Nokleby might be knocked out of cabinet, but not out of the fight
“Daily I receive messages from people warning me about the various rumours they are hearing about me and the misinformation being spread. I get ‘it’s politics’ and that I ‘asked for it.’ What did I expect? While I expected it to be difficult, I knew it would be tough. But I am a human being. I misstep, I misspeak, and I don’t always get it right. But my intent is good and I am going to continue on my path to do what is right. No matter who has a problem with that.” — Katrina Nokleby in a Facebook post on Sunday.
“I no longer have confidence in the minister and her ability to fulfill her responsibilities.” – Premier Caroline Cochrane on Wednesday after revoking Nokleby’s appointments, leaving her as a minister without portfolio.
Looking at the last couple NWT Legislative Assemblies, two words come to mind: Dumpster Fire.
The 18th and 19th versions of consensus government have done nothing if not to prove this experiment in governance is an astonishing failure.
Egos clash with inexperience. Bureaucrats exert control over elected reps. The old boys club bristles at the thought of change. Arguments made in public for political correctness speak over the real issues of racism and sexism found behind the scenes.
Without political party systems, first-time politicians end up running multiple massive portfolios that would tax the most veteran of political players elsewhere in the country.
The cabinet is too small. The way ministers – including the first minister – are chosen is something I would expect to see in a schoolyard pick-up game. Nothing substantial gets done at even the glacial pace found in other jurisdictions.
In fact, the only work the Assembly seems to be able to produce in a timely fashion are attempts to oust the very ministers they chose.
The last assembly tried unsuccessfully in 2017 to boot Minister of Justice, Lands and Power Corp. Louis Sebert from cabinet. And he was a complete failure as a minister (recall the scandal surrounding A New Day: Men’s Healing Program or the complete botchery of the NWT Power Corporation file).
In that same assembly, it also took a mid-term review to air out grievances over Education Minister Alfred Moses’s failure in handling changes with junior kindergarten, early childhood education and Aurora College. Health Minister Glen Abernethy and Infrastructure Minister Wally Schumann also came under scrutiny, with both surviving non-confidence motions.
Since the 19th Assembly took over last fall, I’ve watched Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom struggle to understand her duties, let alone manage such a key file.
For example, in late 2019 and early 2020, Tammy Roberts, executive director of the Foster Family Coalition of the NWT, told media that foster-care parents and adoption caregivers are “exhausted and unsupported” by a child services system that’s failing children.
“This is our modern day residential school crisis,” Roberts stated in a letter to Thom.
The minister’s response was lacking, prompting several foster caregivers to crash Premier Caroline Cochrane’s constituency meeting on Jan. 27. One caregiver there characterized the last government as an “old boy’s club,” where complaints and requests for meetings often fell on deaf ears.
Oh, but this is a wonderful new assembly, filled with fresh faces with new ideas. We heard how this had been a ‘change election’ last fall, after voters elected 19 members – 11 of them essentially political rookies.
In an opinion piece published by CBC North on Thursday, former MLA Kieron Testart stated:
“Instead of the promised change and transparency, the 19th Assembly has become stalled by infighting, poor communications, and backsliding into the choking cloud of secrecy that persists around consensus politics in the NWT.
“At an unprecedented time in our history, the North cannot afford to be divided, and once again the inability of politicians to explain themselves to the public is sowing the seeds of distrust in our leaders and governing institutions.”
The seeds haven’t just been sown, Kieron, they’ve germinated and are spreading like a noxious weed.
Example? After Housing and Homelessness Minister Paulie Chinna’s inattention almost saw the key Arnica Inn transitional housing project in Yellowknife fail, Cochrane took away the Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs portfolio from her. For a few months. Then she gave it back. Huh?
Another example? Until the end of January, Tom Weegar was Aurora College president and associate deputy minister of post-secondary education renewal. Weegar’s abrupt dismissal at the end of January and the ensuing explanations, counter-spin and allegations did nothing to help the morale of students and staff at the college.
As CBC North noted: Education Minister R.J. Simpson (who is also Minister of Culture and Employment and responsible for the Public Utilities Board) “told three different versions of the story over three days.”
Then came the failed May attempt to oust Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment Katrina Nokleby – also minister of Infrastructure and at the time, responsible for Worker’s Safety and Compensation – which I defined at the time as a botched political stunt that did nothing to improve the reputation of the 19th Assembly.
On May 27, rookie Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn stated in the house that in two days he would move a motion that the Assembly “formally revokes the pleasure of the Assembly from the appointment of the honourable Member for Great Slave as a Member of the Executive Council,” and for the opening in cabinet to be filled by a regular MLA.
However, with the expressed support of some of her elected colleagues and an immense outpouring of opposition from the public, it forced those behind the move – including Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, Yellowknife Centre’s Julie Green and Frame Lake’s Kevin O’Reilly – to withdraw their bid before it came to a vote.
