N.W.T. Election 2023: Shane Thompson's Nahendeh interview

Thompson is seeking re-election in Nahendeh after serving in the 18th and 19th Legislative Assemblies. In the previous assembly alone, Thompson says he worked on more than 1,000 constituent issues, made 53 minister's statements and 102 member statements, and was absent for just five days of work in four years.

Thompson says, if re-elected, he will focus his efforts on completing the Mackenzie Valley Highway, addressing the high cost of medical travel, and continuing to work with government bodies and residents to help solve problems.

In a speech last month, Thompson set out some of the changes he hopes to see in the 20th Assembly.

Other candidates running for the seat include Sharon Allen, Josh Campbell, Mavis Cli-Michaud, Hillary Deneron and Leslie Wright.

This interview was recorded on October 18, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Simona Rosenfield: In a speech earlier this month, you spoke to some issues that you hope the next assembly will address, including budget reform, Indigenous relations, resource management, medical travel, and expanding infrastructure. Of all these changes, what would you prioritize if you were re-elected?

Shane Thompson: If you look at the infrastructure projects, to me, we need to focus on the Mackenzie Valley Highway. That needs to be done. That there would connect us from the rest of the territory, right? So, we need to get that done. But we need to make sure we go all the way up and we just don't stop in the Sahtu, so it connects all those communities, gives us another avenue for tourism, exploration, gives people employment.

If we focus on that and get that done, I think there would be a big benefit to the whole Northwest Territories. When you look at medical travel, you look at medevacs, right now, medical travel, Indigenous Services Canada – they're only giving the Government of the Northwest Territories small portions of the total cost. If you look at medical travel and how expensive it is, the federal government is not taking responsibility for its Indigenous relationships, the territorial government is providing that service for them. But we're only getting a small part of the money, which puts a huge deficit into some of the things that we're trying to achieve. That needs to be addressed. If we don't address that, we're going to keep on seeing huge, huge deficits, and we're not going to be able to provide better service for our residents.

There's a difference between people that work for the government and for normal residents. If we can get the federal government to actually cover the costs that they're supposed to be covering, then we can then look at how we help our residents, whether it's the per diems or accommodations and that. Because right now, it's $50 a day, $18 for food. Nowhere can you find accommodations or food for that kind of dime. I know people stay in boarding homes and stuff like that, but sometimes it's not convenient for them. And so these are some of the challenges there.

You look at medevacs. You know, I've heard horror stories. I just was visiting a constituent last night – 40 hours that him and his wife waited for a medevac and she was almost dying, and it was 40 hours. We need to look at the medevac services, but then also regional airlines that can get them to regional centres where we have better medical services. We need to look at additional aircraft because if you're looking at 40 hours or 14 hours – that's life and death. We need to be looking at that. What is the value of a person's life? And to me, money is not the object here. So, we need to look at that.

The other thing is we need to look at how we do our emergency management. The last three years, we've seen years of floods. Now we've seen a really bad forest fire season. We need to work with the municipal governments to come up with their emergency plans, give them the tools and give them the capacity to do these things, as well as the Government of the Northwest Territories. We need to work at those things there.

Those are three things, but there are other things that can be done.

Q: In an interview with Cabin Radio during the last territorial election, you made a commitment to fix problems by “working with the bureaucracy to streamline things.” What steps did you take to streamline things within the government, to solve problems for residents in your district?

A: What we were able to do is that – I don't know if you've seen my letter saying that I was running – I had over 1,000 BFs [bring forwards, a type of internal GNWT process] that I had to deal with. But there was also the ability to work with the bureaucracy within the riding. So, sometimes it was reaching out to the bureaucracy and saying: "Hey, is this something that you guys can deal with? Or is it something that I've got to take to the minister?" It was, again, connecting our residents with the departments, the organizations, to see the work that can be done. So we were able to achieve that. But there were still 1,000 BFs that we had to take, that we had to bring forward to the ministers to get it done. And so it was about connecting the residents with the departments, having those conversations, meeting with the councils and leadership, bringing in the ministers, but also sometimes being able to bring in departmental staff to come in and have conversations with the leadership and with the residents.

