N.W.T. Election 2023: Josh Campbell's Nahendeh interview

Key points in Campbell's platform include affordable housing, mental health services, more resources for smaller communities and strategic investment in infrastructure.

Campbell says he wants to see action on housing for flood-affected residents by either "rebuilding their house, replacing their house, or doing renovations to the houses impacted by the floods." He also wants greater transparency on the government policies and practices that determine housing outcomes.

"Who got a house and who did not get a house in Simpson? Doesn't appear to be any clear government policy on that," said Campbell. "It's quite questionable."

Sharon Allen, Mavis Cli-Michaud, Hillary Deneron, incumbent Shane Thompson and Leslie Wright are also running for the seat.

This interview was recorded on October 26, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Simona Rosenfield: Why are you running for MLA?

Josh Campbell: I was approached around Christmastime by some people in the communities, in Fort Simpson and around Fort Simpson, to consider running because they wanted some change. They felt they've been underrepresented here in the last four years.

Q: I'd like to talk about your platform. I understand affordable housing is a priority, what's your plan?

A: Josh Campbell says he'll be "a voice you can trust" to represent the Nahendeh district, citing years of experience covering politics during his time in journalism. Well, it kind-of touches on the economy as well, right now. By living here in Fort Simpson and being in the region, it helps me a lot.

I was asked to run before I'd actually moved back here. I thought if I'm going to be a credible candidate, and really for the people, and not a parachute candidate, I had to move back over here. So, I was living here before the flood.

I had some family issues out east to take care of and then moved back to the North in September. I started work with DFN in July. Sorry, I'm going off-topic here.

Affordable housing is a key plank in my platform. We lost three teachers here before Thanksgiving because they could not find adequate housing. If we can't even provide houses for important people like educators in our community, what does it say for the people that have been born and raised here for generations?

I'm also deeply concerned that Kasteel Construction, as we've seen in the news, is going under. And I know Trevor Kasteel, he's a great builder and a hard worker. And it saddens me to see that he's impacted by that. His business, by going down, I think may have had a direct role in one of our projects over here that was supposed to be forthcoming and shovel-ready this fall.

I'm no longer working with the Métis. I was when I first chatted with your news outlet and I was working with the school board. But I'm really sad to see that the housing project that the Métis were working on is not moving forward at this time. I'm not sure if it's because of Mr Kasteel's company going under, but we need every bit of housing we can get here, especially in the communities of Jean Marie and Simpson since the flood impacted them three years ago. There's still people that are feeling quite transient and impacted by that flood.

Q: On the point of Jean Marie River residents, some who evacuated from the floods more than a year ago still don't have a home. What kind of support can residents expect from you, if elected?

A: Thanks for the question. It's multi-layered, like anything.

I have constituents – I'm not the MLA yet, but I have supporters in Sambaa K'e that have been waiting two years to have the floors in their housing units replaced because they had hot water heaters freeze and bust. They're waiting two years. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't be putting up with my floor in black mold for two years.

There's been a real kind-of absentee mindset of the current incumbent. Some people told me they haven't even seen him since the last election. But when it comes to the housing, getting back on topic here, I have two supporters also that are staying at the homeless shelter here in Simpson because they do not have a home in Jean Marie to go back to.

There's a lot of people in Simpson that will tell you: who got a house and who did not get a house in Simpson, doesn't appear to be any clear government policy on that. There were two individuals who got houses that didn't even have property rights or didn't have a deed to the land were the house is.

So I'm not sure how the government and Mr Thompson were doling out houses to some people, but it's quite questionable. And this is coming from people that are sitting on the municipal council here.

I don't want to be naming people or blaming or shaming, but it's very distressing that businesses and families have been impacted by the flood three years ago, and the government still can't compensate them for either rebuilding their house, replacing their house, or doing renovations to the houses impacted by the floods.

Q: Moving on to healthcare. You recently spoke about the need to improve healthcare, especially for mental health and addictions treatment. How would you address these issues, if elected?

A: It goes back to my time when I was a fellow journalist. I think it was about 2014. There were 11 suicides in this community. And I'm not going to use people's grief and sorrow and loss as a platform. But we have to look in the mirror and admit that addictions and mental health problems are huge, not just for Nahendeh but across the Northwest Territories. There have been too many young people taking their lives, from the Beaufort Delta right down to Hay River.

I don't think many candidates will take the same stance as I am in saying: we need to revisit safer communities legislation. There was a bill back when Joe Handley was the premier on safer communities.

Now, some things have changed since 2007-08. Marijuana is a legal drug now. But crack cocaine is still not legal. Meth is not legal. I don't want to be singling people out, but I think we all have to look in the mirror, especially since we've come out of Covid, and ask ourselves: How are we coping? How have we moved forward from when we were locked down and having to wrestle with our own demons? Are we doing everything we can do each day to get up and live a better life? Or are we still self-medicating in unhealthy ways?

I do applaud the team of workers that are here in Fort Simpson and across the Dehcho. They're doing the best they can. But, it's like the RCMP officer I talked to the other day, they don't have enough staff. They're under-resourced. And I think if you were to compare the services in Yellowknife to Fort Simpson, you'd see a huge gap.

The people that are there on the front lines, they're doing the best they can, but they need all the support they can get. Whether it's better pay, rotation of staff, these are things that the government really needs to look at seriously in the 20th Assembly.

Q: What are your plans for infrastructure in Nahendeh?

A: I was really glad to hear in the news this morning that this is coming up in the media, and I hope it comes up at the candidates' forums.

We are one of the few communities – Fort Simpson, that is – one of the few communities that did not have to evacuate this year. We had evacuees come here from Sambaa K'e, from Jean Marie River, and it was so dry, and it's part of climate change.

