend to report assaults to the police.
"Statistics can be misleading, unless put in the proper context."
Barbs traded on hospital
Though the exchanges were mostly cordial, parts of the night took on more of a debate-style format than some previous forums, with all four candidates often taking their opportunity to rebut and add on to their initial answers.
Perhaps the most heated exchange came on a discussion about Stanton Territorial Hospital.
Responding to a question about how the candidates would deal with the government inching closer to the debt ceiling, Hache took aim at the recently completed hospital, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the N.W.T.'s history.
"I don't mind paying taxes, but I mind paying taxes for stupidity," she said. "When there's exploding toilets with sewer water spouting into these rooms at the hospital, I call that substandard."
This is the third forum that I've heard about the exploding toilets. I need the detail, please. - Julie Green, incumbent candidate for Yellowknife Centre
Green jumped back, saying that "this is the third forum that I've heard about the exploding toilets. I need the detail, please."
"You just go and look at the picture," said Hache. "I've seen the pictures. Everyone's talking about it, except the politicians ... You want the picture, I'll get it for you."
The event was streamed in its entirety on OpenNWT's Facebook page. Another debate, featuring Caroline Cochrane and Hughie Graham, MLA candidates for Range Lake, was held at the same time and also streamed.
Two more single-riding debates are planned for next week, featuring candidates from Great Slave and Yellowknife South.
The territorial election is Oct. 1.