North·In Depth

In his own words: Bob McLeod reflects on time as N.W.T. premier

McLeod spoke with CBC News for a wide-ranging exit interview, reflecting about his time in politics, some of his achievements, and where he sees the future of the Northwest Territories.

2-term premier oversaw massive infrastructure projects, but failed to turn around the N.W.T.'s economy

Bob McLeod is leaving territorial politics after 2 terms as premier. He says he's ready to take more time for himself after decades spent in politics. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

After two terms and eight years as premier of the Northwest Territories, Bob McLeod sounds like he's a man ready to buy a new RV. 

McLeod, the first person to be re-elected premier of the N.W.T in 100 years, announced his retirement from politics Friday in a one-sentence email to reporters: "I will not be running in this election, thanks."  

He made the decision a few months ago, and his short emailed statement — on the last day it was possible for candidates to file for the upcoming election — was typical for the career bureaucrat and understated politician. 

Saturday, he spoke with CBC News for a wide-ranging exit interview, reflecting about his time in politics, some of his achievements, and where he sees the future of the Northwest Territories.   

"I've been working for about 47 years, it's about time for me to move on. I'm looking at trying different things, different opportunities, start doing things I like doing," he said.     

That includes travelling with his wife, and going to watch his grandkids compete at hockey and judo.

"I'm going to focus on myself," he said. "I'm 67 and I say I'm going to enter the 'Decade of Bob,' do things that are good for me, I know there are a lot of opportunities for former premiers, but I have to cool off for a bit." 

Before his final term in the 18th Assembly, McLeod said he and other veteran MLAs ran with an eye on continuing on their work from the 17th Assembly. 

But that changed after the results of the 2015 election meant McLeod had to work with 11 rookie MLAs in the 19-member Legislative Assembly. His "old-school" style, conservative temperament and desire to stick to precedents often clashed with newer members who desired transformational changes.   

"A lot of time they felt they knew better than precedent and convention, which I never felt was in the best interest of the Legislative Assembly," he said. "The processes we have in place work very well."  

Millions spent building highways, bridges 

McLeod's time as premier included some of the most significant infrastructure projects in the territory's history: the $202-million Deh Cho bridge over the Mackenzie River, connecting Yellowknife to highways in Canada's south and the $300-million Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway. 

His government also secured funding for further development of the Mackenzie Valley all-season highway and a road through the mineral-rich Slave Geological Province, two projects which, if completed, could bring big changes to the territory. 

"I'd like to be remembered as someone who got things done," he said. 

He was also premier in 2014, when the federal government handed control over the territory's land and resources to the territorial government. 

Critics charge that his governments spent too much time and money on infrastructure, to the detriment of the environment and social programs, while never moving the needle on the territory's economy.  

"People who think the world's lining up at our doorstep to come on in, there's nobody there. You've got to go out and chase the investment down," he said.

It will be on the next government, McLeod said, to diversify the Northwest Territories economy while continuing to lure mining companies North. 

"We're certainly not going to forget where we come from," he said. "We still need to have some, or a lot, of resource development." 

Outstanding land claims hold back development 

Unlike Nunavut and Yukon, the Northwest Territories never recovered from the 2008 global recession, McLeod said, adding those two jurisdictions are more attractive to mining with their settled land claims and streamlined regulatory regimes.  

Though the Northwest Territories is now in the process of reforming its mining regulations, many of the outstanding land claims and self-government negotiations remain bogged down.

According to some Indigenous leaders and former MLAs, the territorial government is largely to blame

As premier and Indigenous Affairs Minister, finalizing the five active negotiations was McLeod's responsibility. The lack of progress, he says was not entirely the territory's fault. 

"I was optimistic, I thought we had an agreement going in [on three negotiations], but then the Aboriginal governments changed leadership. They decided to go in completely opposite directions," he said. 

Meanwhile, the Akaitcho Process is moving forward, with an agreement-in-principle expected soon and negotiations with the Métis Nation are on hold until the other negotiations are done, McLeod said. 

Now, he says it's on to the next assembly to take that on and finalize these negotiations. 

"I've played a lot of hockey, in hockey, the losers complain and blame everybody else: the refs, the ice and everything," he said. "Winners are the ones who work together to have a successful winning game. I think that's what's happening."

Sometime critic, sometime partner with Ottawa 

McLeod, who is currently Canada's longest-serving premier, took his support for industry in the Northwest Territories all the way to Ottawa. 

A key moment happened in 2017, when he issued his "red alert" accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of bringing colonialism back into Canada's North after a moratorium on Arctic oil and gas development was announced in 2016. 

"We had an immediate reaction, the next morning, people from the prime minister's office, the privy council's office were phoning us," he said. "Since then, relations have improved significantly." 

Bob McLeod donned a cowboy hat and flipped pancakes with conservative premiers at a Calgary Stampede in July. McLeod says he's been approached to run for the federal conservatives in the past. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
 

In the past year alone, the federal government has promised millions of dollars for the Northwest Territories, notably expanding the Taltson hydroelectric dam, a key part of the territory's climate change strategy but is too expensive for the territory to build alone. 

McLeod is particularly happy with Trudeau's decision to appoint Dominc Leblanc as Northern Affairs Minister in 2018, whom he called "a very good friend of the North." 

Though he's been asked in the past to run federally as a Conservative candidate, McLeod says he won't run against his brother Michael, who's seeking re-election as the Liberal MP for the Northwest Territories. 

"I won't run against Michael, he's been in politics longer than I have, he's a better politician than I am anyway," he said. 

As McLeod prepares to hand over the premiership to one of the MLAs chosen this fall, he says the territory has a bright future, despite the uncertainties on economics, climate change and land claims that might be left behind. 

Whether that's true won't be clear for years, but McLeod's left his mark on politics in the Northwest Territories.

About the Author

Alex Brockman is a CBC News reporter based in Yellowknife. He's worked in the North since 2016, covering territorial politics, Canada's military and the Sahtu region of the N.W.T. Follow him on twitter @BrockmanCBC. Have a story idea? Email him at alex.brockman@cbc.ca.

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