OLIP in Yellowknife: Meeting with Mark Heyck, the 14th Mayor of Yellowknife

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All our meetings Yellowknife enlightened us to issues or themes present in the territorial level. We were excited to explore municipal governance and to that end, we met with Mayor Heyck, the 14th mayor of Yellowknife.

Mayor Heyck walked us through his journey which led him to run for public office. Completing his studies in McGill University, he developed an interest in politics and sustainability. When he returned to Yellowknife, he ran for city council in order to create positive change for Yellowknife and the sustainability issues the city was facing. His love for municipal politics stems from the ability to create change in a relatively short period of time. We were very surprised to learn that Yellowknife operates using an “at-large” system which means that the people of Yellowknife vote for all the councillors, as opposed to a “ward” system where voters in the ward vote for their respective councillor. Mayor Heyck argued that positive aspect of the large system allows councillors to plan and make decisions for the city as a whole.

Mayor Heyck walked us through some of his accomplishments as Mayor. This includes (but is not limited to): overseeing the adoption of Yellowknife’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, economic development and tourism strategies and advocacy bringing issues forward to the Territorial and federal levels. Mayor Heyck was very proud of how Yellowknife was recently awarded the 2018 Sustainable Communities Award in the energy category from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities — recognizing the wood pellet heating heating system Yellowknife implemented.

After our meeting, we were surprised to learn Mayor Heyck announcing he will not seek re-election. Thank you for meeting with us Mayor Heyck and we wish you the best of luck with what comes next!

Fun Fact: Did you know one of Yellowknife’s sister cities is The Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, a Russian port city in Eastern Sibera?


OLIP in Yellowknife: Discussing Reconciliation with Scott McQueen and Shaleen Woodward


The Northwest Territories are unique among Canada’s three territories in that it has an almost equal split in its population between Indigenous and settler peoples. The relationship between and within these two groups is complicated by the population distribution: the 32 remote communities are most overwhelmingly indigenous, whereas most Yellowknifers are descended from settlers or moved to the NWT from southern Canada. Furthermore, the NWT is a dynamic and evolving environment for government. As Dene, Inuit, and Métis Nations negotiate and implement comprehensive land claims with the government of Canada, some observers suggest that the governance structure of the NWT increasingly resembles a “federation within a federation.”

As part of our OLIP cohort’s commitment to better understand and contribute to the hard work of Indigenous Reconciliation in Canada, and to hear from diverse First Nations, Métis, and Inuit voices about their own experiences, we were eager to take full advantage of our trip to Yellowknife. Although visiting Yellowknife to learn about the NWT is akin to visiting Toronto to learn all about Ontario, we were fortunate to speak with many people about the challenges (and unique opportunities) for governance in the north.

One of the first meetings we had in Yellowknife was with Shaleen Woodward, Acting Deputy Minister of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations. Ms. Woodward began by noting how it was appropriate that these two portfolios were united in one department. The Government of the NWT recognizes that working with Dene, Métis, and Inuit communities must involve a respectful intergovernmental approach. For example, Ms. Woodward explained the importance of joint resource management boards, including government and indigenous representatives, which understand and are sensitive to indigenous relationships with the land. Consultation must be a proactive and collaborative approach to succeed.

A major problem in the north is the difficulty of capacity in government and policy resources. The NWT has many structural and systemic barriers to building capacity, but also contains a plethora of overlapping regional, local, municipal, and band governments for a very small population. Many positions on boards and councils are all held by the same people in a community. However, self-government is central to the process of reconciliation; many Dene and Inuit people do not see their relationship to be with the GNWT, or even the Canadian Government, but with the Crown. Yet both sides seek to build strong working relationships; in some cases, regional tribal governments prefer to upload some services to the GNWT, making for a complex and ever-evolving legislative system.

At the end of our trip, we were also delighted to be welcomed by Scott McQueen and his family to his cabin in Yellowknife to share a delicious homemade meal and learn about the traditional land economy of the Dene and Métis peoples of the NWT. Mr. McQueen talked at length about his family’s experience with the cultural tourism industry, bringing visitors to the NWT to understand traditional crafts and industries. Most important for the animal-lovers among us, however, we mostly talked about sled-dogs – for hours! Using stories from his father’s storied career in sled-dog racing, and from relatives over the years, Mr. McQueen and his family led us in conversations about how the traditional cultures and economies of the had changed over the past fifty years. One one hand, while sled-dog racing had become a high-profile and established sport, and a major tourism draw, the traditional uses of sled-dog teams for trapping, and the dog-team trap-line itself, has quickly passed away.

Trappers now use snowmobiles and modern outdoor gear; and traditional crafts have been reborn in the tourism and art markets. Frequently, however, the economic benefit from these industries is limited, and uneven from community to community. The renewal and teaching of these traditional industries and crafts, however, have pivotal importance to the cultural, spiritual, and communal identity of Dene, Métis, and Inuit peoples. They have an irreplaceable role in the future of the NWT.

