A tragic tale of dysfunction and despair: #katrinagate
“Peace, order, and good government” — From the Canadian Constitution
“This process is embarrassing for all of us, and it is embarrassing to the dignity of this House.” — Minister Caroline Wawzonek
“We are going to take a lot of guff for this, and we are, but it is life, and it is a life of a politician, and sometimes, you have to make that hard decision.” — Minister Shane Thompson.
“Unfortunately, at this time, the relationship between the premier, the cabinet ministers, and Minister Nokleby is not functional and cannot be repaired.” — Minister Diane Thom
So wasn’t that a party?
Nope. Not in any way.
Exposing another flaw in the consensus government model, a cabinet minister was forced to endure some two hours of searing and embarrassing criticism last week from her colleagues who sought to remove her from executive council.
In a normal multi-party system derived from the British Westminster parliament traditions and practices, a first minister chooses his or her cabinet and simply removes a minister who is underperforming, placing them back onto the backbenches. Clean, quick and relatively humane.
But in our form of government, the premier can remove a minister’s portfolios — which Caroline Cochrane did to Nokleby on Aug. 19 — but only the Legislative Assembly itself can vote one of the executive council. Until that happens, a minister would be without work to do and a geographic region would be without an effective representative in cabinet.
So the week-long public melodrama starring Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby — formerly minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment — came to an end on Wednesday, which also meant the retiring of the hashtag #katrinagate.
After enduring the 16,011 words spoken by ministers and regular MLAs against the rookie Great Slave rep in a motion to knock her out of executive council — a woman who is my MLA, who I have supported and will continue to do so — and the 565 words Nokleby curtly offered in her defence, I can come to a few conclusions.
Drawing from comments made by MLAs and ministers on Hansard, I will offer two versions of the former geological engineer:
Since being elected last October, Nokleby was disrespectful and uncooperative to her elected co-workers, GNWT bureaucrats and constituents.
She openly expressed negative, degrading, and potentially harmful personal opinions about various public servants. While vicious rumours swirl routinely through the halls of the NWT Legislative Assembly building, Nokleby couldn’t handle them and even fired staff based on unsubstantiated allegations. She was often seen yelling, being angry, and using vulgar language.
Nokleby also openly expressed negative, degrading, and potentially harmful personal opinions about various public servants. It put the government at legal risk and was also unfair to the staff, who were unable to defend themselves against someone with an unequal amount of power. This undermined the morale among the public service.
The minister couldn’t control her explosive and shocking anger. She would have tantrums in meetings, before walking out. She violated confidentiality rules.
Nokleby lacked humility, refused to acknowledge her failings and instead blamed others — including Premier Cochrane, who moved the motion to expel her from executive council.
Nokleby skipped appearances before standing committees and was responsible for delays in getting Support for Entrepreneurs and Economic Development SEED funding out the door to small business during the pandemic. Instead, Nokleby invested an inordinate amount of her time early in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic on sectors of our economy — large industries, such as mining — over which the Assembly has little to no control. Instead, she entered into public infrastructure agreements that worked against the interests of Northern companies.
Both the Tlicho and the Akaitcho governments condemned the inaction of the GNWT on addressing serious economic concerns related to the Nokleby’s portfolios. She could have even caused lasting damage to the GNWT’s relationship with the Tlicho and Akaitcho governments and also likely to other Indigenous governments
Meanwhile, Nokleby also ran her office poorly, with regular MLAs waiting weeks or months to get a reply to their routine inquiries, made on behalf of constituents.
Nokleby also wasn’t transparent about her meetings with outside parties and occasionally didn’t include departmental officials those meetings. Unrecorded meetings held without officials or any staff present is a significant danger to the essential trust and public confidence in the integrity of government’s decision making. She claimed to be working to expose wrongdoing in government, but a minister does not fight against corruption by failing to record meetings with those seeking to influence you.
She entered in a bizarre contest for control over programs with one minister, clamouring for announcements and subject matters she appeared to believe were exclusively hers.
In May, after a motion was made by the Accountability and Oversight Committee to oust Nokleby, which was withdrawn after a full-caucus meeting with the minister. She promised to address the group’s concerns and manage her office in a way that was more responsive to the elected reps and their constituents.
She was told there had to be immediate improvement in her performance, but that promise was not fulfilled. If anything, the situation was worse.
The premier documented her attempts to help Nokleby get on track with both performance and behavioural issues, but the minister failed to make the necessary improvements. In fact, she was unable or unwilling to acknowledge when she might be in error and cultivated a disrespectful workplace, where people didn’t feel safe and free from harassment and intimidation.
It stands to reason, said one MLA, that in whatever workplace you work in, one should always feel safe and free from being verbally abused and insulted. In fact, some of the 18 politician expressed fear of to speaking too forcefully in support of the Nokleby removal motion, lest they be subject to wrath.
She had to go, as keeping her as a minister would damage not only cabinet, but will would harm the Assembly, the GNWT, and ultimately, the residents they serve.
