Shifting Focus: Kevin O’Reilly to Run in Frame Lake

Kevin O’Reilly, executive director of the Independent Environmental Monitory Agency, is running in Frame Lake, the riding left vacant by Wendy Bisaro in the upcoming territorial election. A past research director for the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, he has lived in Yellowknife since 1985, raised a family and served three terms on city council.

EDGE: What made you decide to run for a seat in the Legislative Assembly?

Kevin O’Reilly: With devolution and what I’ve seen of the Assembly and the GNWT, I don’t think all of the promises of devolution have panned out. Now that we have it, what are we going to do with that power and authority? Are we going to build more sustainable communities and make sure that people here benefit from resources?

What are the issues?

It’s time to develop an economic vision that we as Northerners want. I haven’t sensed a lot of that vision or direction from the current government. There’s an opportunity now to work with other MLAs and move that forward.

Does the government’s focus on resource extraction and large projects make sense in the current economic environment?

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Putting all our eggs in the non-renewable resource basket hasn’t served us very well. We have to focus on things that keep people in the communities and keep people doing the kind of things they like to do. That means shifting our focus to smaller-scale economic activity and more sustainable enterprises. Even simple things like energy retrofit and energy conservation so we can bring down the cost of living in communities and here in Yellowknife.

Would you put more money into renewable resources, such as the fishery and forestry?

Absolutely. A lot of those ideas were put on the table through the economic development strategy panel that the GNWT set up when Floyd Roland was premier. There is a whole string of reports from the 1980s with a lot of ideas about how to build a more diverse and sustainable economy, but not a lot of time and effort or work [was put] toward those goals. That’s where our future lies.

The GNWT provides a lot of support for mining for companies and individuals to stake claims and mine-training programs. I wish the same effort was directed at more sustainable renewable resources like the fishery, renewable energy. Agriculture has a good future here. There are lots of those activities we should be pursuing more actively to diversify our economy and build more resilience and self-sufficiency.

I just came back from a trip to Iceland […] They have found ways to keep vibrant communities in remote areas. They have a strong fishing industry and agriculture, amazing highways. They have found ways to keep people in small communities. They have found ways to support small-scale renewable industries. We should be looking at that as well.

We don’t have very good harvester support programs. There is a market for natural furs that is sustainable and allows people to get out on the land. There is a lot of potential for more fishing. There are opportunities. Tourism is another avenue. We have a pretty good aurora program in Yellowknife, but there is a lot of interest in learning more about indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge. We should try and capitalize on that. There are tremendous opportunities for ecotourism. Those are the sorts of things that will keep people in smaller communities.

What about education? Students looking for post-secondary learning must go south. Is it time to invest here?

The other side of Frame Lake was set aside by the GNWT years ago for a university. I understand the need to maintain the Aurora College campus in Fort Smith, but we need to look at a real post-secondary institution here in Yellowknife that we can link across the circumpolar Arctic to other countries. Yukon College has very good links with UBC, and we should be trying to build the same sort of institutions here in the Northwest Territories.

There is a lot of circumpolar interest in what we have, in terms of how we govern through co-management systems and approaches, traditional knowledge. There is a lot we can offer and we should be building on it.

Consensus governance: is it working or does it need to be re-thought?

I think there are ways to bring in greater accountability than we have now. An ombudsperson is something the next assembly should pick up and finish off.

The committee process can be improved upon by making it open to the public and providing transcripts. The committees should be a strong part of any parliamentary system, particularly where you don’t have parties. The committees can improve legislation.

There is a lot of work that happens in those committees that’s not open to the public and I’m not sure that’s healthy. We need to insure that there is more openness and transparency

What do you want to accomplish?

One of the things that’s really important is to build an economic diversification or heritage fund with a legislated revenue stream instead of the discretionary contributions. That’s not a good way to set up a fund for future generations. It needs to be publicly governed, not just internal to the cabinet or the legislative assembly.

We need to examine the legislation we’ve inherited through devolution and make it work for Northerners. We’ve never had a public review of the royalty and taxation rates. We need to do that. We’ve inherited a system that hasn’t worked very well and passed mirror legislation.

We didn’t take on devolution to continue doing things the way the feds did. The premier said we were going to devolve and evolve.

I’m interested in the evolve part. We need to work with aboriginal governments to review what we’ve inherited and develop systems that benefit people of the North.

We need to review revenue and water use, especially: is it the right rate? Does it cover administrative costs of the system?

In health care, there has been a lot of focus on the pre-kindergarten program. I would have much preferred investing in early childhood education and supporting parents before children are three years old. That’s critical to a child’s life. If things have gone off-track before a child is three, it’s really hard to get them back.  We have to find ways to support kids at that age.

Social dysfunction is prevalent here in Yellowknife. We need to invest more in prevention and treatment. Those are areas that I’m not expert in but I would like to work people who have expertise in those areas.

The mining industry views the regulatory regime as a barrier to development. Does the territory need to change?

I was disappointed that the territorial government was silent when they took on devolution on the changes that were about to be imposed on the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Act. It hasn’t done a bad job, regardless of what the mining industry might say. If it’s to be improved, look at the independent audits. But that’s been ignored in favour of centralizing power in the minister’s office. Picking away at it in response to one sector of the economy is not a way to build and sustain a management system that is the envy of a number of countries in the circumpolar world.

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