Our government (in)action
So, I was browsing Hansard.
Yup, that’s what now counts as amusement for me up here in No-Covid Coronaland.
Why are we still largely under lockdown? It’s really getting silly as we have had five cases — who all recovered months ago — and no community spread. People can’t come here from outside our borders without quarantining for 14 days — essential workers exempted — and that policy seems to be working.
But we are still under arbitrary controls on our lives that really do appear to be meant for jurisdictions in the rest of Canada with active cases and community spread.
So I was encouraged to see hundreds of people this week ignoring the Emerging Wisely Phase One measure (we get to Phase Two on Friday, hopefully) that only permits “outdoor get-togethers of 25 or less.” And that only if a physical distance of two metres can be maintained, appropriate hand-washing or sanitizing can occur and that travel happens by household group.
I agree with “politico, former MLA for Kam Lake and proud Northerner” Kieron Testart who tweeted on Tuesday: “Fuck COVID, we’re here for justice!” before joining an anti-racism rally and march from the Multiplex through downtown Yellowknife.
It’s time for people to live their lives following common sense and using their own risk assessments. If you’re sick, see a doctor. If you’re old or infirm, protect yourself and encourage people around you to do the same.
But on to the topic of the day.
What I found in the pages of Hansard was rather shocking. While jokes about politicians’ ineptness at all levels are commonplace at the best of times, as we continue to live in lockdown — with our economy in tatters, our kids’ education failing, and our general work ethic lagging — some of the pols’ answers to pretty simple questions left me not at all amused.
During question period in the NWT Legislative Assembly on June 4, Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly asked Premier Caroline Cochrane about the potential to ease travel restrictions between the NWT and the neighbouring territories of Nunavut and Yukon. He was steamed over the fact he only learned about the government’s plans through the media.
Fair enough. And an answer should have come easy to the premier: make an apology; promise to communicate better with the regular MLAs; and explain the development of the new travel policy. (A week later, she also managed to confuse everyone even more about our border policy.)
Please take the time to slowly read Cochrane’s response to O’Reilly’s question. Savour each morsel of the veteran politician’s word salad:
“There were negotiations going on. There weren’t negotiations; there were talks going on. That is the problem with having different tables. I was talking. I brought it forth to the premiers at our northern premier meeting. In reality, I hadn’t yet spoken to our chief public health officer. The chief public health officer has the whole authority over the borders. I’m clear with that; it can’t be fettered. I thought we’d start this discussion just by bringing to the premiers, and then I would bring it to the chief public health officer. At the same time, though, unknown to me, the chief public health officers were also meeting with the three territories because someone else, I guess, had put it in their head. The decisions had been made through the chief public health officers, but in honesty, premiers have just found out today. I just found out, as well. My staff are working on an emergency call with the northern premiers right now to discuss it.”
Apparently realizing he had embarrassed his idealogical ally Cochrane, after she gave her minute-long baffling non sequitur, O’Reilly actually apologized because he “had to put the premier on the hot spot” with his question.
Want more? Sure, I have plenty…
During that same question period, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler — a promising rookie politician, who has spent her life as a registered nurse — asked Health Minister Dian Thom: “In the Emerging Wisely document, there will only be a return to normalcy and lifting of all restrictions once there is a vaccine developed and sufficient people have been vaccinated. What will this government do if there is no vaccine developed in the next 12 to 18 months or the development of an effective vaccine or if they can’t find one?”
Here’s what Thom had to say in response:
“Right now, the office of the Chief Public Health Officer and the department and the government are focussed on prepping for the second wave, which we’re expecting to happen possibly this fall. With that and in the upcoming cold and flu season, it is probably premature for me to speculate as what we as a government may or may not do in the event of there being no vaccine until we get to the upcoming seven to eight months
“Though there’s nothing official going on, I would be not naive to say that there are not internal discussions going on within government departments and external organizations and governments on what should be done in the event the development of a vaccine is delayed or exclude research.
