NOTES/QUOTES #20: Electoral reform; cop talk; and justice reform
It’s quite interesting to see others catching on to the fact that the 19th edition of the NWT Legislative Assembly is proving to be quite special in its level of dysfunction. But instead of continuing to point fingers at specific people — it’s not really their fault — I suggest it would be much better to address the real problem: this experiment with a consensus style of government isn’t working.
The NWT is only one of three jurisdictions in the country using this style of government over the traditional style incorporating political parties. The other two are Nunavut and Nunatsiavut, the latter being an autonomous area claimed by Inuit in Newfoundland and Labrador.
I think the NWT is just too large an area — in terms of physical size and with a population of 44,900 people, half of them in Yellowknife — with too many complex issues to be managed properly by a consensus style of government.
In theory, consensus government sounds just dreamy. Here’s how the GNWT describes itself:
- In our system, all members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are elected as independents.
- Members who are not in cabinet are referred to as regular members. They become the “unofficial opposition.”
- Compared to the party system, there is much more communication between regular members and cabinet.
- All legislation, major policies, and proposed budgets pass through the Regular Members’ standing committees before coming to the House.
- This gives members a chance to make changes and put their “fingerprints” on initiatives before they’re made public, unlike in other systems.
- This influence comes at a price for regular members: they often get advance notice of announcements and issues before the public does, but can’t tell their constituents.
- The 11 regular members also hold the balance of power, as only seven cabinet ministers are elected. A cabinet that ignores the direction favoured by the majority soon runs into trouble.
I’ve discovered that many former British territories with large Indigenous populations use consensus government. Similar systems exist in the Pacific island nations of Fiji, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, as well as the ancient Tynwald of the Isle of Man.
But I’ve also learned that a democracy really needs political parties. Wipe from your mind for a moment your thoughts about current leaders or issues of the day, instead take a bird’s eye view of what each political party stands for: Small government, individual responsibility, capitalism, soft nationalism, traditional values (Conservatives); big government, big labour, extensive social programming, high taxation, social justice (NDP); somewhere in the middle of the previous two, edging more towards the NDP, but with a more globalism (Liberals); addressing the “climate emergency,” a green economy devoid of fossil fuels, social justice and a dash of globalism (Greens); and Quebec’s interests first and foremost (Bloc Quebecois). Vive le Québec libre!
There are clear functions of each party and voters know what they are getting. In the non-party consensus system, as each candidate are “independents,” they all must promise everything to everyone. And in the end, nobody really gets anything.
Political parties are the bodies which gather views on various issues. They must put those through the policy grinders of each and present a platform for voters to judge.
Parties find candidates. They decide who is best for what region. They recruit women or minorities, ensuring their stable of candidates represent the party’s ideals.
In short, parties simplify democracy.
Party identification is the best predictor of how your elected representative will vote. Being branded with a party stripe shows how they will push for update policies and new laws.
You know who the leader is. You know who will be prime minister or premier.
After all, following the last NWT territorial general election, did anyone expect Caroline Cochrane would be selected as our premier? Now nothing against the Range Lake MLA, it’s clear she is passionate about her work and means well, but she has been proving lately why many people were bewildered after the MLAs voted her in. I mean, it’s fantastic the NWT has the only female premier and that she is Metis to boot! But we also need someone truly capable of leading us through what is proving to be the most challenging time in the territory’s history. (Monfwi MLA and former speaker Jackson Lafferty was my choice.)
If there were political parties in the NWT, would Cochrane have been chosen as leader of one of them leading up to the 2019 election?
There are some in the territory’s political arena who have been calling for the introduction of political parties. In fact, in March 2019 then-Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart was trying to organize some like-minded candidates run under the Liberal Democratic in the Oct. 1 territorial election.
“We believe that democracy is only as strong as its government institutions and that consensus model no longer ensures the representation of the interests of northerners,” stated a confidential draft document outlining the idea behind the party, which CBC North obtained at the time.
“I know there are some of my colleagues, in particular in the cabinet, who are very suspicious of this proposal and are very hostile to it,” he told CBC, angry that the document was leaked.
“You saw MLAs reject the idea of giving northerners an alternative. Now you see leaks, or removal of a document, for an idea that is unpopular with people in positions of power.”
By August, Testart, had dropped the idea, telling CBC he did find a group of people interested in the idea, and they had some great discussions. But he said people pushing the status quo worked against him. He was subsequently defeated on Oct. 1 by Kaitlin Cleveland, a GNWT policy analyst and owner of a small business.
NWT Chief Electoral Officer Nicole Latour told CBC the move to party politics is “a grey area” in the Elections Act. She pointed to Section 105 of the act which prohibits any candidate from signing a document that commits him or her to take certain actions if elected.
