About 250 potential voters heard last week from the six candidates in the community – three in Hay River South and three in Hay River North – vying for a seat in the legislative assembly.
The all-candidates’ forum at Princess Alexandra School on Nov. 10 – presented by the Hay River Chamber of Commerce – was overwhelmingly a polite affair with candidates generally agreeing on the issues facing the community.
For Hay River South, the candidates are longtime incumbent MLA Jane Groenewegen, and challengers Wally Schumann and Brian Willows.
For Hay River North, the candidates are incumbent Robert Bouchard and challengers Rocky (R.J.) Simpson and Karen Felker.
All gave similar pitches for votes, arguing that Hay River is facing tough economic times and that they would be the best person to deal with it.
“Our economy has flatlined in the Northwest Territories,” said Bouchard. “We need to work hard to get that accelerated.”
Among his various concerns is the closing of the addictions treatment centre on the Hay River Reserve a couple of years ago.
“Obviously, the treatment centre (closing) was a shock to all of us,” he said. “It’s unbelievable that we won’t have a treatment centre in the Northwest Territories.”
The MLA said he has had a steep learning curve in his four years in the legislative assembly but that he has learned the government system and is ready to try to represent Hay River in the territorial cabinet.
Simpson said everyone is concerned about the state of Hay River.
“And we’re not necessarily satisfied with what’s been done at the territorial level for us,” he said.
Simpson added there is a feeling that Hay River is stagnating and there’s uncertainty about the future.
In particular, he stressed the need for improved education.
“All the talk of economic growth is meaningless if you don’t have the workforce to fill those positions,” he said. “Nothing offers a better return on investment than education.”
Simpson also offered probably the funniest line of the night when discussing the lack of population growth in Hay River.
“Six months ago, I finally convinced my girlfriend of six years, Sarah, to join me here,” he said. “So believe me I know the challenges of attracting residents to Hay River.”
Felker said she has never seen Hay River in such shape economically, saying she would support a number of initiatives, such as reopening the treatment centre, dredging the harbour and aiding the fishing industry.
“I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I do have a desire and passion to find the answers for a place I love and I call home,” said the former chief of West Point First Nation.
As for the candidates in Hay River South, Groenewegen said, even though some people say there is a lack of confidence in the economy, she sees many businesses investing in the community.
“There is no silver bullet. There is no magic wand,” she said. “At the end of the day, government’s role in stimulating the economy has to do with the things that are within the government’s control.”
That includes grants and loans, and adjusting tax rates, she explained.
Schumann said Hay River is ready for a change with the community suffering the effects of economic decline, in such things as shipping and fishing, and facing a rising cost of living.
“It’s been harder than ever to get ahead,” said the owner of Poison Painting. “When our businesses are hurting, so are our families.”
Schumann said he is proposing a new direction.
“I want to re-energize the Hub of the North and get Hay River back on the road to prosperity,” he stated.
Willows, the retired former chief operating officer of Northwest Territories Power Corporations, said Hay River is in need of a change of leadership, and, if elected, he would seek a cabinet position because he is “job ready.”
At the end of the forum, he focused directly on Groenewegen.
“For the incumbent, it’s job appraisal time,” he said, referring back to the 16th assembly when Groenewegen stated in the legislature that she would not run again as her heart was no longer in it.
“If the 17th assembly has shown us anything, it was that she was right,” said Willows.
The challenger said, in his view, Groenewegen has simply not earned the privilege over the last four years to serve another term.
Because of the structure of the forum, Groenewegen did not have the opportunity to respond to Willows.
Speaking later with The Hub, she said her comment in the 16th assembly about not wanting to seek re-election was made during an “unusual and emotionally-charged day” in the legislature.
She said she later decided to seek re-election to the 17th assembly and she feels she has served Hay River South well in the last four years.
In general, all candidates agreed there was a need for improved education, dredging the harbour, assisting the fishing industry, a lower student-teacher ratio, more focus on tourism, a lower cost of living and more support for seniors. The latter issue dominated the half-dozen questions that were asked by voters.
However, one woman asked, “Are you for or against hydraulic fracking anywhere in the Northwest Territories?”
The responses ranged from Schumann’s call for more consultations to Groenewegen’s suggestion of consultations by an impartial group to Willows’ idea of a plebiscite on the issue.
The election is set for Nov. 23.