If someone had dropped a cigarette across from where the community wood lot is, it would have taken nothing for that to all be in flames. And currently, Fort Simpson, we only have one road in and one road out.

There's been a draft plan at the village to make an exit at the end of the island to go up to the community woodlot that hasn't been touched in years.

And that's not Mr Whelly or the council, it's probably from lack of investment from the federal and territorial governments. I think the council here is doing as much as they can. I think, Sean Whelly is one of the hardest-working mayors in the North.

Let's say, worst-case scenario, if we had to evacuate due to a wildfire: there's not many trees on the island but across from us, it would be like a matchbox. And so to get off, we would be having to look at 20-minute intervals, half-an-hour intervals to get people on the ferry and across the river. Is that really fair, that people of Fort Simpson are being punished for lack of infrastructure investment from Ottawa since the Diefenbaker era? I don't think so.

Simpson plays a special role. It's the hub. It's the regional centre for Nahendeh. But you'll hear a lot of similar concerns. Look at people in Nahanni Butte – the water goes too low, they can't even get out. They have to pay $300 to fly out by chopper.

I think the government really has to look itself in the mirror and say: "Are we really investing in all of our communities equally?"

We know that millions were dropped in Yellowknife on fire breaks. And you've got to do what you've got to do to protect the capital, but what about the smaller communities? I see a real uneven treatment of the smaller communities versus the regional centres. And I promise to be there for everybody.

Q: When it comes to the smaller regions, more specifically, where do you want to see a greater investment from the territorial government?

A: It's a big-ticket item. And I know that our coffers are pretty empty. Devolution hasn't paid out the dividends that the GNWT had hoped. So, you still have two major parties that aren't signed on with devolution, the Tłı̨chǫ and the Dehcho.

I hope the next premier going forward will really commit to nation-to-nation negotiations. It's really between Canada and the Dehcho, when it comes to negotiations. The GNWT are in there now.

Whoever the next premier and council are, they really need to do their job on true nation-to-nation discussions and intergovernmental relations.

We need to see devolution either move forward or not. It's up to the Dehcho whether they sign or not, and we need to see that investment be into core services – health, education, justice.

On the infrastructure side, I think the big thing that I've been talking to people about – I'm not making a promise, because one person can't deliver a bridge – we saw the Deh Cho Bridge open and it was a landmark infrastructure investment. It was huge. It's changed the price of living in the capital. Arguably, it's changed lifestyles in Providence, and Yellowknife enjoys the transportation of goods and services and oil, and gasoline.

Over here, we're going to freeze up, meaning our ferry's going to be closed soon. And so we'll be left with jacked-up prices at the stores and at the pump because of the isolation factor. Same for people in Wrigley.

We need a bridge over here for climate change, for the economy and for safety. It's not just an investment for Fort Simpson. It's an investment for the Sahtu, the winter road. Why are the Sahtu and Nahendeh being treated like third-class citizens? When you look at the potential for investment over here – mineral sector, oil and gas sector, transportation, construction jobs.

In fact, the economy's in a slump. You look at what they did in the United States during the Great Depression: they invested in the highway system and infrastructure in the United States. And I think Canada and the Northwest Territories has to really look at that. Similar to what happened during the Roosevelt era.

We need to really look at investment in infrastructure. And from that, I think it tackles a lot of social issues. People, when they have a job, they feel better about themselves, they've got money to spend on their family and on themselves. When they don't have a job, it's hard to say: "I've got a reason to get up in the morning."

I've been through that struggle myself in between jobs, and it's not a nice feeling. And I think strategic investment in infrastructure over here will go a long way to tackling a lot of the issues that we see facing many people across the Nahendeh and the Northwest Territories.

Q: Final question. Why are you the right candidate for the job?

A: I always say that the voters are always right. I've been very fortunate to have many political mentors. I worked in the news, and so my campaign committee and I came up with a theme – "Josh Campbell, a voice you can trust" – because my voice was on the radio for several years on CBC, CKLB and CJCD.

I'd like to say that I'm coming at this from a balanced view. I try to be objective, not subjective, and I worked with Dennis Bevington, the MP for three and a half years, who enjoyed a lot of support over this side of the Northwest Territories. I also got to work with Norman Yakeleya when he was an MLA in the legislature.

So, I know how the house works, I know how procedure and policies can be tweeked, and I know what the job description of an MLA is. You're a legislator. So, I know how consensus government works, I've covered every election since Joe Handley was premier.

This is the first one that I won't be covering because I'm running in it.

I'd like to think that I know a few things, and I'm also there as an ally to the Dehcho process, because I worked for the Dehcho First Nations for probably two and a half years, if you chalked up all the time together.

I'm a real ally to Indigenous people in this riding. I'd say 80 percent of our voter base is probably Indigenous. I'm not Indigenous, but I am there to work with them, I'm there to work with the chiefs.

The only promise that I've made is that I will not run for cabinet and I won't run for premier, because I think that'd be pretty arrogant for a first-time MLA to be trying to step into those shoes. I have a lot of respect for our former MLAs, like Kevin O'Reilly, who really kept the government and the House to account.

I'll be calling him if I do get elected, to get some pointers on how to handle myself in committees and things, because I think Kevin has done a lot of great work in the past. Mr. Simpson from Hay River has done a great job too as a minister, and Caroline Wawzonek.

It's about being a team player. I think I'm probably the best team player on the roster, the ballot, if you will. I'm hoping to make a difference and I'm prepared to win or lose. I'm not going to be a sore loser if I don't get in. Dennis always told me: "Sometimes you've got to run three times before you get in." And so, we'll see how it goes.

Asked to declare any outstanding lawsuits, major debts or other issues that might form a conflict if elected, the candidate said there were none.

Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio