For the love of the North

While many are seduced by the big city lights, it was northern lights that called to J. Michael Miltenberger (BASc '75).

Since graduating from the University of Lethbridge in 1975, he has used his political positions to protect the unique people and environment of the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.).

Born in Ottawa but raised in various communities in the N.W.T., Miltenberger served with the Third Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry before deciding to further his education at the University of Lethbridge.

It was a life-changing decision. Not only did he earn a BA (sociology) that paved the way for a career in human services, but he met Jeri, his wife of 37 years, with whom he's raised their daughter Michaela, who now attends the U of L.

Michael Miltenberger
J. Michael Miltenberger was honoured as the U of L's 2011 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year at Fall Convocation in October.

After studying at the U of L, Miltenberger pursued graduate studies at the University of Alberta. "Neither of us liked big-city life in Edmonton, so we bought an old truck, packed up our stuff and headed north to live a simpler life for a while," he says.

The family settled in Fort Smith, N.W.T. – a primarily Aboriginal community of 2,400 people – where Miltenberger built the family's timber-framed house. After a few years as a carpenter, he put his U of L degree to good use while working for the Department of Health and Social Services.

Miltenberger didn't begin his career with political ambitions. But after serving on town council, he was inspired to run for mayor, even though it meant a 50 per cent pay cut.

"The work interested me: the ability to enact laws and help the community develop," he says. In 1987 he completed his first term as mayor. He returned to the Department of Health and Social Services as regional superintendent shortly after that.

In 1995, he ran for MLA – and won – and has represented Fort Smith ever since. Presently, Miltenberger serves in cabinet as deputy premier, government house leader, minister of finance, minister of health and social services and minister of environment and natural resources.

"I've worked hard to make sure the community is well-served by the territorial government," says Miltenberger. He's also a passionate environmental advocate, working to protect at-risk species and water systems.

On the border between the N.W.T. and Alberta, Fort Smith is situated in the middle of the boreal forest and adjacent to the Slave River, best known for its powerful rapids that occasionally attract contentious hydroelectric dam proposals.

As minister of environment and natural resources, Miltenberger has worked closely with Aboriginal communities and other stakeholders to establish a water stewardship strategy for the N.W.T. and has been a significant figure on the international water-policy stage. Earlier this year, he was one of five Canadians on an expert panel at the Seventh Annual Rosenberg Water Policy Forum in Argentina where he delivered a paper on traditional knowledge and water-policy development in the N.W.T.

Water and other environmental issues, negotiating a final devolution agreement with Canada, an upcoming Canada-wide review of health care and a project to implement fibre-optic capability all contributed to Miltenberger's decision to run for office one last time. On Oct. 3, Miltenberger was elected to a fifth term.

"I'm grateful for the continued support of the constituency," says Miltenberger, reflecting on his re-election in an area renowned for its political toughness. "I look forward to spending the next four years working on the issues I'm passionate about. After that, I can pass the torch."

This story first appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of SAM. If you'd like to read the entire issue of SAM in a flipbook format, follow this link.