We were able to connect those things. We still need to go a long way. But it’s just work that needs to be done and it needs to be done on a consistent basis. Sometimes, I call it the up-and-over approach: if they bring it to me then I've got to bring it to the minister, the minister’s got to take it to the department, the department has to take it back to – say in Fort Simpson – and it comes back all the way over. But if I can connect the constituent and the person that's making decisions, with the answers and that, that makes things quicker. But sometimes there are policies and procedures that require it to go through the political route. So, we do that. Was it perfect? No, but it was way better than the 18th Assembly. And again, if I get re-elected, it's something that I will continue to do in the 20th Assembly.

Q: What progress have you made on issues that communities in your district have brought forward?

A: Oh, that is a loaded question. Like I mean, that there – if you look at the education system in itself, that there, basically, the education system, the way it is set up, it is actually DEAs [district education authorities] and DECs divisional education councils that make those decisions. Like, the minister doesn't have that role as in to direct them and to, you know, have the bureaucracy work towards it. We have a relationship. So, we were bringing forth issues to the minister, then meeting with the DECs to have those conversations on how to improve things.

You know, you look at the health and social services, again, NTHSSA, they report to a board, so even that there required us to go from myself to the minister to the board. So, sometimes it was working with the constituent, with the board, to reach out to the various quality control people working there. Some of the things that we were able to achieve? The maintenance on the highway, the roads there, the winter roads, getting the work done there, making sure concerns are brought to the ministers to get deals fixed. This assembly we're seeing more housing going into these communities, whether it's through Housing NWT or local Indigenous governments. Like here in Fort Liard, where I'm visiting right now, they're working on some duplexes and fourplexes. Nahanni Butte’s got seven units going in, Sambaa K’e has already got two. So, those are some of those things that we're able to achieve, but again, it's collaboratively working with the community, the leadership, and the governments to achieve those things.

Q: This summer was the worst fire season in the NWT's recorded history, which prompted a territory-wide state of emergency. As minister of environment and communities, you were in charge of the department responsible for emergency management. Some members of the public have criticized the government for its poor communication at this crucial time. Can you explain your track record throughout the fire season, from the evacuations to communication with public and now in the aftermath?

A: Well, first and foremost, there are going to be people criticizing that. We get over 400 – if you look at Mike Westwick – we had over 456 communications, like daily updates. We had that, we had our websites there, we had communications to the leadership of the affected communities, we had the information to the MLAs. So, we were able to get that information out there. Could we do more? Well, for some people, yes, we could do more. But I guess my biggest challenge is that, you know, we were able to get a lot of information out there but people were saying, well, it wasn't on one page. And then when we put it on one page, people were saying: well, we needed it specifically to certain areas here. So, you know, again, it was dealing with a response to that but, at the same time, making sure the communications went out.

Yes, it was the worst fire season ever. But the thing is, we brought in retired firefighters that had 30-40 years of experience to help us go with this. We brought in people, incident commanders and support staff and wildfire type one firefighters from across Canada and internationally to help us. And everyone that I had the opportunity to talk to said how difficult the situation was, that the fires were reacting differently than they've ever seen. And so they had to come up with a different approach to do it.

The biggest thing I think is that we saw a lot of negativity, but we didn't see a lot of success stories out there, people talking about that. We were able to evacuate 19,000 people in 48 hours from the City of Yellowknife. We were able to do that as quickly and as efficiently as we could. Yeah, we had little hiccups on the first day, but we were able to evacuate 19,000. The question people ask: well, why 48 hours? Well, we were given a window of opportunity and we then looked at the window, and we were able to achieve that. There's an author out there that talked about the Fort McMurray fire, and they talk about how we responded compared to that city. And they said they're going to look at how we did it as a case study because we were able to do it more efficiently, more effectively.

And again, it came down to a team approach. When I say a team approach, it comes down to the normal citizens, to the airlines, to all that we were able to succeed. The other thing is that if I had 24 hours or 48 hours, I can guarantee you, it would have been great for Hay River because they were in a situation where we saw some very difficult situations, where 12 vehicles got burned. I heard horror stories of people phoning their parents saying: "This might be the last time you hear my voice, I just wanted to tell you I love you."