And just a few weeks ago, Latour spoke directly about electoral reform in her report on the 2019 Territorial General Election:
“The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer continues to receive electors’ concerns around accountability in the consensus style government. Media coverage is consistent with the concerns brought by the electorate.
“Additionally, many express their desire to elect the premier independently as is done with mayor and council in communities. Achieving something of this nature would likely require convening a commission with the focus of electoral reform. However ensuring a higher level of accountability may be easier to achieve.
“Therefore, the final recommendation that stems from the delivery of the 2019 Territorial General Election is that Legislators should give some consideration to, through the Elections and Plebiscites Act, providing some form of answerability to electors. True accountability may be accomplished through providing the ability for electors for an electoral district to recall their member of the Legislative Assembly for reasons such as absenteeism, in activity or misrepresentation.”
I praise Latour for speaking out on this issue. But will anyone listen? And why are people clinging to consensus government?
There has been very limited media coverage about her report at all. And what was covered didn’t mention the most stunning recommendations in her report.
And last week, the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures, chaired by Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, avoided those recommendations, while asking a lot of questions mostly on some very trivial aspects of Latour’s report.
While I’m looking at the CEO’s report, I should note her office’s work helped draw 531 more electors to the polls than the 2015 election in 2015, for a 10 per cent increase for a 54 per cent voter turnout.
Another significant first for the 2019 election — and a first for Canada — was the introduction of online balloting.
“Although only 3.7 per cent of electors who voted used the online ballot, the opportunity to engage with an online platform as a means to vote in an electoral event should likely remain a much needed solution and option for electors when delivering future electoral events in the Northwest Territories,” stated Latour in her report.
While we are leaders in some areas of governance, we still cling to a 20-year old experiment of consensus government that just isn’t working.
Over time our society, we have developed a system to protect the good people from the bad people. This thin blue line is all that keeps us from devolving into a chaotic existence with roaming gangs, warlords and everyone arming themselves with AK-47s to protect them and theirs.
Policing surely can’t be an easy job. They are called into our lives at the worst moments. They must endure people who don’t like them, don’t want to see them and generally are scared of them.
In my reporting career, I’ve spent a lot of time in police stations in western Canada and also have been out on patrol with various municipal forces and the RCMP. There are good cops There are bad cops.
I respect police and do enjoy knowing they will be there if I need them. But I admit I have white privilege. Of course, that’s a thing. It has taken me a while to grasp the concept, but I’m an intelligent and curious human being. I am willing to educate myself and I am especially keen on learning about what the world looks like through other people’s eyes.
I have no idea what it must be like to be in a situation where you don’t trust police. Of course, I have been watching the events in the United States and also have seen recent videos of encounters in Canada between Indigenous people and the police that are quite troubling.
Are there racist cops with agendas? Yup. Should they be rooted out ad fired? Of course.
Last week, the RCMP’s commanding officer in the NWT admitted racism exists in his force.
“If we have racism in our society, then there’s obviously going to be some that comes into our organization,” said Chief Supt. Jamie Zettler told media on Friday.
His comments echoed those of his boss, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki who also said last week that she believes systemic racism exists in the Mounties’ ranks.
“I do know that systemic racism is part of every institution, the RCMP included. Throughout our history and today, we have not always treated racialized and Indigenous people fairly, said Lucki, adding she has a responsibility to ensure the force is “free of racism, discrimination and bias.”
Those candid admissions were a refreshing change from the head in the sand comments we’ve become used to over the years by top cops and many politicians. Now let’s see if they result in any action.
Is there a different way to protect good people from bad people other than having an armed police force? Show me and I’ll have a look. If the argument is the justice system is inherently racist as it was set up by white English and French colonists a long time ago — something that has a ring of truth to it, witness the introduction of the Gladue sentencing principle in the ‘90s — then what would public safety look like if we wiped the slate clean now and started over?
I do think more resources need to be given to social services (mental health, addictions and domestic violence experts), but not at the expense of reducing budgets of existing police agencies. If anything, police need more money for training and ongoing evaluations of their performance. All police need to be wearing body cameras. That’s just a no-brainer.
There is already video covering a lot of the actions of police. And it does help deciding who did what and why. Video is extremely important.
I bring this up as there was a case in NWT Territorial Court a short while ago that went by without much coverage from the media at the time, save for my story for Cabin Radio.
A Fort McPherson man left with bruising after being repeatedly punched in the face was found not guilty of assaulting the RCMP officer who was hitting him.
Yeah, the justice system actually charged Travis Jerome of assaulting a cop after Const. Scott Brian Thomas used “pain-control” techniques against him during a struggle while he was in custody.
