Thebacha’s Battle of the Sexegenarians

To Don Jaque, the allegation that he’s running for MLA of Thebacha just to split the vote so incumbent Michael Miltenberger can retain his office is just another fiction spun from the ‘Fort Myth’ rumour mill.

“Yes absolutely, and I’m also running to split the vote for my friend, Lou (Sebert), so I’m double dipping,” Jaque said with a laugh before correcting the record.

“It’s just small-town stuff. No, I’m serious about (running),” he said. “I just feel like I can do so much. I have so much energy and so many ideas, and a lot of things need to get done in this town.”

Community, not cabinet

The 66-year-old publisher of the Northern Journal newspaper* in Fort Smith said he commends Miltenberger for a job well done over his five terms in the legislature, but after over two decades, he told EDGE, voters in Fort Smith are looking more for an MLA than a cabinet minister.

“We very much need someone to focus on the community,” he said. “We need to strengthen our economy. We need to do more than have just government positions here. I worry that too many of our government positions are vulnerable and they would be at risk in the next round of job cuts.”

If elected, Jaque said he’d work hard to address the issue of river bank stability that he claims is being “ignored at our peril.” A landslide along the Slave River rocked the community of Fort Smith in 1968, taking one life, and Jaque said the town is due for another one soon, which could demolish the town’s $4-million newly renovated arena.

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He also has plans to unite the South Slave to cooperate on issues like tourism and economic development, the paving of Highway 5 and lowering power rates for both Fort Smith and Hay River, and would address the issue of declining enrollment at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus by working to establish a much-needed public daycare in Fort Smith.

When it comes to energy, Jaque said the territory should focus on completing the Taltson hydro project expansion and selling that power to the communities for electric heat, rather than damming the Slave River to sell the power south to Alberta — a move, he claims would be ultimately backed by both Miltenberger and challenger Sebert.

“It’s a project I could see the community confronted with in the next four to five years, and one I’d definitely be opposed to,” Jaque said, noting that ATCO officials told him recently that a Slave River hydro project is very much an active file. “It’s a very bad idea for Fort Smith.”

‘Time for Change’

Lawyer Lou Sebert is no stranger to politics, having put in some 14 years on town council in Fort Smith and many more over the years as a board member for the district education authority, the NT Power Corp. and the local Chamber of Commerce.

Backed by his slogan “Time for Change,” Sebert said he’s running to create increased transparency and accountability within the territorial government.

“Right now, most committee meetings are held in camera,” he said. “That’s unusual. I think the default option should be that meetings are open to the public and the press.”

Sebert said he wants to see the creation of a territorial ombudsman position to ensure residents are protected from the sometimes “overwhelming factor” the territorial government plays in their lives.

“It’s especially important here, where there aren’t that many counterweights to the territorial government,” he said.

On the power front, Sebert said he’s in favour of a partnership between the public NT Power Corp. and ATCO’s Northland Utilities Ltd. (NUL). Such a union, he said, would improve service delivery within the territory and eliminate the need for massive government subsidies.

“Partnering with NUL would be good, I think,” he said. “It would combine the operating experience of the Power Corp. with the entrepreneurial spirit of ATCO, and respect the Aboriginal investment in that company.”

When it comes to growing the community, Sebert said Fort Smith is a logical location for the NWT’s first northern university should Aurora College one day expand, as well as an addictions treatment centre.

“In the short-term it might be cheaper to send people south for treatment, but it’s a good idea to have small centres in many communities, including Fort Smith,” Sebert said. “I see a great number of people in court dealing with issues of addiction.”

Fresh faces?

As first-time MLA candidates, Jaque and Sebert have been quick to brand themselves as fresh faces in this election, but Miltenberger has his own questions about that rhetoric.

With all three candidates in their sixties, Miltenberger said he’s calling this race “the battle of the sexegenarians,” noting he prefers the term ‘inexperienced’ to ‘fresh’ for his challengers in this instance.

“My competitors here are not as informed as they could be,” Miltenberger said. “They’re coming into the political arena a little bit late.”

Miltenberger said anyone who paints him as too entrenched in his multiple ministerial portfolios to work for the community has not paid attention to the dozens of jobs created over the last 20 years, and the critical new infrastructure brought to Fort Smith.

In 1996, there were 338 full-time jobs. In 2015, there are now 490, plus around 80 to 90 relief positions, with a total annual payroll of around $50 million for the small community.

“We have one of the wealthiest communities nationally on a two-income basis,” Miltenberger said.

Over the next few years, he said Fort Smith will benefit from a new women’s correctional facility and a new territorial fire centre. Further down the line could be a new courthouse. Beyond that, he said the community holds a lot of potential for tourism and renewable energy.

But when you ask him about his big ticket priorities if re-elected as part of the 18th Assembly, his list of “unfinished business” includes work on hefty environmental legislation, transboundary water negotiations, acting on climate change, concluding unsettled land claims, investing in key economic infrastructure and maintaining the territory’s Aa1 credit rating.

In short: keeping up with the portfolios of Finance, Environment and Natural Resources and the Power Corp.

“Infrastructure, energy — these things have to be done regardless of who’s there,” Miltenberger said. “But we don’t want to waste time gathering our thoughts. We need to hit the deck running. There are only 1,468 days starting November 24.”

While his detractors say such a territorial mindset distracts from involvement back home, Miltenberger said he has been able to perform all roles effectively by maintaining an open door policy with the help of his constituency assistant and working 24/7.

Furthermore, he said, many of his ministerial files are of direct significance to the Thebacha riding, like the transboundary water agreement with Alberta.

“I am here every weekend working with the local leadership,” he said. “We provide high quality services to the hundreds of people that come through the door of my office, on no condition.”

The Thebacha candidates will duke it out at tonight’s all candidates forum in Fort Smith. The event starts at 7 p.m. at the PWK High School gym. Follow Meagan Wohlberg on Twitter (@meaganimous) for live tweeting of the forum.

*As editor of Northern Journal, the author of this piece was an employee of Jaque for four years, until August 2015.

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