But they weren’t done. Nope. As Nokleby continued to do the work she was elected to do – which included rattling a few cages and stepping on toes, you know, that ‘fresh face’ stuff – she increasingly drew the ire of Cochrane.
Cochrane, as education minister, showered mighty praise on Weegar one year before she axed him.
Cochrane, as premier, said she had “complete confidence” in Nokleby three months ago, only to rip away her portfolios this week.
The only reason provided to the public was in a news release issued Tuesday, with the following quote from Cochrane.
“Last spring, the minister and I made a collective commitment to members of the Legislative Assembly to address concerns that had been raised in relation to the minister’s performance. I have not seen significant progress on these commitments and no longer have confidence in the minister and her ability to fulfill her responsibilities.
“As with all other premiers in Canada, I am responsible to the Legislative Assembly and the people we serve for the overall performance of Cabinet and our work to achieve the priorities of the Assembly. I take this responsibility seriously, and felt it was imperative to take action to ensure that our Cabinet remains completely focused on its work on behalf of NWT residents.”
The release concluded: “Out of respect for the minister, the Government of the Northwest Territories will not be commenting further on this matter.”
OK, but many others have. The mineral industry, for one, is understandably confused over losing a minister who was proving to be a shining star on the national and international stage advocating for getting resource extracting back on track in the NWT.
In the May 21 edition of Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum Magazine Nokleby said a large part of her responsibility going forward is to revive the post-COVID-19 economy – and make sure that money stays in the North.
On social media, the outpouring of support for Nokleby is substantial. Save for a couple of people she crossed swords with in an admittedly ill-conceived public fight over a failed business in the ironically named community of Enterprise.
There was also an issue between Nokleby and Tłı̨chǫ leadership earlier this summer over public tenders for the Rae Access Road reconstruction project it believed should have just been contracted directly to a Northern company.
Nokleby told CBC North since the Rae Access Road project was getting money from Ottawa, federal funding rules require the territory to put the project out to tender.
“While this means the project will not necessarily be awarded to a Tłı̨chǫ business, the GNWT will still work to ensure that local labour and subcontractors are used on the project, to maximize economic benefits to Tłı̨chǫ citizens,” Nokleby told CBC North.
“We have also agreed to follow up with (the Tłı̨chǫ government) to ensure there is a shared understanding of how we are implementing provisions of the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement regarding procurement.”
Nokleby maintained she was following the proper process. There’s no indication she did anything wrong. But Cochrane stepped in and moved Procurement Shared Services (under the Infrastructure portfolio) to another minister. Then, as reported, Cochrane decreed the GNWT will negotiate directly with Tłı̨chǫ businesses for infrastructure projects on Tłı̨chǫ territory. Now that’s all fine and good, but why wasn’t that policy in place beforehand?
On May 27, Cabin Radio ran a story with the headline, “Infrastructure minister promises to stop companies ‘gaming the system’”
In it, Nokleby said her department will change the way procurement happens to make sure more northerners get work on projects.
So then, why would she intentionally be making it harder for a Tłı̨chǫ company to get a lucrative contract? It makes no sense. Unless there is much more to the story. Such as bureaucratic bungling, heel biting and backstabbing? Just asking…
In a post-election blog I wrote:
“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?
It looks like Cochrane’s words of support for Nokleby a few months ago were clearly empty praise.
“I’ve learned that it’s really important to pick your battles,” Cochrane told Cabin Radio during her election campaign last year. “But when I pick a battle, I think you know me well enough, I don’t let go, I fight that battle to the end. And when I have a battle, I usually get my way with it.”
Cochrane often speaks about her tough life growing up, when at age 13 she left home and lived on the street for a while, later returning to her education.
She then spent two decades in social work and was CEO of the Centre for Northern Families.
She was first elected to the Legislative Assembly in 2015, eventually becoming education minister. She was a very terrible education minister, who even publicly admitted her department’s failure to help kids.
“We need to work better. We are failing our children. Our graduation rates are low,” she told the Legislative Assembly one year ago this month.
During her time as education minister, Cochrane was also the subject of intense criticism following the publication of the Aurora College Foundational Review.
Cochrane was the only sitting cabinet minister to survive the Oct. 1 territorial election.
Nine female MLAs in total were elected to the 19-member assembly. Cochrane became premier shortly after – only the second in NWT’s history – voted in by secret ballot by members of the new legislature. There were happy, happy headlines across Canada, welcoming the country’s only female premier at the time.
Behind the headlines, Cochrane is considered by many as being a scheming narcissist. Afraid of making more mistakes, she has ceded a lot of her control – and dirty work – to senior advisers. She has let NWT Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kami Kandola run the territory during the COVID-19 pandemic, ignoring desperate pleas from the business and medical community to open things up more in our COVID-free bubble we have worked hard to create. Yes, we needed the public health guidance at first, but now there is a complete void of political leadership.