Chief Judge Robert Gorin clearly wasn’t buying the police version of events, finding in his March 23 decision that Jerome could have been acting in self-defence. It was a shocking statement by a judge. And a real condemnation of what police did on that occasion.
“I found that based on the evidence there existed a realistic possibility that Officer Thomas was applying excessive force to Mr Jerome immediately prior to the minor motion I observed.
“I found additionally that the Crown had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Jerome was not acting in self-defence when he made that motion.
“Based on all of the evidence presented in this case, I was and remain far from being sure that Mr Jerome punched or attempted to punch Constable Thomas.”
The altercation between Jerome and Thomas occurred at the police detachment in Fort McPherson on Oct. 25, 2019.
Thomas and his partner, Const. Jenna Moore, had just arrested Jerome after responding to an early morning call about a domestic dispute between Jerome and his girlfriend.
While being transported to the detachment, an apparently intoxicated Jerome became “angry and belligerent” in the patrol vehicle, stated Gorin, noting the situation escalated once inside the detachment.
A struggle ensued. The entire incident had been recorded on video, which I haven’t seen.
Const. Thomas disputed what could be seen of Jerome punching him in the video recording.
Gorin, in his decision, stated:
“With respect, the video was quite clear. I saw no punch or blow, I saw nothing that looked like anything other than a very minor movement of Mr Jerome’s right arm.
“There appeared to be no real force behind the movement that I observed. If anything, this movement was more consistent with an attempt to keep Constable Thomas away from him than the alleged punch or swing.
“I then saw Constable Thomas punch Mr Jerome a number of times in the face and when Mr Jerome attempted to crawl away, continue to strike him from behind on the back of the head. On each occasion, the officer struck him with considerable force.”
Jerome had pleaded not guilty to assaulting a peace officer, resisting arrest, and breach of probation. Gorin found him not guilty of all charges.
So, what do you make of what you read? Depending on your upbringing, your background, you will interpret those facts differently. Should Jerome have accepted the fact he was being arrested and gone along quietly? Should the cops have been so aggressive in responding to their prisoner’s belligerence? Should the entire situation occurred in the first place? What was behind the domestic dispute? Was the woman in danger? What history did Jerome have with police in general and those cops in particular in that small community? Should the officer himself have been charged? Did he ever face internal discipline?
I couldn’t find any information online about Const. Thomas, but his partner that night Const. Moore has been in the media quite a bit — for all the right reasons.
“You can be anything you want to be,” she is quoted as saying in a CBC North story in 2018 to a grade 8 student at Inuvik’s East Three School.
And in the September 2018 edition of the RCMP Gazette, Const. Stephanie Leduc explained how she and Const. Moore taught a class every week in the high school:
“Prior to our involvement in the school, we rarely had students speak to us during shift. Once the school year ended, we found that many of the students were now waving to us, inviting us to play sports and coming to us with information about crime.
One student told me that she never liked the police before but she now thinks the police are pretty cool. I see it as a success, but one that is pretty difficult to capture through quantitative statistics.”
In July 2019, Moore and Leduc allowed youth to redecorate a patrol vehicle. The campaign, entitled Chill with the Cops, saw police work with the town’s youth centre. Children were provided with washable paint to rebrand the truck however they liked.
So on one night, Moore is struggling to restrain a prisoner with her partner, who appears to have been overly aggressive.
But on other occasions she has been working her butt off to reach out to the community to better relations and improve trust.
There are no simple answers to what is a very complicated situation between police and society.
There are no simple answers. Life isn’t simple.
JUSTICE REFORM IN YELLOWKNIFE
The folks at Yellowknife Public Library have determined overdue book fines go against the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ Code of Ethics and should be dropped.
In a presentation to city council last week, the library explained late fees exclude the socially disadvantaged, as they unfairly punishes those with less income
“Coming to the realization that late fees create a barrier to access for economically challenged individuals, many of the last remaining public libraries across North America are finally eradicating late fines.
“There is very little evidence to suggest that late fines make people return items on time and those libraries that have already gone fine-free have reported that they have not found a significant change in late returns.”
The current fines for overdue books are 10 cents a day, to a maximum of $5. And those fines account for “a very minimal percentage,” of the operating budget of the facility, located on the second floor of the Centre Square Mall.
However, the late-book baddies won’t be completely off the hook, as they won’t be able to borrow anything else from the collection of 70,000 items — including print, audiobooks, e-Books, music CDs, and DVDs — unless overdue materials are returned. And after a certain amount of time, states the library, overdue materials get classified as lost and replacement costs are still charged.
But hey, at least we have a small step in overhauling the justice system to address systemic unfairness.