“We all hope that the development of an effective vaccine is successful within a reasonable timeframe. The federal Chief Public Health Officer has now stated that a vaccine may be two years from now.
“It’s obvious if we can’t develop an effective vaccine, that with the advice of the Chief Public Health Officer and noting how other jurisdictions are easing restrictions, we’re going to have to come up with a plan for the Northwest Territories.”
OK, after decoding the sequence of double negatives — as a former negotiator for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, I would imagine Thom would be able to express better — I am left with the impression that there could be some people talking about maybe planning for our existence in the NWT if it takes a long time for a vaccine to be developed and rolled out.
Okay … I guess.
But what’s with the comment about fear of the cold and flu season? What does that have to do with COVID-19? Apart from maybe placing added strain on the health-care system. If we were to get a wave of COVID-19 that would require hospitalizations. But we have no cases. Have only had five in total and they have all long since recovered.
Forget about the NWT being in a COVID-free bubble right now; it sounds as if the GNWT wants to bubble-wrap the entire territory forever and a day.
Why has the world ground to a halt over the current coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, when a vaccine was never developed for the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003? That outbreak was controlled largely by interrupting all human-to-human transmission. By quarantining the sick people. Not forcing healthy folks to shelter in place and for the economy to be closed.
Sure, I know that is a very simplistic explanation. It’s clear the current virus spreads easier — and I know we have a lot of people up here with chronic health problems that could make them more susceptible to complications if they contract COVID-19— but when does the cure start to be worse than the disease?
I would really enjoy being comfortable with giving Thom a break. I’ve been critical of her work in past blogs. And the rookie Inuvik Boot Lake MLA did start her job as health minister just months before the global pandemic hit. In fact, in the ideal world, this new government filled with rookies would have had a long time to get their feet underneath them and really start to get a grip on their responsibilities.
But rarely is the world ideal. Running for elected office takes guts and then actually doing the work takes even more courage and smarts. You can’t just rubber stamp advice from the bureaucracy. You need to weigh everything placed in front of you and come to a decision that is best for the territory as a whole.
So far since last fall’s election, I’ve heard some very promising words from the MLAs and cabinet ministers. But their actions have been less than encouraging.
MMIWG FINAL REPORT: MORE TALK THAN ACTION ONE YEAR LATER
To date, the GNWT remains the only jurisdiction in Canada that has prepared a response to the final report of the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, released one year ago last week. But that’s about all it has done. No substantive changes to policies, procedures or laws.
Meanwhile, the Trudeau government was blasted last week by prominent Indigenous groups for its lack of a national action plan.
In the NWT Legislative Assembly last week, Status of Women Minister Diane Thom — yup, she’s also the health minister, all NWT ministers have very full plates, which is part of the larger problem — acknowledged the one-year anniversary of the release of the final report. She said, in part:
“The Government of the Northwest Territories prepared an initial response to the calls for justice entitled Doing Our Part. While the GNWT did not respond to specific calls for justice in Doing Our Part, we did provide a list of thematic sections related to each of the calls for justice, highlighting the work we are already doing or can build upon. We also set out a number of high-level questions that will need to be considered more fully by our government.”
Wow, all that work in a year. C’mon, even by government standards, that’s pathetic.
In a member’s statement, MLA Semmler recalled she was in Gatineau, Quebec in 2019 as the MMIWG report was presented to the prime minister. She continued:
“Last week, we learned that the federal action plan in response to this Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls final report has been delayed, Minister Bennet citing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While I can certainly appreciate that we’ve all been busy dealing with this pandemic, I must say I was terribly disappointed. I was insulted to hear the news of this delay for a national action plan and using COVID-19 as an excuse.
