Hay River’s Power Battle

Power costs, the failed treatment centre, and an educational “slow death” are key issues in the riding

“Experience” is a word thrown about in most election races, but perhaps nowhere much as in Hay River South, where two green candidates are trying to match their backgrounds to an incumbent with five terms under her belt.

Brian Willows, formerly chief operating officer for the NT Power Corp., and Wally Schumann, former president of the Hay River Metis Council, are taking on incumbent Jane Groenewegen who, if re-elected, would enter a record sixth term in the Legislative Assembly.

As within nearly every riding in the Northwest Territories, these three candidates have a lot of cost-of-living concerns to answer to, not the least of which are Hay River’s controversial power rates.

Electricity costs

“We pay the highest rate per kilowatt-hour in Canada in Hay River. NTPC is a crown corporation and the people of Hay River get zero benefit from that, notwithstanding the fact that we pay taxes like everybody else,” said Willows, who spent 35 years working for NTPC.

Willows, like a large segment of the community, blames the current supplier for power rates that are 30 percent higher than the neighbouring Taltson hydro communities of Fort Smith and Fort Resolution.

As long as Northland Utilities Ltd. (NUL), an ATCO company, is intercepting as a “middleman,” he said it’s unlikely Hay Riverites will ever see their costs come down. Instead, he’s pushing for the GNWT to expand the Taltson dam and build an incentive for residents to convert to electric heating, simultaneously reducing dependence on diesel.

“The Taltson system is not being fully utilized, and there’s excess power that’s just going over the falls. For all that time, the government has been waiting for another mine,” Willows said. “There’s absolutely no reason that power couldn’t be coming to Hay River for government buildings, for businesses that would be interested, to get a discount on their electricity for using that power for heat.”

With a Taltson expansion, Willows said that the power source could link up over time with Yellowknife, which is currently on diesel due to low water levels on the Snare hydro system.

Groenewegen took a lot of heat during the last part of the 17th Assembly for not doing more to address the high power costs and for defending what she argued is a company that has been working and hiring in the community for 40-odd years.

She believes there’s more to be done with alternative energy and renewable resources to bring down the costs for the community and create a new economic sector in a time when much of the resource sector is at an all-time market low.

“Not everything is in the control of the GNWT, like what’s happening with global commodities, but where we can have an effect is through facilitating business and investment,” she said. “In times like these, we need to look at other areas, like the renewable resource sector, things like forestry, fisheries, the pellet mill that’s proposed for our area, and agriculture. In the absence of big projects, we need to look at local economies.”

For Schumann, a territorial look at how the Power Corp. is being run is needed, especially considering the impacts climate change is having on hydro in the North.

“We can’t just focus on Hay River,” he said. “We need to take a serious look at how it’s doing business.”

Schumann said business opportunities, like a local pellet mill and opportunities for increased shipping by NTCL, could be ways to bring prosperity to Hay River.

Treatment centre

What has become a key election issue across the territory holds special weight in the community of Hay River, where just across the river on the K’atl’odeeche First Nation sits the empty remainder of the territory’s last failed attempt at keeping addictions treatment in the North.

For Willows, it’s difficult to think about the empty building being heated and maintained by the GNWT with zero purpose. He wants to see it resurrected, if not as a full-blown residential treatment option, then as at least a space for delivering some programs and services.

“I recognize that there may have been problems, but the government solution seems to be to just shut it down, and that makes no sense to me,” he said. “It’s a brand-new facility. Even if it’s not a full-fledged treatment centre, why can’t we at least offer pre-care or post-care?”

Groenewegen agrees that a treatment centre is needed in the North and has promised to work with the community of Hay River to come up with a grassroots, community-based proposal, but acknowledges that residential treatment is just one tool in an array of options for care.

“We have counselling, we have the Matrix program, we have after-care and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, so there are a lot of different paths,” she said.

For Schumann, it’s a bit more complicated. He said he supports having a treatment centre in the NWT, but only if it’s sure to succeed, which will require a hard look at why numerous past attempts have failed.

“My approach is, why did it fail? We need to assess what worked and didn’t work. Does it need longer programs, or southern partners? I’m not against having a treatment centre, but we have to do it right,” he said.

Education

After a drawn-out legal battle with the territorial government, the board responsible for Hay River’s French school, Ecole Boreale, took another hard blow this fall after the Supreme Court of Canada refused to revisit the dispute.

For years, the board has been asking for expansions to the French schools in Hay River and Yellowknife, and wants to make its own decisions around who can attend. Those calls are currently made by the government.

Though a NWT court ordered the NWT government to pay for expansions to both schools in 2012, the Court of Appeal overturned parts of that ruling earlier this year.

With the school board still demanding infrastructure parity and the right to control admissions, MLA candidates understand that the court case might be over, but the fight is not.

“The French school is a big part of our community, so we need to look at how we address the French school’s needs while keeping them a sustainable part of our community,” Schumann said.

But the problems with the French school are just the tip of the iceberg with respect to concerns around education in Hay River, according to Willows, who says the district education authority (DEA) is chronically underfunded.

“The local DEA is up against the wall. Their formula funding hasn’t changed for 10 years,” Willows said, though costs have gone up for everything from busing to special needs. “For the French school, the government has taken on a strange role in overseeing enrollment, and that’s put a stranglehold on the school. resulting in a slow death.”

Groenewegen said it’s time education be at the top of the list for the entire territory, even if that means increasing the budget.

“We’re trying to do education differently, but what we’re doing is not effective enough,” she said. “We have this inclusive schooling policy, but without the money, it is having the opposite effect. We need to spend more on education.”

Government reform

When it comes to the hot-button issue of consensus reform rattling community halls across the NWT, only Willows is taking a hardline position in his riding.

Rather than working as a united opposition, Willows said he was frustrated to see regular MLAs in the 17th Assembly fragmented and complaining too often that they were unaware of cabinet’s actions. Part of the solution, he believes, could be forcing more accountability with shorter terms and pay freezes for MLAs.

“You get these career politicians who become part of the bureaucracy, and they lose sight of the original reasons they got in there,” Willows said. “Incoming MLAs should lead by example, and if the government has to be lean and mean (with budgeting), then they should have a freeze on salaries too.”

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