Nokleby’s background makes her perfectly suited for the role she was handed in cabinet. Nokleby has a Bachelor of Applied Science as a Geological Engineer and was in leadership with the NT and NU Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies in the Northwest Territories.
She worked as a consultant in the environmental, earthworks, and ice engineering fields where she travelled extensively to sites throughout the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon.
Heck, she was even a leader with the Girl Guides of Canada and was a director of YWCA NWT.
But she’s tough talking and aggressive. She didn’t lobby to be a minister after being elected by voters (including myself) in the Great Slave constituency of Yellowknife. But her background compelled others to select her.
She might not be great at responding to regular MLAs concerns, but prefers to focus on the bigger picture. She should have had enough staff to handle minor inquiries.
Nokleby’s predecessor Wally Schumann – who should never have lost re-election in Hay River South and will hopefully re-emerge in, perhaps, federal politics – told Cabin Radio that Nokleby had the most work, and pressure, of any minister in Canada.
“People have to remember she has the biggest portfolio not just in the Northwest Territories … but in Canada. You’re extremely busy and under a lot of pressure day to day.
“There’s a lot of pressure on those two portfolios, way more than the average person even contemplates. I can’t stress that enough. It’s the biggest portfolio in Canada. Just think about that for a second. She’s in charge of a lot of stuff: agriculture, fish, mining, oil and gas, transportation, public works, it just goes on and on.
“Your plate is full every day. Every day.”
I can see where unanswered inquiries would cause issues – the regular MLAs need to be able to tell constituents they are doing some work – but many of these matters are no doubt of the petty nature, given the situation the NWT finds itself in now and going forward.
In a previous life, I’ve worked with politicians such as Nokleby and would rather have someone like her helping to guide the NWT out of its economic and ethical mess than some phoney backstabber who is all smiles and no substance.
And I would certainly prefer more politicians in cabinet who achieve results and shut down the old boys club, rather than those who speak about being “progressive” and, in reality, are sadly regressive.
This entire sad drama has raised serious and troubling questions as to how the 19th Legislative Assembly will lead the territory through what is shaping up to be the most trying time in our history.
I’m sure several regular MLAs are lobbying for Nokleby’s seat at the cabinet table. Elbowing her way to the front of that line would be Julie Green, with Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson and Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland right behind (assuming a city rep will be chosen).
On Friday, Cabin Radio reported that MLAs have hastily convened an emergency sitting starting at 1:30 p.m. on Monday to discuss Nokleby’s potential removal from cabinet.
As reported, Nokleby remains a cabinet member even though she no longer runs any departments. The premier cannot remove someone from cabinet – only the group of 19 MLAs can do so, by vote.
Procedural impediments could draw the process out over several days. That time could see a historic airing of all of the dirty laundry Cochrane and her cabal have been hiding. This could be a good thing for all concerned – even us ordinary folks, who just want good government.
Nokleby could have just accepted her fate and resigned after being relieved of her ministerial portfolios.
But she’s a fighter. And I respect that.
Ultimately, I believe she will be removed from the executive council and join the ranks of regular MLAs in our dysfunctional form of legislature. A new minister will be selected by MLAs – by secret ballot, or course.
Nokleby will be a formidable force in the ranks of the ‘opposition.’ I look forward to that.
As Cochrane once said: “Regular MLAs have the luxury of being able to say what they want, whether they know it’s going to happen, whether they know it’s not going to happen, whether they know it’s the right thing or not, they are allowed to put up their hand and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
With Nokleby, you have someone who knows what’s happening and what the right thing is.
Cochrane could have worked with her. But I’m not sure if Cochrane can really work with anyone.
In fact, given that we are stuck with consensus government, there is only one real solution moving forward that will really signal the 19th Legislative Assembly is serious about working for the people of the NWT and something I truly hope will be on the minds of the entire caucus when it meets in a week or so at a retreat in Fort Smith.
Get rid of Cochrane.
UPDATE: Around the same time I posted this blog, Cochrane posted a video (shot vertically?) on her Facebook page trying to explain her actions. Perhaps inspired by the Democratic National Convention very-sincere-and-precious type of video we’ve been inundated with this week, Cochrane said nothing much new. “Difference of opinion and frank exchanges among cabinet members are welcome … I value diversity of opinion,” she said, then mentioning the importance of cabinet confidentiality. The only morsel of new information was that it appears Nokleby’s relationship – her “performance and behaviour” – with regular MLAs is the main issue at hand. She said nothing directly to the people of the Great Slave constituency. You know, those of us who perhaps want more politicians with that type of effective performance and uncompromising behaviour.