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The final stretch for MLAs
Yellowknife's representatives look back on the past three years and discuss their goals for this final year in office
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 4, 2011
Yellowknifer spoke with each of Yellowknife's seven MLAs and asked them what they feel their successes and challenges have been since being elected in 2007, and what they hope to accomplish in what is left of the final year of this term.
The completion of Yellowknife's dementia centre was a big highlight of the past three years in office for Range Lake MLA and Minister of Health and Social Services Sandy Lee.
"It's the one I pushed forward as a regular MLA," said Lee. "I was really happy to see that finished as a Yellowknife MLA as well as a Minister of Health and Social Services."
She stated another highlight was the completion of the St. Joseph School renovations, and the opening of the day centre for Yellowknife's homeless; she said "though it has some challenges" it is an important service.
Lee was also happy the devolution agreement-in-principle was signed last week by Premier Floyd Roland and Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs John Duncan.
"I'm really excited that ... we're one step closer to having a devolution agreement."
Lee said she found the announcement of the National Energy Board's approval of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline "very exciting" and is excited to see it move forward.
"We need the proponents and other partners come on board but the fact that it's moved to the next step, I'm pretty happy about that," she said.
Lee said it is too early to say whether or not she will run in this fall's territorial election.
"I will let you know as soon as I know," she said.
There were many times when it seemed there was a "showdown" between regular MLAs and cabinet ministers throughout the past three years, according to Kam Lake MLA Dave Ramsay.
"Supplementary health and board reform, those are two big issues that the regular members showed some solidarity on, and took the government on because of a huge public outcry against both of those things," said Ramsay.
He said communication between the regular MLAs and cabinet was strained from the onset.
"Communications now, I still don't believe it's where it needs to be but it's certainly improved over the first few years we were in office with this government."
Ramsay said the role of a regular MLA is to keep the government "accountable and in check" and he intends to do so on the GNWT's finances over the next year, especially concerning the Deh Cho Bridge and school construction project in Inuvik.
"If they go sideways at all in terms of price we're going to be in a hard way financially," he said. "We already are - we're very close to our borrowing limit which has already been expanded."
Another thing he wants to see go through are the amendments to the NWT Dog Act, which give stricter penalties for animal abuse. He wants to see a clause changed that exempts traditional accepted practices.
"I would hate to see us leave that clause in there and then somebody try to wiggle their way away from a clear case of abuse to an animal or dog, and get away with it," said Ramsay, adding he also didn't want to make criminals out of people who make a living with working dogs.
Ramsay said he believes he will be running again in Kam Lake.
"There's a lot left I want to accomplish," he said.
The government accomplished a lot over the past three years but could have approached some things better, according to Yellowknife South MLA and Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment Bob McLeod.
"I can't take credit for all the things that we accomplished," said McLeod. "Most things on my platform have come into being."
He said he is proud of the "relative labour peace" that the government has had in negotiating four collective agreements, as well as projects looking at renewable energy - the government installed 10 wood pellet burners at government buildings around the North - and expansion
of the government's recycling program.
McLeod said he wants to continue working on developing ways to end the boom/bust cycles with industry in the NWT.
"I think we have to take a realistic look at what's possible and what's not possible with projects that are out there - oil and gas and so on," he said.
"I don't know if we'll be able to get that done this year before the elections."
He also said he'd like to see the government have a better handle on the secondary diamond industry, and have it in better condition before the fall.
McLeod said he feels he wasn't able to accomplish things such as reducing the cost of living in the North, and plans to run again this fall.
An act absolving a person or business that donates food of liability was a big highlight for Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro, who put the bill forward in 2008.
"It's had a big impact on what Food Rescue is doing," said Bisaro.
She said businesses were hesitant to donate food before the act was passed, but now a lot is donated from, for example, Extra Foods and Northbest Distributors.
She also said she has been pushing, though with little success, to try and get a more representative workforce, especially in terms of hiring more people with disabilities - as of December 2009, 0.5 per cent of GNWT employees identified themselves as disabled.
Also, she noted a big success for regular MLAs was when, in the 2008 budget, they forced cabinet to change the budget which was set to make big job cuts throughout the GNWT, reducing the planned cut of 100 jobs to only about 40, including some cases where employees' positions were changed.
Bisaro said she would still like to see changes to the Motor Vehicles Act to ban the use of handheld devices such as cell phones while driving in the NWT. As well, she wants to keep pushing for a more representative workforce.
So far, Bisaro said she is planning to run again this fall.
