The 19th assembly stumbles & fumbles into 2020
The territorial government has failed another competency test — its second major blunder in its short life — as it fumbled a high-profile personnel matter on a key file.
Or should I say continues to stumble over, as of this writing, the very messy firing of Aurora College president Tom Weegar is still being hotly debated in the media and in the halls of the NWT Legislative Assembly.
Weegar was hired in February 2019 out of Ontario to lead the college’s transformation into a polytechnic university. The project is seen as a major step in the territory’s quest to both lure students to a centre of education excellence here and also to train our young people for jobs that are needed in our economy.
The GNWT boasts it “… will be creating a new kind of institution that will better meet the needs of NWT residents, employers and communities. A polytechnic university, building on our existing college, is the most efficient, effective and practical path towards providing more post-secondary education and training opportunities in the north, for northerners.”
I fully support this project. I also understand critics who believe it is a misuse of public funds, as the junior kindergarten to Grade 12 education system is in dire need of help. The latter is especially true in smaller communities, where truancy, poor grades and low graduation rates are serious issues. In the capital, we have high school grads who have been provided with a bare-bones education that hasn’t prepared them for post-secondary studies.
But I don’t think the creation of a decent post-secondary institution will do anything but help put a sharper focus on the importance of learning throughout the entire system. A polytechnic university would build a skilled labour force, attract international students and teachers and attract research money. Yellowknife could benefit from new student housing and the economic impact of an increased population.
That’s if the transformation process can survive the clown show now being staged by some members of the NWT’s executive council.
Weegar’s abrupt dismissal at the end of January and the ensuing explanations, counter-spin and allegations — oh, and of course, blaming the media — have provided all with a lesson in how to craft a communications nightmare. I’m not going to debate the merits of turfing Weegar, who was hired in February 2019 after nationwide search.
I do find it rather odd that his replacement — Andy Bevan, formerly assistant deputy minister of labour and income security — was found in short order and without relocation costs. It’s also passing strange that Cochrane, as education minister, showered mighty praise on Weegar just one year ago. Us taxpayers are also on the hook for one year of Weegar’s salary which he will receive as severance (after just 10 months actual time on the job).
Nope, I’ll trust Cochrane, now as premier, had good reason to make the move. What I do take excepting to is the complete failure of the GNWT’s internal and external communications. This failure made the government look rather inept. It also did nothing to help the morale of students and staff at the college.
As CBC North noted: Education Minister R.J. Simpson “told three different versions of the story over three days.”
The first rule of political comms is pretty simple: Don’t lie. Sure, you can selectively withhold certain facts and put the best spin on the rest. But once you are caught in a lie, the coverup becomes worse than the crime, so to speak. And even an innocent mistake can take on a sinister appearance if it isn’t admitted to and fully owned as quickly as possible.
At first, Simpson told Cabin Radio that Weegar left his position last week to “pursue other opportunities.” But hours later, the rookie minister from Hay River admitted Weegar had been fired.
On top of that, Weegar told CBC News he was caught completely off guard by the dismissal.
Here’s a timeline of events, as compiled from various media reports:
- In early February, CBC News obtained an email between Weegar and Martin Goldney, the secretary to cabinet and deputy minister of executive and Indigenous Affairs, asking for Weegar to write a departure email to all faculty and staff at Aurora College. The email suggests Weegar stepped away from the position.
- On Feb. 5, Simpson told Cabin Radio that Weegar left to “pursue other opportunities.”
- On Feb. 6, Simpson flip-flopped and in a media scrum told reporters: “Stories change and it came out that it was termination.” The minister also said he wasn’t aware of the circumstances of Weegar’s dismissal: ”I wasn’t sitting in those conversations so I didn’t know if it was an outright firing. I didn’t know if maybe both parties said to each other, ‘you know what, I think it is time to go our separate ways.'” That scrum was cut short by a cabinet communications officer.
- On Feb. 7, both Cochrane and Simpson tried to squish all that messy Weegar toothpaste back into the tube by calling the whole thing a human resources matter that shouldn’t be openly discussed. Simpson blamed media reports for the confusion. In the legislative assembly Simpson said he recommended to Cochrane that Weegar be fired. However Weegar then told media the confusion was the result of “a number of mistruths that have been spoken and the minister was caught on them.”
This comms botch-job closely followed another head-scratcher involving the broken child welfare system.
In mid-January, Tammy Roberts, executive director of the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, told media foster-care parents and adoption caregivers are “exhausted and unsupported” by a child services system that’s failing children.
The GNWT had just claimed progress following a severely critical 2018 federal Auditor General report. But Roberts was having none of it and stories from foster parents were offered as evidence.
On Dec. 12, over a dozen foster parents and adoptive caregivers met with representatives from Health and Social Services and members of Yellowknife’s health authority. Roberts sent a 27-page summary of the meeting, along with a host of recommendations, to newly appointed Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom.
“This is our modern day residential school crisis,” Roberts tells Thom, in a letter accompanying the Dec. 12 meeting summary.
The minister responded to Roberts in a letter with the usual bureaucratic boilerplate bullcrap: “We want to continue to work closely with Indigenous governments and organizations, our frontline staff and those accessing our services. Their feedback, as well as reviewing quantitative data, on a regular basis will show if we are on the right track, or if we need to add new or adjust existing action items.”
Foster caregivers weren’t impressed with that wilted word salad. It prompted many to crash Premier Cochrane’s constituency meeting on Jan. 27.
In media reports, one caregiver there characterized the last government as an “old boy’s club,” where complaints and requests for meetings often fell on deaf ears.
A former social worker and member of the Metis community, Cochrane was CEO of the Centre for Northern Families, a social service agency administered by the Yellowknife Women’s Society. One would expect she could realize some proper fixes for the child welfare system.
And she probably can. If given a fair chance by the bureaucracy, which needs to holster its ‘action items’ and ease up on ‘reviewing quantitative data.’ Nobody believes that bunk.
During last year’s election, it was repeatedly stated that it was imperative to have more women in government. The electorate responded and sent a record number of women to the 19th Legislative Assembly.
In fact, with nine of 19 MLAs being female, it made the NWT the jurisdiction with the highest proportion of women lawmakers in the country. The old boys club has been banished. This group of lawmakers hold great promise. I am looking forward to seeing what it can do; how it can be so very different from assemblies past. However, has the bureaucracy and other political staff received that things-have-changed memo?
The majority of children under the GNWT’s care are Indigenous. The disproportionate representation is rooted in the enduring impacts of colonialism, inter-generational trauma and the residential school system.
Each day in the Yellowknife courthouse, stories are told of how a child’s troubled upbringing — which has undoubtedly involved contact with the social services department and the foster care system — has contributed to them being charged with various crimes as an older youth or an adult.
It’s often heard that school became an afterthought once a child in a troubled house hit their teens. Most of the pre-sentence reports I hear in court each week detail how the child welfare system failed them. Or how they never finished high school. Or both.
Health, education and social services are some of the toughest areas for any government to get a handle on. Nobody expects miracles.
But while we wait to see what cures this new assembly can develop, scandals sparked by poor internal and external communications just shouldn’t be happening.
They are the unforced errors of the political world. They do nothing to help the new government build trust and confidence with the people who elected it.