Wow. How has Nokleby, ever managed to survive in polite society up until now? My goodness, did she coerce 454 people in the Great Slave constituency to vote for her? Threaten them? Swear at them? Clearly, that’s a rhetorical question. Fifty-three per cent of the 852 people who cast a ballot chose to send her to the Legislative Assembly.
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.
She was even a leader with the Girl Guides of Canada and was a director of YWCA NWT.
But obviously, entering the world of politics has been a tough for her. Being in cabinet demands that one grins and bears it as compromises must be made and bureaucratic red tape is accepted, if not admired for strategic reasons (such as parking a thorny political issue with an academic-style study or investigation).
In the GNWT, given the fact elected reps often arrive into the Assembly as raw political rookies, with nothing else than basic life experiences to guide them, they really need time to sit as regular MLAs — in the consensus government’s version of the opposition — to learn about being in elected office and mature as politicians. Instead, without political parties to recruit and develop candidates, these green MLAs often land directly into cabinet. This means the deputy ministers, and other senior mandarins, control what happens. And can throw sticks in the spokes of the career of any minister they don’t like.
This affords the premier immense power; more control than the consensus government model stipulates should happen. And did anyone really expect Caroline Cochrane to end up being our premier after the 2019 election? Another huge problem with the existing consensus model — the people don’y directly choose their premier.
But I digress. Back to Nokleby’s Day of Hard Knocks in the emergency session of the Assembly.
There was also another portrait painted of the Great Slave MLA on that day. Weeding through the vitriol — and including some of her own words of defence — I offer an alternate version of events, again exclusively from Hansard:
Since being elected last October, and while suffering through the death of her mother and working around the extraordinary demands of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nokleby managed a lot of accomplishments and attracted many supporters.
She is a young, educated, and talented woman who worked to settle into her portfolios as a first-time minister; to manage her professional life in the midst of a pandemic, along with substantial personal challenges.
It’s a job comes with a lot of pressure, stress, and never enough time. But there is no doubt that she worked hard to engage with many stakeholders and has done some great work with them.
One regular MLA could only imagine how difficult it to be for a cabinet minister to deal with the many complexities in managing her portfolios — never mind running two of the largest departments of the GNWT: the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment and the Department of Infrastructure.
Nokleby promoted large infrastructure projects as a way to generate benefits for Northerners. She had also been working with construction companies in the Mackenzie Delta and when issues were brought forward, they received good responses. One MLA said he has a good working relationship with Nokleby and she did everything asked of her. In fact, he stated local leadership were happy with her when she travelled recently to Tuktoyaktuk on the Inuvik-Tuk highway.
Another said Nokleby is more than capable of achieving a better understanding of the treaties with Indigenous people and how to uphold treaty commitments, even if there is little time for on-the-job learning of those complex matters.
Other MLAs said they witnessed Nokleby behave inappropriately and stated they have positive working relationship with her.
It was said the new government had inherited some bad habits of in-fighting from previous Assemblies. Rules of confidentiality have provoked questions from the public on the ministerial expulsion process, and they would remain confidential and hidden from the public.
In fact, all members agreed to take appropriate steps to protect the confidentiality of personal (or was that personnel?) information and other confidential information before Wednesday’s public session. One MLA said he did not believe the public interest or Nokleby’s own privacy would be served with exposing all of the details to public scrutiny.
Nokleby ran for cabinet on a platform of change and made promises to do whatever she could to improve the lives of the people she represents and the lives of every resident of the Northwest Territories.
She worked hard to make positive changes in her departments wherever she could. But she admitted she stayed true to who she is and could not accept that things should stay the same simply because that is just the way that things have always been done.
She had many concerns with current practices, including what she calls a gaming of the system. She admitted she wasn’t perfect and defended being outspoken. She wanted to get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible for the people who sorely need the services and support of government.
She was frustrated by the level of secrecy demanded by current conventions, especially at the cabinet level. She rejected the idea that consensus government requires such extreme levels of secrecy.
Secrecy and innuendo, she believed, are the hallmarks of corruption and backroom dealings, not the transparent and accountable government that the public deserves. That the toxic culture of secrecy allowed her character and professionalism to be disparaged, while not allowing her to respond, reply, or defend herself.
She lashed back at being unfairly admonished without any due process and based on nothing more than gossip, hearsay, rumours, and bruised feelings.
However, in the end, after enduring the type of performance review or job evaluation typically conducted between an employer and an employee in private in a awkward and uncomfortable public process, she said she will look forward to working with her colleagues as a regular MLA.
And some MLAs said Nokleby does not have anything to be ashamed of and that she should hold her head high through this after was all said and done. In fact, some said they will welcome her to their side of the Assembly.
Many said they looked forward to moving beyond Wednesday’s motion and to refocus their attention on the lives of the Northerners that they serve. Said one MLA: We’ve still got housing; we’ve still got jobs; we’ve still got an economy to worry about. I’d rather be talking to that than to dealing with these types of matters.