"My life could change so I reserve the right to pull out," she added with a laugh.
An electricity rate change which levelled costs out for many communities posed a frustration to Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley.
"We've shifted costs ... rather than really work with the real issue of cost and energy and how we can get it down in better ways," said Bromley, adding more should have been done to move toward setting up small hydroelectricity projects across the North, in places like Whati and Lutsel K'e for example.
"We have some good projects, small projects and we could have had more progress on them," said Bromley. "They've sort of been dead-in-the-water for four years."
He said there have been communications problems between regular MLAs and cabinet throughout the years.
"Often as regular MLAs we continue to find out things from our constituents rather than hearing directly from the ministers or having an opportunity for input," he said, citing the example of finding out constituents have been laid off; under normal protocol, MLAs should be notified of this happening, he said.
He also said the government should be better money-managers.
"Having our debt limit raised by $75 million and skirting quite close to it ... is not the sign of a mature government that is looking to have a higher debt limit overall," he said.
Bromley said a main thing he'd like to see be in place is a transition document for the next assembly so that business can carry on and so that unfinished business won't get lost along the way.
He said one thing he doesn't want to see get lost in the switch is the implementation of changes to the Child and Family Services Act, some of which are directed at keeping children at least in their own communities when they are taken out of homes deemed unhealthy.
Another thing he'd like to see completed is the new Greenhouse Gas Strategy, which may come out in May.
Bromley said he wants to "make sure it's progressive, and well-defined with targets, methodology and a time schedule for achieving the objectives laid out."
As well he said he wants to see the government develop an anti-poverty framework before a new one is elected.
Barring health problems and if he has the support of his family, Bromley said he intends to run again.
The creation of a day shelter for Yellowknife's homeless, and the start of a pilot project for online petitions were big successes according to Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins.
He said he brought forward a project to allow for NWT residents to create online petitions on the legislative assembly website which would be treated as real petitions by the government. This is important, he said, because it makes it easier
to rally people together across the NWT.
"It sounds small," he said. "But it is a big deal when you want to raise seniors issues, housing issues, health care issues ... that evoke a lot of emotion."
The project started in October and will be reviewed in the summer to see if it's something the government will want to continue.
The day shelter, he said, provided a public washroom, among other things, to take pressure off restaurants, stores and malls downtown.
An issue he feels is unresolved is the burden of paperwork on Yellowknife's small businesses.
"You can go to any small business and they will tell you that the reporting requirements are way too detailed for the amount of work and time they have," he said.
"The government still likes to keep saying they are working on the problem but they have shown no renewed interest on this particular case."
Hawkins said he hopes to garner more support for Yellowknife's film industry, and also hopes to establish some sort of safety net for homebuyers in case there are hidden problems or things the home inspector misses.
As well, he said he wants to push for an independent Aurora College campus with more space and more programming.
"Aurora campus needs an independent campus for it to create the university-style thinking that it needs," Hawkins said.
He also said he'd like to see a formal cooking school established in Yellowknife, and thinks there is enough interest from the restaurant industry in the North to employ the graduates, and enough qualified chefs to teach.
Hawkins said he "absolutely" intends to run again this fall.
Though the government faced "challenges and frustrations," it still managed to accomplish a few things in the last three years, according to Great Slave MLA Glen Abernethy.
A review of the Child and Family Services Act was something of which Abernethy was particularly proud.
Abernethy said he'd heard the system compared to residential schools, as it distances children from their culture and communities when a child is removed from a situation deemed unhealthy.
"From time to time children are going to need to be apprehended but does it makes sense to take them away out of their communities, away from their culture, away from their language? I don't think it does," said Abernethy.
The review recommends prevention and parent education measures, as well as changes that could keep a removed child in his or her community.
As well, Abernethy was happy with increased arts funding.
He said there were communication issues between the regular MLAs and cabinet, and he has problem with the elimination of funding for respite care, which he will continue to fight for.
Abernethy said he'd like to see more attention put to small, local sustainable businesses.
"According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business we continue to rank dead last as far as red tape and whatnot is concerned," said Abernethy, citing a strict reporting regime for businesses that receive GNWT funding.
"We do a lot of good things, like SEED (Support to Entrepreneurs and Economic Development, a small business grant program) but at the same time you talk to a lot of small businesses and there's a lot of frustration out there," he said.
He also said he wants to make sure any changes to supplementary health benefits which arise won't hearken back to those that were shelved last fall due to public outcry.
Abernethy said he expects to run again this fall.