Exit Interview: Wendy Bisaro Speaks Her Mind

Looking back at your eight years in office, what do you consider your key accomplishments?

Early on in the 16th assembly, I helped Food Rescue put legislation in place so that anyone donating food was absolved of liability. Food Rescue wasn’t getting stuff from the big stores. Once that act was passed, it just kind of exploded. That was really gratifying and quite simple to do.

It wasn’t only me, but I added my voice in support of the anti-poverty strategy that was pushed by Alternatives North and the Anti-Poverty Coalition. They came to the legislative assembly with a number of documents on what needed to be done, and I was the one who handed them over to Premier Roland at the time. That was sort of the beginning of a push to get an anti-poverty strategy going.

I’m also reasonably happy with what we’ve done with the ombudsman legislation, though I would have liked to see that come forward in this assembly. As far as cabinet is concerned, we don’t need one. Their perspective, from what I understand, is we already have a lot of appeal boards, so we don’t need an ombudsman. Plus they’re making noise about the expense. But it’s maybe, at the outside, $800,000 a year. It’s a $1.6 billion budget! Give me a break! My concern is that there may not be anybody [in the next assembly] that pushes it forward as legislation.

What do you consider your failures?

Junior kindergarten was a real disappointment to me. Bob [Bromley] started pushing the need to focus on ages zero to three; because kids get to kindergarten and some of them are in horrendous shape – some of them can’t speak, they have no social skills – yet we’re putting them in a program and expecting them to get to grade 12 and graduate.

That was picked up by a number of members. But the Department of Education in their wisdom said, ‘Okay, we need to do something about this age group, but zero to three is a Health and Social Services responsibility while Kindergarten to Grade 12 is an Education responsibility. So we’ll do JK because we have control over that, we can get the money; we can’t if it’s outside of Education, because health is so strapped for money.‘ But it’s not the right place to start. It’s not a bad program, but what are we doing for the zero to three?

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Given this cross over of departmental jurisdiction, who needs to take the lead on the issue?

There’s not enough recognition from the government as a whole that this age group is one where we have to target a lot of money. It’s not just Education dollars – some of it will come from Education, some of it will come from Health and Social Services, some of it can be Justice. I almost think sometimes we need a minister responsible for children and youth.

Do you think these different departments can work well together?

I’m seeing it a bit. In Justice, we now have the integrated case management system. But more broadly, we have policies that counteract or conflict with each other from different departments. There can be a housing policy at odds with a health policy. I just can’t forget this particular story from the 16th. This one lady, she’d gotten herself into trouble and she had lost her two children, they’d gone into the system. She had spent three or four years getting herself back together and was now at a point where she wanted to get her kids back. But when she went to get her kids back, they said you can’t have your kids because you don’t have enough bedrooms – it’s like, oh please, this woman is ready to get back on with her life!

It’s that sort of stuff that’s really frustrating. I can appreciate that we need policies and staff need to have a line, but there should be opportunity for staff to go to a supervisor or somebody and say, ‘this doesn’t make any sense, this is a person, this person needs our help.’

You’ve been in two assemblies. Did you find them very different?

In the 16th, we were presented with a budget that wanted us to cut 165 positions or something. As a group of 11 regular members we said, ‘No, we don’t like this budget.’ We gave some suggestions for change and the government said no. But we held to our guns.

What happens in a situation like that is that cabinet starts going up and down the hall saying, ‘Really, you guys? I mean, I’ll do this for you and you just have to pass the budget.’ But the 11 members said no, and cabinet realized they were going to lose the vote if they brought forward the budget as presented. We didn’t get everything we asked for but we got enough that as a group we were satisfied. And this is what regular members can do – they can force the government to make changes.

In this assembly though, we have had very little of that kind of solidarity. There was the Heritage Fund where we forced government to go up from five percent of resource revenues to slightly less than 25 percent. But other than that, it’s been extremely difficult getting this particular group of regular members to agree on almost anything.

