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Premier Bob McLeod's quest to bring prosperity to Northwest Territories

Premier Bob McLeod in the Northwest Territories legislature, Yellowknife.

The story of a premier is, at heart, the story of the place behind the person - in this case, a place about which most Canadians know relatively little.

So, though this is the story of Bob McLeod and the challenges this NAIT business grad (Management '74) faces as the new premier of Northwest Territories, we'll leave him for now to his work in the legislature, a modern building of glass and zinc situated in Capital Park, a wilderness of rock and stunted trees a short walk from downtown Yellowknife.

Northwest Territories is among the last of Canada's frontier lands. During his election campaign McLeod himself referred to it as a "pioneering region."

Fewer than 44,000 people (more than half of them aboriginal) live in an area large enough to bring the population density to almost nobody per square kilometre, a number that has virtually flat-lined in recent years.

That leaves a lot of land open for bear, and the marten, lynx, wolverine and wolves that continue to support a strong fur trade. And, to risk romanticizing the territory further, this is a place where night skies, unpolluted by urban ambient light, undulate with aurora borealis - at least when not lit by the midnight summer sun.

But it's also a place that asks much of its inhabitants. Approaching solstice, there's little daylight to relieve winter blues: in Yellowknife, the sun rises after 9 a.m. and sets by 4 p.m. after spending the day just above the horizon.

Daily average temperatures sit below zero seven months a year. In a cold snap, serious parkas are de rigueur: so many Yellowknifers are enveloped in pricey Canada Goose jackets you'd think they were only here on a sponsored expedition.

There's more to contend with, of course, than a few months lacking in creature comforts. While Yellowknife is often identified as having the nation's highest household income, the stat tends to be divorced from the territory's high cost of living. The unemployment rate can be equally deceiving, more or less on par with the country as a whole, but often climbing well into the double digits outside Yellowknife.

On top of this, the territory's borrowing capacity is nearly maxed out.

But the most important issue to address - the one all others may hinge upon - is control over its own destiny. Currently, Northwest Territories is one of just two Canadian jurisdictions (the other being Nunavut) to have no authority over its natural resources - and so no access to a revenue stream that might begin to address much of what ails the region.

For now, that remains with the federal government, likely leaving the territory economically and socially hamstrung until decision-making power is passed down - devolved - to McLeod's government. Elected this October, the born-and-raised northerner is positioned, thanks to an agreement recently signed with Ottawa, as the premier to deliver Northwest Territories into true prosperity and independence by finally laying claim to its own backyard.

Even if he's successful, he'll still face one of the most challenging premierships in Canada, a prospect he shrugs off. "If you want to make things happen," says McLeod, "you go for the top job."

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, with the legislature in the foregroundWhich takes us back to the premier's office, an environment so new to him it still lacks a personal touch, his pictures and such still packed in boxes. "People were asking me, 'Weren't you planning to stay awhile?'" says McLeod with a laugh.

What is there - a shelf full of aboriginal carvings, moccasins and other gifts to government from communities in the territory - aligns nicely with McLeod's own background as a northerner.

His mother was Métis from Manitoba, his father a clerk with the Hudson's Bay Company, following a tradition that started with his great-great-grandfather, a Scot who arrived in the area in 1869.

He calls Fort Providence, a mostly aboriginal community about 300 kilometres southwest of the capital, "an ideal place to grow up" even if "conditions were tough. There was no power, no running water, no roads. Most people just had dog teams.

"You had to work hard to be independent."

McLeod learned how to do that at an unusually early age. Stricken with tuberculosis at four years old, he spent the next 18 months in a Fort Simpson hospital, more than 300 kilometres from home, watched over by friends in the area. But even in healthier times, McLeod, like his seven siblings, enjoyed escaping the house and discovering the world for himself.

"We were adventurers. Six or seven of us would jump in my dad's boat and take our fishing rods and guns and disappear all day. We'd do that all summer," says McLeod, now exiting his 50s.

Politics wasn't exactly a calling he pursued. After high school, McLeod, once a talented hockey player, tried for a spot with the St. Catharine's Black Hawks of the Ontario Hockey Association. He didn't make it, and came home without much idea of what to do next.

"I was hanging around town, having a good time. After two weeks my dad asked me what my plans were."

He took the cue, taking a job in the oil industry in Fox Creek, Alberta, to save money for school, first the diploma from NAIT - "That was where I learned how to put it all together, to understand what you had to do to be successful" - then a commerce degree from the University of Alberta. A few years later, he ended up back in the territory, in Norman Wells in the Mackenzie Valley, working for Imperial Oil.

There, the federal government took notice of him and offered him a job in Yellowknife. He took it, happy to get back to playing hockey, and began a relatively rapid progression through finance then management positions that took advantage of his expertise in industry and resources, as well as his ability to develop vital relationships with communities across the territory.

In 2007, he parlayed that experience into public office, elected to the riding of Yellowknife South, and acclaimed in 2011, with the members of the legislative assembly voting him in as premier that year.

Landing the top job hasn't changed his approach to politics. McLeod sees progress as rooted in communication, especially when dealing with aboriginals, by right the largest landowners in the region.

"We have to listen to them," says the premier. "We've got to talk. I think at the end of the day everybody wants to work in the best interests of the Northwest Territories and their own people."

In session in Northwest Territories' circular legislatureThat also applies to leading a consensus-based government in which there are no political parties. Members are elected as independents - outside McLeod's cabinet, allegiances form and dissolve according to issue.