We deeply appreciate the warm welcome we received on the traditional lands of the Yellowknife Dene, and to all of the nations whose languages are written on the walls of the Legislative Assembly to bless and greet visitors from near and far. We hope to bring the passion and dedication for Reconciliation we found in the NWT back to Ontario and into our own lives.

OLIP in Yellowknife: Meeting Premier Bob McLeod


“The Northwest Territories has all the ingredients for strong economic growth, including abundant natural resources, and significant participation and support for economic development from Indigenous-owned businesses and governments, but we can’t capitalize on these advantages without a plan.” – Premier Bob McLeod 

We were very eager to meet Premier Bob McLeod.

The Premier joined us for breakfast in the Members Lounge, where we discussed the future of the Northwest Territories.

Fundamentally, the Premier argued that the future of the Northwest Territories is bright, if they can attract and retain young talent. This correlated with current movement to establish a post-secondary institution in Yellowknife. One of the main problems the Northwest Territories faces is that young people have to leave to pursue post-secondary education. When these young people leave, the Premier argued they generally, “do not come back.” With younger people in the North, there will be greater economic development.

The Premier also discussed the prospect of becoming a province, and determined that it is relatively impossible (while for various reasons, generally the lack thereof a tax base). In this sense, it is not practical, or feasible, for the Northwest Territories to become a province.

Premier McLeod also discussed the Red Alert. The Alert was issued in lieu of the federal government imposing a moratorium on arctic offshore oil and gas development. Premier McLeod argued, “Northerners through their democratically elected government, need to have the power to determine their own fates and the practice of decisions being made by bureaucrats and governments in Ottawa must come to an end.”

Thank you for an informative meeting, Premier McLeod!

Getting Educated with the Deputy Minister of Education, Bruce Rodrigues

Late on Friday, Feb. 23, we finished off the week with a deep and exciting discussion with Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Education, Bruce Rodrigues. Our conversation ranged between Deputy Rodrigues’ own career trajectory, which included three years as CEO of Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) prior to becoming Deputy Minister, to his vision for change within the Ministry of Education. One of the most visible changes within the Ministry since Deputy Rodrigues entered his position has been on the walls of its offices, including the boardroom in which we met: drawings, paintings, pictures, projects, and words from students across Ontario. He reminded us that the Ministry had their greatest duty to students, and re-decorating was an important step for all staff to remember that every day.

We talked about the difficulty of educational assessments, and especially new models and or ways of thinking about standardized testing. It is clear that province-wide assessment is very valuable to help identify areas for improvement in the education system. On the other hand, standardized testing does not have to be the only model for these assessments! Indeed, later in the conversation, when discussing how to better educate Ontario’s students about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit heritage, in particular the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Deputy Rodrigues introduced us to the idea of building and assessing the empathy of students. When educating the citizens of tomorrow, it is important to also teach them to feel and see the world from many other points of view.

The most moving moments in the conversation, however, came when we discussed how to build a more inclusive educational system, and where the system let down its students, especially racialized, impoverished, or disabled children. The Deputy, himself a former Math teacher and superintendent, and many interns, shared personal stories about their experiences within the education system. We left the meeting inspired and encouraged by the strength of Ontario’s schools, but aware that there is a lot of work left to do to ensure that every child in Ontario can get a great education and achieve their full potential. Thank you again to Deputy Rodrigues!

Nicole Latour, the Northwest Territories’ Chief Electoral Officer


The Northwest Territories may be considered remote by Ontario standards, but it is at the cutting edge for election reform.

Nicole Latour, the NWT’s Chief Electoral Officer, explained to us how online voting may soon be a reality in her territory. The option of casting ballots digitally is expected to help boost voter turnout rates and increase accessibility.

For example, there is no degree-granting institution in the NWT; most-postsecondary students need to relocate in order to complete their education. Under the new system, tech-savvy university students living in out-of-territory would be able to choose a digital ballot over a mail-in-ballot.

We also learned that, although the overall voter turnout in the NWT is comparable to national averages, voter turnout is disproportionately low in Yellowknife, perhaps due in part to its relatively transient population. Introducing the option of online voting may invigorate interest in territorial elections, while also enabling residents to cast ballots from the comfort of their own homes. That comfort is not merely rhetorical. The last territorial election occurred in November 2015, and the turnout rate plummeted alongside the arctic temperatures.

There are other ways in which Latour champions innovation. Learning from practices in British Columbia, she has started specifically hiring youth to run polling stations. In addition to being familiar with technology, high school students are energetic, in a position to benefit from the work experience, and have flexible schedules. Another area of innovation is the creation of an online portal that will enable constituents to learn about local candidates, familiarize themselves with the returning officer, and live-stream the number of votes cast on election day. Lastly, territorial ballots in the NWT have a unique appearance. Literacy rates are relatively low in the NWT; consequently, in order to ensure accessibility, photographs of each candidate appear next to their name on the ballot.