For example, for one budget the Social Programs Committee had about 10 things we felt really strongly about and took to the main committee. Every one of them failed. And it’s like, geez you guys! You’re on our side! Where’s your support for your colleagues who have sat through these committee meetings? It’s just disappointing that we have members who, in my mind, think so little of the work their colleagues do they’re willing to vote against it.

Does this say anything about the culture of the legislative assembly?

I find there are a lot of members who are not committed to the job. I think they like the money and the prestige. But a lot of people don’t do the work. I’m not going to name names. But I come from the premise that if you’re going to be talking about something you should read it and know what’s in it and make comments on it. So many people come to meetings and they just haven’t read the documents.

Then there are people who will come into a meeting, maybe on time or maybe later, stay for a short period of time, then bugger off – in an hour-and-half meeting maybe they’re there for 10 or 15 minutes. If someone is hardly showing up, how do they understand what we’re talking about? How do you then vote on whatever issue from any kind of an informed perspective? I can’t do that. Maybe other people can. Maybe they get it by osmosis.

Is there anything to be done about this?

In the 16th we talked about disciplining members, mostly for attendance. But the conversation kind of went, ‘I’m elected as an independent, I can do the job any way I want.’ And that’s one of the faults of this system, there’s no accountability. No party whips to tell you, ‘Excuse me you missed whatever meeting, don’t be doing that again.’ We’re accountable only every four years, or maybe at a constituency meeting, but there’s not a lot of people who come to constituency meetings.

Does this point to a fundamental failure of consensus government?

That’s really hard to answer. I think consensus works reasonably well, and I think it is still something we should be following. But it requires the understanding of both regular members and cabinet that this is what it means.

One of the things that I found with this cabinet, particularly in the last two years is that they will determine that there’s X that they want to do – and that’s their job, to run the government. But there’s been several instances where they’ll come to whatever committee and say, ‘This is what we’re thinking of doing, oh and by the way we’re going to announce it tomorrow. But we really want your input!’ It’s like, come on!

Like the NTPC bailout announcement, for example?

Yeah, we had been advised that that was coming but there was no opportunity for regular members to have input. And the same thing happened last year, $20 million was announced and we had no opportunity for input.

It’s not that we’d necessarily disagree. But for consensus to really work, the government proposes something and goes to regular members and says, ‘What do you think, is this what we should be doing?’ Then gives us an opportunity to think about it and talk about it and respond. They can ignore us, which they do regularly. But often times the committees have good ideas.

Looking at the record of the government of the 17th Assembly, do you see many successes?

Devolution I count as a success. I think the premier has done a good job involving Aboriginal governments – of course Deh Cho isn’t very happy with them, but you can’t win every war. But I think they’ve done a really good job setting up intergovernmental agreements and setting things in place to make Devolution work.

But I have the same problems as Bob [Bromley] with all the legislation we took over. There was no opportunity for anybody to have any input. Now we’re being told the legislation has been accepted and has gone to various departments. If some deputy minister thinks it’s important [to review the legislation] it might get pushed forward, but if not, it’s going to sit there and it may not happen for quite a few years.

Beyond the successes and failures on the Devolution file, what do you make of the direction this government has taken the territory?

I find that government has been somewhat bureaucratically run. I don’t see a vision in this cabinet, except to get Devolution done. I mean low water and the Snare Hydro cost is huge, yet in eight years we’ve done nothing to reduce the cost of our power. And it’s not that it hasn’t been talked about for eight years. It was talked about long before that and there are so many opportunities for renewable resource energy.

We should be developing new hydro. It’s really expensive, I know that. But in my mind, in the last eight years we should have had our people in Ottawa screaming and hollering at Ottawa, saying we need assistance to build hydro. Yukon got $70 million or something like that three or four years ago for a hydro development. Nunavut just got, I can’t remember how many millions, I think again for hydro. Part of the problem is we have an orange representative and they’ve got blue ones. And that just totally sucks, but I still think that we could have done more as a government.