Said another on pressing issues that need to be addressed: “Indigenous people being incarcerated at disturbing rates, Indigenous children being placed in foster care at alarming rates, Indigenous people with high rates of addictions with limited support, Indigenous people without housing, Indigenous people passed up for employment opportunities, Indigenous-owned businesses being treated differently, and Indigenous graduation rates waning.”
The results of the recorded vote: 16 in favour, one opposed, one abstention. The motion was carried.
On Thursday, after arguing over the two from the North, two from Yellowknife, two from the South convention on the regional distribution of cabinet, Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green was acclaimed into cabinet. While I have had my differences with the left-wing politician — mostly over her support of the failing and disruptive experiment to merge a sobering centre and a day shelter right downtown — I think she will bring some good experience and maturity into cabinet.
However, she has to be given the proper portfolios, or else the territory’s economy could be placed at further risk. She would make a great minister of Social Services, Persons with Disabilities, Homelessness and Seniors. How’s that for an appropriate portfolio?
So Cochrane will have to shuffle her cabinet. I expect that will be done soon.
But apart from arranging chairs on the Titanic, nothing of any real consequence will happen in the coming months and years under our consensus form of government.
Consensus decision-making harkens back to early Indigenous societies. So I understand how it was though a form of it would be appropriate for the NWT, as it is different from the colonial multi-party system. But in Canada, only Nunavut and Nunatsiavut, an autonomous area in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, use consensus government.
So how is the NWT, with its 50/50 split of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents and its economic promise with resource extraction — supposed to compete effectively with all the other southern jurisdictions. And even Yukon, for that matter, which has a traditional multi-party system.
A consensus process works well with very small groups, such as municipal governments, non-profit organizations, worker cooperatives and school councils. Consensus governments are also found in the Pacific island nations of Fiji, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, as well as the ancient Tynwald of the Isle of Man.
A consensus government effectively serves as a permanent minority government.
Consensus government is also more appropriate in non-partisan democracies in which a majority of politicians are independent. But it’s quite clear as to which party most of our MLAs are affiliated with. Some even publicly align with, or otherwise support, politicians at the federal level.
- The consensus government model has received criticism on various grounds, including that it hampers long-term political and economic development in the territory because the lack of political parties mean that there is no mechanism to carry over a political agenda from one assembly to the next.
- It complicates the ability of less wealthy citizens to serve in the assembly because the lack of political parties means that election candidates must raise all of their campaign funds on their own.
- It prevents the voters from being able to demand or vote for systemic change, since there is no mechanism to replace an ineffective or underperforming government with another alternative.
- It hampers efforts to improve diversity in representation, such as the election of more women and ethnic minorities to the legislature.
In 2018, states Wikipedia, then-MLA Kieron Testart introduced an amendment to the territorial Elections Act to permit the introduction of party politics in the legislative assembly, but his motion received no support from other MLAs and was dropped.
In 2019, he planned to organize a group of ideologically aligned MLA candidates in the 2019 Northwest Territories general election into a “Liberal Democratic” slate, but backed off of the plan after it was leaked to the press.
A CBC North analysis in 2013 stated the other major criticism is that without party politics, elections are often decided based on personal or family connections rather than major issues. It’s up to individual candidates to present a platform, but with no party to back them, election promises will be unconvincing, stated the CBC. A lot of Assembly time is taken up with candidates comparatively minor local issues, instead of looking at the long-term big picture.
So where does this leave Katrina Nokleby and her constituents in Great Slave? Judging from the outpouring of support she has received on social media, she still has a solid base of support. Obviously, she needs to mend some fences with her colleagues. She has now made history, as noted by David Wasylciw, who runs OpenNWT, the first time a premier has stripped a minister of their portfolios as a result of poor performance, rather than behaviours outside of work.
I think she will be a killer regular MLA. Whatever minister assumes her former portfolios better be on their toes, as she will be watching them closely. Judging from what I’ve read and heard about her, she will also be a welcome voice of reason in the unofficial opposition. Nokleby will also have more time to attend to concerns of the folks in Great Slave.
So why didn’t Nokleby just quit executive council after Cochrane stripped her of her portfolios? She could have just read the clear writing on the wall and slipped over to the opposition side without having to endure Nokleby’s Day of Hard Knocks? Maybe she thought a Seinfeldesque “Airing of grievances” would bring a Festivus miracle to the problematic GNWT and Legislative Assembly?
Maybe she thought she would be able to reveal more than she was legally able to? You know, name names and expose what she considered to be the rot and corruption. But that never happened.
If I were Nokleby, I would accept the invitation offered by some of he regular MLAs to work with her and be welcome into the opposition. I don’t think this is the end for this Assembly’s public dysfunction and she needs to be there to fight for those of us who want real change and real hope.
UPDATE: A couple of hours after posting, I fixed a pull quote from Minister Thom at the top. A sharp-eyed reader noted it had been clipped short, changing the intent. That happened by mistake when I was copying passages from Hansard. I strive for accuracy and am always happy to hear feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org