We left our meeting with Latour impressed by how much Elections NWT has been able to accomplish, despite being such a new agency. Elections were not held for the territorial government until 1951, and they were historically administered by Elections Canada. The office of the NWT’s Chief Electoral Officer was not created until 1987, though it took until 1999 for the devolution process to be completed and Elections NWT to run its first election. For a young institution, Elections NWT seems to have made an excellent start, seeking innovations in order to serve the unique needs of a unique territory.

Yellowknife’s Giant Mine: A Remediation Behemoth

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On our last day of our study tour in the Northwest Territories, we visited Ms. Natalie Plato, the Deputy Director of the Giant Mine Remediation Project.
Ms. Plato, an engineer by profession, gave us an overview of the history of the mine and its relationship with the people of Yellowknife, particularly the Yellowknives Dene First nation whose lands border the mine. In its glory days, between 1948 and 2004, the Giant Mine was a powerful economic driver in the Northwest Territories and more particularly, in Yellowknife, where it is located. However, when the mine closed, the hazardous environmental issues caused by the operation came to light. Since the company had gone bankrupt, the onus fell on the governments and people of Yellowknife to clean up after them.
A horrifying 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide — one teaspoon of which can be lethal — was found in the mine‘s underground chambers. We learned that the primary job of the remediation team was to contain the arsenic and make sure it doesn’t flood into the nearby lake, one of the most essential bodies of water for the Dene First Nation. She gave us a fascinating walkthrough of her team’s work at the site. The project also invests in scientific research to find alternative and innovative ways to manage the dangerous chemical.
However, the work of the Giant Mine Remediation team extends beyond engineering and scientific research. The project team is also responsible for public consultations with Yellowknife’s residents, particularly the Dene community. The community’s input has shaped the way the team is working to rebuild the site and manage its dangers, as well as the access that the community has to the land around the mine.
Thank you to Natalie Plato for facilitating an incredible fascinating meeting about a very unique remediation — one of only three in all of Canada.

Ontario’s Number 1 Non-Voter: Greg Essensa, the Chief Electoral Officer

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The interns filed onto the subway to make a long trip out to Scarborough to the headquarters of Elections Ontario to meet with Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa. Ontario’s Election HQ is a nondescript large warehouse and single-story office building in an industrial park, and we admit to being deceived by the plain and quiet outside: when we entered the building, we were surprised to see a bustling and futuristic workplace – and that was only the first of the surprises that awaited us! CEO Essensa welcomed us with a brief overview of his own extensive career in elections (he has been CEO for over nine years, since 2008, and before that was Director of Elections for Toronto for 7 years). He spoke at length about the work of Elections Ontario, and in particular their efforts to improve the accessibility of voting and respond to the challenges of modern elections. Technology presents unique challenges for elections; while it offers increased ease of voting, options such as online voting are complicated by vulnerability to tampering. He reminded us that as an Independent Officer of the Legislative Assembly, and as steward of Ontario’s elections, his duty to Ontarians is to guarantee scrupulously accurate and reliable counts that exactly reflect the votes cast. Since he is responsible for Ontarian’s trust in the democratic process, CEO Essensa must remain entirely neutral; meaning the man who cares most about getting Ontarians out to vote cannot himself vote in provincial or municipal elections.

For the present, he advocates Ontario maintain paper ballots for accountability and reliability. The ballots which voters cast, however, are only one area in which Elections Ontario can modernize. CEO Essensa explained the increasing difficulty of recruiting poll staff, the rising incidence of poll worker error, and the inefficiencies in poll station operation. These are the areas that Elections Ontario has targeted for improvement, changing the set-up and organization of polls to require far less staff, speed up voting, and support voters who need extra assistance registering. He also introduced us to new tabulating machines to count ballots, and new initiatives to improve voter turnout.


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It was then that he gave us the biggest surprise of the visit: a tour of Elections Ontario HQ, including the massive warehouse filled with flats that include of all of the materials every single constituency returning officer in Ontario will need for the election, from computers, to ballots, to toilet paper! We were excited to see the locked area where the 7-9 million ballots from the last election are kept, and shocked to see that it was smaller than most of our MPP’s offices (and had lots of room to spare!). We finished by examining maps of constituencies and poll divisions, and seeing how Elections Ontario creates elaborate profiles of stereotypical voters to plan their outreach efforts in a more personal way. Hearing about how Elections Ontario works with community organizations to ensure all voters have access to service in their native language – a gargantuan task – was particularly awe-inspiring.

CEO Essensa finished with an invitation to us to consider working for Elections Ontario in the future, and expressed his support for the program. It is our turn to thank him warmly for his hospitality and generous gift of his time and experience. We wish him and Elections Ontario all the best as they accelerate towards the 2018 General Election!