New N.W.T. premier to focus on emergency readiness, working with Indigenous leaders
The Canadian PressNews emergency management
Few understand better the growing need for communities to be prepared for emergencies and disasters than the new premier of the Northwest Territories.
R.J. Simpson, elected premier by fellow MLAs on Friday under the territory’s consensus government, barely made it out of his community of Hay River this summer ahead of a wildfire that evacuated the town.
“I know people who left 15 minutes after me and never made it out of town,” he recalled.
“They ended up getting trapped in the fire — there were about a dozen cars burned on the highway.”
After being forced out in 2022 by floods, Simpson was driven from his home by fires for another two months this summer. There were weeks when he went to bed not knowing if his town would be there in the morning.
As climate change ramps up the risks of extreme weather, Simpson said Hay River’s experience points to the need for readiness.
“That is one of my priorities,” he said.
The territorial government is already in the middle of a review into its response to the record wildfires that scorched the North this summer. Its findings will be taken seriously, Simpson promises.
“We’re going to make the public feel confident that we’re taking it seriously and that we’re going to have to take steps to ensure we are prepared. There’s no excuse for us to not be completely prepared.”
Simpson, 43, is entering his third term as a member of the N.W.T. legislature. That legislature has no political parties, and under the terms of the North’s consensus government, he and his cabinet were chosen by his fellow MLAs in a vote held Friday.
Trained as a lawyer, Simpson was about to start articling in preparation for being called to the bar when a territorial election was called in 2015. Simpson ran, and instead of practising law, wound up as justice minister.
“I sort of skipped a step there,” he said.
Since then, his cabinet postings have also included education, as well as culture and employment.
He’s a popular MLA. He ran unopposed in 2019 and, this year, took nearly two-thirds of the vote.
That’s better than his father. Pierre (Rocky) Simpson, an incumbent who ran in an adjacent Hay River riding, lost his seat — but Simpson Jr. said he won’t be ribbing dad over Christmas dinner.
“No, no,” he laughs. “I realize how lucky I was to have that experience and still look to him as a trusted adviser.”
There’s much to advise on. The usual issues of lack of housing and infrastructure continue to dog the North.
Simpson, a member of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, said he plans to enlist Indigenous governments in hopes that a united front will win more resources from Ottawa.
“We need to work closely with Indigenous governments,” he said.
Like some provincial governments, the N.W.T. has long opposed the federal carbon price — although it has its own regime, agreed to by Ottawa. But Simpson said he’s not likely to make common cause on the issue with premiers such as Alberta’s Danielle Smith.
“Our circumstances here are unique,” Simpson said. “Perhaps other jurisdictions are advancing their positions based on their different circumstances. Our best approach is to work collaboratively with the federal government.”
Because politics is played in the N.W.T. without party platforms, the new government members will meet early in the new year to set directions and priorities for themselves. It’s too early to say what they’ll be, Simpson said.
“I can almost assure you that housing is going to be one of those priorities.”
So will land claims. Fourteen Indigenous groups in the territory — including the one to which Simpson belongs — are now in land claim, self-government or boundary talks.
“The future of the territory is mixed governance where we have a number of self-governing Indigenous nations and the government of the Northwest Territories,” Simpson said. “Indigenous governments want to draw down authority and we need to work toward that.”
By the way, his first names are Rocky Jordan. He uses the initials to avoid confusion with Simpson Sr.
“He’s always been called Rocky. So I just go by the initials.”
— by Bob Weber in Edmonton
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2023.
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