Debate is orderly and thorough, almost genteel, making Ottawa's Parliament Hill look like a parody of democracy, raucous and medieval.

Fundamental to McLeod's job is the ability to unite the house. He takes a measured approach, listening, taking notes, and seems invariably mild-mannered.

"Don't let that fool you," says Michael Miltenberger, McLeod's minister of finance, minister of environment and natural resources, and minister responsible for the Northwest Territories Power Corporation.

Miltenberger, in his fifth consecutive term as a member of the legislative assembly, knows McLeod as "a good Metís boy from Fort Providence." They attended high school together, where the minister was impressed by McLeod's skills as a hockey player. More recently, he knows him as another kind of competitor: he ran against him for the premiership. "If it couldn't be me, I was very glad it was him," he says.

"Politics, even with a consensus government, can be rough-and-tumble, full contact," the minister adds. "In this legislature, if I was going to go down a dark alley with somebody, he'd be my first choice. I know he'd be at my back."

One afternoon during the December session, Wendy Bisaro doesn't appear to feel the same way.

Up in the gallery, more than a dozen community activists and members of the local anti-poverty coalition watch as Bisaro, member for Frame Lake, stands and shares her thoughts on the government not involving them in drafting a strategy to reduce poverty in the territory - an enormous challenge in a place where unemployment is exacerbated by a cost of living tied to high transportation costs.

"We will not succeed if it is developed in isolation by government alone," she tells the house.

When she later has the chance to question the premier on the matter, he explains that they have consulted extensively, and involved focus groups across the territory; this will inform the strategy, which will be shared when finished, and no sooner.

But taking that to mean no public input into the actual crafting of the policy, Bisaro is disappointed.

"I'm also totally dismayed that we are going to have a draft strategy produced by a working group of bureaucrats."

She insists that the process has to involve the community, the poor, non-profit groups, even business. She almost pleads with the premier for their inclusion. "Is there an opportunity for all those people to also have input into this strategy?"

He doesn't budge.

McLeod knows the challenge of maintaining momentum in a consensus government. He needs to convince members outside his cabinet that he's the guy they want at their backs. But he also appreciates the potential disadvantage of the system - "they outnumber us," he says of the members across the floor.

At the same time, he knows any victory they achieve is arguably more democratic than those of a ruling party: here, progress demands the members, each representing distinct concerns, be unified.

Diamonds could be a major source of revenue for Northwest Territories.Sonny blake's riding of Mackenzie Delta, the far northwest corner of the territorial mainland, exemplifies the more extreme challenges of living in the territory.

Before being elected to this (his first) term, the fresh-faced 35-year-old served as chief and mayor of Tsiigehtchic, a community of less than 130.

His priorities: a nurse for one of his constituency's communities, and a long-term care facility if he can manage it.

Employment sits somewhere around 35 per cent in the area, but that doesn't count fur trappers. Local costs make heading hundreds of kilometres south to shop in Whitehorse and Edmonton sensible excursions.

"We have to make the cost of living in the territory equal at all levels," says Blake.

He believes there's enough potential in his region to make this a reality - with the support of the right leader. When Blake was mayor and chief, McLeod's attentiveness to his community impressed him, and convinced him of the premier's ability to work with other aboriginal groups to create a unified vision for the future of Northwest Territories. "I consider him a role model," says Blake.

As well, if McLeod could succeed in initiating the long-delayed Mackenzie Valley gas project, Blake's region would be at the epicenter of an industry that would send 800 million cubic feet of natural gas per day south along a 1,200-kilometre pipeline.

Job creation could be unprecedented. And if authority over resources were handed over from the federal government, royalties would follow to support local projects.

Devolution, then, would be a historic event.

According to Miltenberger, it would bring Northwest Territories "as close as we're going to [get] to being full members of confederation."

Thanks to an agreement in principle signed in January 2011 to work with the federal government on the issue, combined with McLeod's experience in negotiating the transfer of control over forestry and firefighting to the territory in the late 1980s, he may finally be the premier to make that happen.

"My whole reason for getting into politics is that, born and raised up here, I felt that I could make a difference," says McLeod. Devolution is a key part of that. "I wanted to see certain things happen so that the north will continue to be a great place to live, work and invest in."

He's a firm believer "that's the best way to improve your social indicators."

Overall, McLeod, just a few months into his new role, seems confident - despite emerging challenges. Amongst the biggest is a recent lawsuit brought by the Gwich'in Tribal Council against the Northwest Territories and federal governments for a lack of consultation leading up to that agreement in principle, a claim McLeod contests.

In his favour, however, are ongoing devolution negotiations with the prime minister and a faith in the skills and commitment of his cabinet and the other members. "I think my colleagues want to find solutions," he says.

Compared to the provinces, Northwest Territories is a place in dire need of solutions. Though his options remain limited, McLeod isn't showing the strain, perhaps because he sees time as being on his side. "I've still got four years left - at least."

And he has the personal motivation. Northwest Territories is home for him and his wife, and his son and two grandkids who just live up the street. "I don't think I'll ever leave," says McLeod. Stemming from those childhood excursions into the backcountry, maybe he knows the place too well to detach from it, and too well to lose optimism.

As a younger man, McLeod ventured much further afield in his exploring. As a reward for those early successes in devolution negotiations with the federal government, he was given a scholarship of sorts to travel the world and meet dignitaries to discuss issues they faced. His goal was to see what could be learned for Canada, but the year-long exercise produced personal realizations he carries with him today.

"Whatever the problem, there's always different ways to approach it," says McLeod. "However desperate the situation, there's always hope."