Health care, housing and infrastructure: 3 election issues to watch in Arctic Canadian community

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Many issues in Hay River are similar to those in communities across the Northwest Territories, in Arctic Canada. (Emily Blake/CBC)
Many issues facing candidates for MLA in Hay River, northwestern Canada, this election mirror those facing communities across the North — but with a unique South Slave focus.

The town, which had a population of 3,824 in 2018, has two ridings.

R.J. Simpson has already been acclaimed for his second term as MLA for Hay River North. Meanwhile, Simpson’s father, Pierre “Rocky” Simpson, is running against incumbent Wally Schumann, for the Hay River South seat.

Here’s their take on three key issues at the top of constituents’ minds as they prepare to cast their votes.

Health care

Residents have been feeling the effects of a shortage of doctors and nurse practitioners including fewer walk-in appointments at the regional health centre this summer.

“If you go to any coffee shop in town people are talking about the quality of health care here,” said R.J. Simpson.

“People are scared to get sick in Hay River, people move away because of our health-care issues.”

There were fewer walk-in appointments available at the Hay River Regional Health Centre this summer due to a shortage of staff. (Emily Blake/CBC)

It’s not just an issue of attracting health care professionals, Simpson said, but also keeping them. That’s something he believes could be helped by having the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority join the territorial authority.

“There are physicians and health care workers in Yellowknife who would like to move to Hay River and work in Hay River but because of the pension issues surrounding the two authorities they’re very hesitant to. They don’t want to lose all the years they’ve put in.”

Simpson said, however, issues with the local health authority should be addressed first.

Wally Schumann and Rocky Simpson agree the Hay River health authority needs to be better aligned with the territory.

R.J. Simpson (left) said people are moving out of Hay River because of issues with health care in the town. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

“I’d work to ensure the employees are pleased with what happens with that,” said Simpson.

Schumann noted the lack of health care practitioners is an issue in many communities.

“We’re going to have some new people in the Legislative Assembly and hopefully we come up with some new ideas [on] how we’re going to address this need right across the North.”

The Hay River harbour

Hay River — known as the “hub of the North” — is a centre for shipping goods to other northern communities. It’s also the heart of the South Slave’s fishing industry. But for years there have been concerns with the build up of sediment in the town’s port.

“There’s real safety issues in terms of the lack of dredging,” said R.J Simpson. “Recreational boaters are getting damage to their boats and I don’t know how long it’s going to be before someone runs into real issues.”

He said it’s also hurting commercial fishermen who can’t bring as much fish onto shore. And it could increase the cost of shipping, he added, if barges can’t carry as much cargo or have to be cancelled. It’s also an issue for the coast guard.

“If [the] coast guard can’t get in and out of the port here, maybe they’re just going to pack up and move up to Yellowknife,” he said.

The Hay River harbour was last dredged by the federal government in 1993. (Emily Blake/CBC)

“We can’t always be so reactive, sometimes we have to address a problem before it becomes a problem. And it’s getting to a point where it’s going to be a problem.”

According to the territorial Department of Infrastructure, the harbour was last dredged by the federal government in 1993 before the national program was discontinued.

The department also said it dredged the most heavily silted areas before 2012. That’s when the territory’s memorandum of understanding on Arctic marine supply sites with the federal government and the coast guard expired.

In November 2018 the coast guard’s Arctic regional commissioner told Infrastructure staff he would look into restoring the agreement.

While the federal government is responsible for maintaining safe navigation through the Mackenzie River Corridor, territorial politicians have said they’ll make sure dredging is completed.

Despite their best efforts, however, Schumann — who was the minister of infrastructure in the 18th Assembly — said the territory hasn’t been able to secure federal funding to dredge the port. The estimated price tag for restoring the harbour is between $8 to $10 million.

“The federal government clearly does not want to talk about dredging,” Schumann said. “No one seems to want to look after it.”

R.J. Simpson said the territory may have to “bite the bullet” and invest in its own dredging equipment.

Wally Schumann, who was the minister of infrastructure in the 18th Legislative Assembly, said despite his best efforts, he was unable to secure federal funding to dredge the harbour. (Emily Blake/CBC)

Rocky Simpson said if elected, he plans to look into the issue of dredging and has already discussed the matter with the territory’s MP, Michael McLeod. Simpson said the territorial and federal governments need to work together on a plan and take action to get the job done.

“That’s the problem is we’ve always got a lot of plans, we’ve got strategies, we have all that but we never seem to action anything and I’m big on doing things and getting things done.”

Housing

The issue of housing in Hay River came to a flashpoint in March when a fire broke out at the beleaguered Mackenzie Place apartment complex. That displaced about 150 people, some of whom were living in public housing units.

Schumann said the territory has “thrown a lot of money” at the issue to address short-term needs and is now looking at long-term solutions.

The town’s population is also projected to almost double over the next five years, according to the Town of Hay River’s new community plan. That’s based in part on anticipated job growth from a number of planned projects including a fish plant, a long-term care facility and a wood pellet plant in the nearby community of Enterprise.

The N.W.T. Housing Corporation has also committed to building 12 units for RCMP members in Hay River.

Smoke damage from a fire in March is still visible on the Mackenzie Place apartment complex in this photo from late August. Around 150 people were displaced as a result of the fire. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The town is already working on re-zoning land to create more residential areas. But it’s going to need money for development like putting in sewer and water lines and paving roads.

R.J. Simpson said the territorial government could help by providing a loan which would “essentially be self-financing” as the territory gets transfer payments from Ottawa for every person that moves to the Northwest Territories.

“The GNWT has been resistant to budge on the town’s borrowing limit and hasn’t wanted to help the town or help themselves really,” he said. “That’s something that desperately needs to be addressed in the next Assembly.”

Schumann noted the territorial government isn’t responsible for all housing in the N.W.T. but agreed the 19th Assembly will have to work closely with federal and municipal governments on the issue.

Rocky Simpson says the territorial government will have to work with the Town of Hay River and its residents to address issues with housing. (Emily Blake/CBC)

“The housing minister has his challenges, whoever that’s going to be going forward. That’s a challenge no matter which government you’re in.”

Rocky Simpson also stressed the need for the territory to work with the Town of Hay River and its residents.

“I think it’s important that whoever’s elected actually works with the mayor and council and provides them the support they need to work with the [territorial government] to ensure that the paperwork’s in place and the land becomes available as soon as possible.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Community in Arctic Canada concerned about the future of Aurora College at Northwest Territories election, CBC News

Finland: Education, wage subsidies key in Finland’s budget for 2020, Yle News

Russia: Career diplomat to represent Murmansk region in Russian senate, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedish gov’s budget raises fears over inequality, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska governor accepts reduced dividends, upholds most vetoes, Alaska Public Media

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Emily Blake, CBC News

Emily Blake, CBC News

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