These are some of the things that we look at. Critics out there, yes, we have that opportunity, and that's why we're doing a third-party review of things. The saddest part is we lost a firefighter and three other firefighters got injured. These people are putting their lives on the line to help people. With the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, we were evacuating and working with the Alberta government with 70 percent of our population.

Health and Social Services did a great job of evacuating the Stanton hospital. Plus they also had 60 residents from long-term care from Hay River and Fort Smith that they had to look after. So, again, when you look at it, disasters, you have to respond to it as quickly and as efficiently as we can. But I had lots of people on the street send me emails saying thank you. Thank you for looking after us. Thank you for doing what was right, and to taking the high road and trying to get information to us.

And so, again, do we need to fix it? Do we need to improve on things? Yes. If I said no, then to me, I just wouldn't be doing a great job. But I come from a sports and recreation background. Every event you need to plan, and then you need to replan, and you adapt to it. And then after it’s done, you've got to do a review of it, and that’s what we're doing through Maca. We're doing an independent third-party review. ECC is doing the same thing. We're doing chapters for each community that was impacted, then we're going to do a global one for all the Northwest Territories. We're going to be doing the work that needs to be done. And the public is going to get the opportunity to say how they can see things be improved.

At the end of the day, I would say we were successful. There were some hiccups, there were some challenges, there were some issues in our host provinces down there, but we have to work with how they operate. Whereas we do facilities like arenas and gyms – and that's where we put most people – down there in Alberta, and Manitoba, they put them in hotels. Those are some of the things that we need to work on. How do we better prepare? But I think I answered the question previously, that's part of the work that needs to be done with the emergency management team, whether it's local, regional or territorial, to get better support to our residents.

And again, it starts down at the very person, you as an individual. I had the mayor of Hay River talk about when they evacuated the community. She just got into town. She filled up her vehicle before because she knew that she may have to leave. When she went into the meeting, she already knew that if she had to leave, she was prepared. It starts with an individual, and an individual community, and then regional, and then territorial.

Q: Last question. Can you briefly share what makes you the best candidate for this position?

A: Well, first and foremost, it's the residents. The residents decide who's the best candidate. Each one that put your name forward think they're the best candidate, because if they didn't, they wouldn't put their name forward. So, for me, personally, I've had eight years’ experience. It's about the people. I’ve always said that to people. It's a job. You need to realize that your phone's going to ring at 2am, 3am, 4am in the morning. You need to answer and you need to be able to work for the residents. You have to have conversations with people, you need to talk to them.

That's always been my process. That's how I lived my life, whether it was in the sport and recreation world, as a coach, as a volunteer. You need to be able to work with people and have conversations. But you also have to have a little bit thicker skin because people are going to say negativity, the press has a way of doing things, always spin some things – not Cabin Radio – but some others spin things to have negativity all the time. There's people out there on Facebook. You're going to see those things. You're going to have to have thick skin to move forward.

But at the end of the day, you’ve got to realize the job is for the residents of the Northwest Territories. When I first got in, I was told: you're going learn to pick your battles. But after dealing with my first constituent issue, I realized it wasn't about me. It's about the resident. So every time residents come forward, you need to represent them as your most important issue. So every time that a constituent brings an issue forward, you bring it to either the local level, to the regional level, or to the minister's level, but you need to fight for them. You need to do it. Sometimes you're going to win, sometimes you're going to lose. Sometimes you make smart, small changes, but you need to represent the people as best you can.

So, I've done that for eight years. If you look at my attendance in 18th Assembly and my attendance in this assembly, I missed four sessions this assembly, but that was due to my ministerial role and travelling. You also see how many minister's statements I did, but also member statements. I was an anomaly. I was the one of the ministers that you actually see, you know, stand up and do statements. Yes, there were eulogies but there were celebrations, there were success stories that you had to do. As a minister, you don't get to pick the issues. That's your job as an MLA behind the scenes. So, my track record speaks for itself. I said: here it is. If you're not happy with me, you have alternatives. So I just wish people all the best – and get people to vote.

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