“I fully expect and encourage this government not to wait and to develop our own action plan and lead the way and make this a reality. As I mentioned, we cannot afford to wait any longer, have any more blood on our hands, lose any more loved ones, violence in our homes and our communities, silence of the issues of our Indigenous women and girls and 2SLGBTQQIA faith at the rate higher than anyone else in Canada that will continue as a result of not implementing the calls for justice. I will keep this issue at the forefront for everyone, in everyone’s mind, and I will have questions for the Minister responsible for the Status of Women.“
And later that day, she did indeed engage Thom.
SEMMLER: “Whenever I talk about the missing and murdered Indigenous women, I remember the stories. I see their faces. It’s never going to leave me. I would like to ask the Minister responsible for Status of Women what the federal delay in development of a national action plan to address the calls for justice outlined in the MMIWG final report means for the NWT in terms of development of our own action plan?“
THOM: “I want to be fair to the federal government and acknowledge that the work has been happening, but there are times like this through the COVID-19 where events have not been able to take attention to or have been slowed.”
“This does not, however, prevent us from continuing our own work in the Northwest Territories and advance the calls for justice. We have been working internally on identifying further actions we require, and we’ll continue to implement them and engage with Indigenous governments, communities, and others as appropriate.”
SEMMLER: “I hear what the minister says, and I disagree. With COVID, how many deaths have we had with COVID? We’ve had way more deaths with Indigenous women and girls, and it hasn’t been taken as seriously. Will the minister commit to developing an NWT action plan to address these calls for justice without waiting for this federal action plan?”
Thom’s answer contained a buffet of buzzwords and phrases, including “commit to moving actions forward,” “requires collaboration,” “an interdepartmental working group,” “continue our focus on making this change,”
Semmler then asked if the GNWT “has a working group now with the Aboriginal groups, and who are they collaborating with outside the government right now on this plan?” Thom answered by listing the members of the interdepartmental working group.
SEMMLER: “My question was: who outside the government have we been collaborating with? I guess I’m not going to get an answer to that because I want to ask if the minister can tell us if we can expect some type of plan presented in this House and we can begin to implement these justices to the 231 calls for justice?”
THOM: “I appreciate the member wants to hold this government accountable for taking meaningful action with this. Urgency is required. I will commit to providing more regular reports to the member, and offer the same to the committee. I agree that we need to continue to focus on this work and make sure we’re moving forwards with some actions.”
So yeah, nothing is going to happen very soon. And that’s just not right. I’ve read the MMIWG final report and while some of its 231 individual Calls for Justice might be seen as being too sweeping and likely unworkable, the great majority are actually common-sense changes that would really help protect women and girls.
Given we have the self-proclaimed feminist Trudeau and his Liberals in office federally — and a self-proclaimed progressive premier in the NWT, leading a gender-balanced Assembly, who was status of women minister with the last Assembly — if changes can’t be made easily now, they might never be seen.
Indigenous women and girls continue to face barriers to justice and struggle daily with a host of other social hurdles — inadequate housing, poverty and food insecurity — to having safe and secure lives that many other people take for granted.
I hear their stories all the time in the Yellowknife courthouse.
Yes, this is something that really bugs me. Yes, in the big picture, it’s small stuff. But for the umpteenth time:
The provincial and territorial electoral districts in Canada are called constituencies. People elected are called an MLA, or MNA (Quebec), MHA (Newfoundland and Labrador) or MPP (Ontario).
The federal electoral districts in each province and territory are called ridings. People elected are called an MP. We only have one MP in the riding of the Northwest Territories.
So why, then, do some politicians and some media (hello, CBC), continue to use the wrong term? It’s as if the term constituency simply doesn’t exist for some people.
Want an example?
Again, from my favourite online read, Hansard:
As Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn started a statement thanking Indigenous chiefs and frontline staff for their work during the pandemic lockdown:
MR. NORN: “Marsi cho, Mr. Speaker. For my Member’s statement today, I would like to take the time here to thank all my constituents in my riding, in Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh.”
Now, I’m not singling out Norn here — he is a rookie MLA and English is his second language — as several other MLAs have started using the wrong term. And really, there are many more pressing issues for me to fixate on.