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MLA ready for a challenge

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 22, 2011

Despite being a heavy hitter in the territorial cabinet and a possible candidate for premier, incumbent Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger doesn't expect to go unchallenged in the upcoming territorial election.

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Miltenberger says his first priority is to get a mandate from the people of Thebacha. -

"In the history of Fort Smith, there has never been an acclamation that I can remember," he said of the riding.

Miltenberger noted that trend goes back nine elections covering 36 years to the days when MLAs were appointed.

"We're gearing up and planning to run in an election," he said.

As for possible challengers, there have been some names floating around the community, but no one has yet official announced.

Fort Smith Mayor Janie Hobart said there are all kinds of rumours about who might run against Miltenberger, who has represented Thebacha for 16 years.

However, she described some of the rumoured candidates as "big ifs."

As for possibly becoming premier, Miltenberger - the deputy premier, house leader, and minister of finance, environment and natural resources, and health and social services - said his first priority is to get a mandate from the people of Thebacha.

"If I get elected, then we will make the case with my colleagues that are elected about who's best suited to be on cabinet," he said.

Miltenberger sought the premiership four years ago.

"My interest hasn't diminished since the last time I ran," said the 10-year cabinet member.

Hobart carefully phrased her answer when asked what Fort Smith thinks about its MLA possibly becoming premier.

"Any time you get your MLA to be either premier or within the cabinet, that's usually a good thing," she said.

"So that's one of the considerations I'm sure people will be looking at when they cast their ballots."

As for major issues in the coming vote, Miltenberger offers a mix of territorial and local concerns, beginning with the devolution agreement in principle.

"Starting this process is the single biggest decision since division in 1999," he said.

"There's been nothing of its magnitude and it's absolutely critical to the future development of the Northwest Territories as we talk about land, water and resource development, and ourselves as an evolving political jurisdiction and needing to have control over those critical areas."

The MLA also mentions water negotiations through the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Agreement with Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. and Yukon.

"They're singularly critical negotiations to ensure our protection and arrangements with those jurisdictions in terms of protecting the water, since we are probably in the Mackenzie River basin the ultimate downstream jurisdiction," he said.

While noting that devolution and water are of direct interest and benefit to Fort Smith, there are also some more local issues, including ongoing renovations to the hospital, a proposed women's jail and a planned fire centre.

For Hobart, one of the biggest issues is government support for community governments.

"There have been a number of programs and legal requirements that have been downloaded to the municipalities, but there aren't the resources that go along with this," she said.

Those regulations cover a variety of things, such as water, sewage and landfills.

"The regulations have been put in place, but there hasn't often been money to assist with ensuring that the regulations are complied with," she said, adding she would like a commitment from the territorial government to look at that issue since it establishes many of the regulations.

"We're not saying that the government should pay for everything, but with these new regulations and making it more difficult, it's straining the resources of the community," she said.

There is also the ever-present issue of chipsealing all of Highway 5.

Miltenberger said about half of the 100-km gravel section of the road will be chipsealed this year.

"It's been on everybody's list for years, so now we are going to get another big chunk of it done," he said. "We still have to get the federal government to the table."

It is hoped the federal government will honour its commitments, and offer some money to finish the job, since the highway runs through Wood Buffalo National Park, he said, noting the feds have provided operation and maintenance money, but nothing on the capital side.

Any chipsealing of the road has been been paid for by the GNWT.

Hobart said people are pleased with the new chipsealing, but want the entire distance completed.

"Economically we feel that this would be a real boon to our community," she said, adding it would help attract new residents and tourists.

Of course like in any electoral district, there are probably as many issues as people in Thebacha.

For example, Sonny MacDonald, who is famed for his aboriginal art, would like to see more GNWT support for artists.

The former chair of the NWT Arts Council noted the territorial government is focusing on tourism, but that requires an investment into artists.

"It goes hand in hand," he said, noting the Yukon is spending much more on the arts than the NWT.

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