North·Riding Profile

Frame Lake candidates offering choice on future of N.W.T. economy

Former industry minister Dave Ramsay hand-picked this riding for his clear contrast with Kevin O’Reilly, who believes in diversifying the economy away from resources.

Former industry minister Dave Ramsay hand-picked riding for his clear contrast with incumbent Kevin O’Reilly

Dave Ramsay and Kevin O'Reilly are going head-to-head in Yellowknife's Frame Lake riding, where both are campaigning on a vision for the future of the territorial economy. (John Last/CBC)

If turnout is like it was in 2015, you can expect just a few hundred voters to choose the next MLA in Yellowknife's Frame Lake.

But the result in this riding could decide a lot about the priorities of the 19th Assembly.

The race between incumbent Kevin O'Reilly and former cabinet minister Dave Ramsay is positioned to become a referendum on the future direction of the territorial economy.

On one side is Ramsay, a former three-term MLA and industry minister with deep connections to the territory's mining and contracting industry.

On the other is O'Reilly, a meticulously prepared first-term MLA and cabinet critic with a long history of environmental activism.

"Most people have already made up their minds," said Ramsay.

Ramsay is hoping 2019 can be a reversal of his unexpected exit from politics four years ago. Despite spending more than $20,000 on his campaign — the most of any candidate — he lost his Kam Lake seat to Kieron Testart by 80 votes.

Far from being discouraged, he said the loss made him "arguably, a stronger candidate."

When asked whether Kam Lake voters got it wrong in the 2015 election, Ramsay said, "Maybe ... but it's the way it works."

"I see things much clearer now than I did four years ago, that's for sure." 

Now, he's hand-picked the Frame Lake riding for his return to politics — and, he hopes, to his old job.

"I just felt Kevin's views on things and my views on things are much different," he said, "and I wanted to give people a choice."

"He says he's a balanced candidate," said O'Reilly. "So am I."

Ramsay staples a campaign sign to a fence across from Kevin O'Reilly's Frame Lake residence. Ramsay lives in the Yellowknife North riding, but chose to run in Frame Lake for his clear contrast with O'Reilly. (John Last/CBC)

Ramsay presents pro-mining platform

Ramsay is running on a pro-development platform that plays up his experience in the private sector as much as his time in government.

"We're not going to have the money to pay for the programs and services our residents need … unless we do more development," he said. "Any effort we can make to try and get some investment here, looking for minerals, is something we should be doing."

Since leaving politics, Ramsay has put some skin in the game — he sits on the board of Fortune Minerals, which is developing a mine project north of Whati.

While Ramsay sat on the board, the project benefited from the territory's approval of the construction of a new all-season road in the area.

Ramsay insists his time on the board does not present a barrier to him sitting as a future infrastructure or industry minister.

"I can understand some of that trepidation," he said. "I'm not in industry's pocket."

Ramsay says he's not paid by Fortune Minerals. He earns his income from a consulting company that provides advice to Indigenous contractors on working with government.

"You'd be hard pressed to find anybody that has a better relationship with [Indigenous] leaders across the Northwest Territories," he said.

But he has received hundreds of thousands of shares in the company — and even with their decline in value over the past two years, their current value is more than $60,000.

"It's probably a good thing that Fortune Minerals actually has a board member from the Northwest Territories" who understands the local business climate, he said. "That's been my role, to help them out."

Aside from mining investment, Ramsay's platform also emphasizes the need for economic diversification and clean energy infrastructure.

"You know, I've got a six-year old daughter who's an Earth Ranger, so I've got her to answer to, too."

As an MLA, O'Reilly was known for his high degree of preparation and extensive committee work — and for his frequent opposition to cabinet. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

O'Reilly advances environmental agenda

While O'Reilly is not opposed to mineral extraction, he said the the bigger priority is diversifying the economy.

"If we want to try and get ourselves out of the boom/bust cycles that the Northwest Territories has been in for decades, we've got to look at other ways," he said. "There's a lot of interest around the world in what we do here."

O'Reilly believes the development of a polytechnic university in Yellowknife will do lots to build a "knowledge economy" in the territory, which he believes can mitigate the impact of closing mines.

He also said he'll push for more investment in the tourism sector, and said retrofitting houses for green tech would "create more jobs, per dollar invested, than in the mining sector."

O'Reilly has been painted by the N.W.T. Chamber of Mines as an opponent of mineral developments and an advocate for more red tape, a characterization he rejects.

"Some of the messaging [the chamber is] putting out — that this is an area that's got too much red tape, it's taking too long to do things, we don't know what we're doing — that is scaring away investment," he said.

"If you follow the guidelines … the process is quite clear," he said. "Really, there's no obstacles, unless it's a bad place to have a mine."

But O'Reilly also told Cabin Radio that he would push for the creation of a "Climate Crisis Act … to make sure that the investments that we make into our infrastructure ... consider climate-change implications" — a bill that would be likely to increase the burden of regulation on the resource extraction industry.

Cabinet insider or cabinet critic?

Beyond the economy, voters in Frame Lake will have to choose what kind of MLA they want — a cabinet insider, or a vocal critic.

As an MLA, O'Reilly has become known for the depth of his research, his intimate knowledge of legislation, and his extensive committee work.

"I took my job very seriously," said O'Reilly. "I came prepared."

Along the way, O'Reilly has also earned a reputation as a vocal critic of cabinet, which he says is responsible for delaying legislative work on mandate commitments that came in a glut in the assembly's last year.

But even though he is running on a new, ambitious platform, if re-elected, O'Reilly says he won't be seeking a position at the decision making table.

"I'm not really all that interested in getting into cabinet, frankly," said O'Reilly. "I think I did very well holding cabinet to account. And I think that's where my strengths really lie."

For Ramsay, critics like O'Reilly are part of the reason the 18th Assembly struggled to meet its mandate.

"Kevin is thorough, and he works hard, I'll give him that," said Ramsay. "But we also have to be positive, and we have to have people who want to work together."

  • Read about the other ridings we're watching in this election
  • Here's how you can vote today in the territorial election
  • Find our latest coverage of the campaign here | NWT VOTES

Ramsay leaves no doubt that if elected on Oct. 1, he'll be looking for his old job — or even, maybe, a promotion.

"I've got a lot I bring to the table in terms of my experience," he said. "I could sit across from premiers of provinces, CEOs of big companies, the prime minister himself, it wouldn't matter. And I don't take a backseat to anybody, so if I am in cabinet, the Northwest Territories' best interests are front and centre."

About the Author

John Last

Reporter

John Last is a reporter for CBC North. Have a story idea? Send an email to john.last@cbc.ca.

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