I know we need business development, but I feel, maybe rightly or wrongly, that this particular cabinet has focused too much on oil and gas. As government we ought to have a policy to get away from fossil fuels, so why are still saying we want oil and gas people coming to the North? Inuvik’s finally stopped doing the petroleum show and I wondered why they were still doing it four or five years ago when the pipeline was in abeyance and waiting.

Looking forward, what are the main issues the next assembly is going to have to grapple with?

Cost of living is really big. Everything keeps increasing – salaries keep increasing too, but still, everything keeps increasing in cost. People go out and look around and see it’s much cheaper to live elsewhere, so we’re losing people. Those of us who have been here for a really long time sort of accept that this is what it costs to live here. But if you’re in a tentative income situation, maybe you have to go.

There’s also such a demand on programs across the territory. Everybody wants what Yellowknife has, because we have services provided by all these NGOs that the government supports but doesn’t necessarily pay for. So somebody in a small community says, ‘Yellowknife’s got that, we want that too,’ and it’s like, no, logistically, no you can’t. You’re in a community of 300 people, we can’t do everything for everybody.

Government has for a very long time provided for people, in terms of housing and income support, so people expect the government to look after them – it’s such a hard mentality to turn around. Until we can get people to be a little bit more resilient and self-reliant, we’re going to be struggling with the provision of services.

Are there any other key election issues you think would-be candidates should be addressing?

Avens is also a huge issue for me. The lack of recognition of the need for facilities for seniors right across the territory is really galling me. I think the department recognizes it, but they don’t accept the numbers that are coming from Avens. I know it’s expensive, but you’ve got an organization like Avens that’s basically saying, ‘promise us a revenue stream, we’ll build it, we’ll get the mortgage, we just need to know we’ll get this revenue,’ and yet the government hasn’t committed yet. And that’s a problem for me. We’ve got all these people who built Yellowknife and they got nowhere to go towards the end of their lives.

The capital demands we have are pretty huge, and that’s another area I kind of find fault with what we’re doing. We spend so many millions on roads, but do we really need to spend all that money there? The Department of Transportation will tell you yes, because the roads are falling apart. But I wonder.

With you and Bob Bromley stepping away from politics are you worried that there will be no strong progressive voices in the legislative assembly?

It depends who gets elected. There’s some people who’ve said that they’re going to run who I know have the social view that Bob and I have had.

One of the things that really disappointed me is that we had no female representation in cabinet this last cabinet. If we get most of the same people we have now, it may be a problem. I’m on the record saying I will assist any female candidate who is running. Talk to me and I’ll help you do whatever.

Why are there are so few women in territorial politics?

There’s a whole bunch of things that contribute. Part of it is culture in many communities where this isn’t considered a job for women. Part of it is that women are generally the family caregivers and if you don’t have a supportive husband or if you’re on your own, what are you going to do with your kids?

The hours we sit are not conducive to anybody having a family, male or female and anybody from a community, they have to travel here and they’re leaving their family at home. So if it’s a mom and two or three kids and she’s a single parent, then who’s looking after the kids? I also think it’s more difficult for women to raise money to run a campaign, and it’s expensive.

What could be done to change this?

The government could be more supportive, both financially and verbally, of women in general and women in government particularly. We have a lot of female deputy ministers, but that doesn’t seem to translate into the culture that it’s okay for women to run for office. Community culture is not going to change overnight, it’s going to take a really long time and I can accept that, but the government needs to support women more overtly. We do have a minister responsible for women, but the government isn’t out there saying how important it is that we have women doing X, Y and Z. There’s the campaign school of women run by the Status of Women Council, but they get little money from the government to do it.

Is there anyone you endorse for Frame Lake?

I’m not going to endorse anybody, but I am helping female candidates. I would love to endorse a bunch of people, but people shouldn’t be voting for somebody because I said so.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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