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Politics

MLAs begin caucus retreat, though without a full complement

Last modified: August 30, 2022 at 2:57pm


The Northwest Territories’ MLAs are gathering in Łútsël K’é and at the nearby Frontier Lodge this week for a three-day retreat ahead of their fall sitting.

At least, 13 of them are. Six of the NWT’s 19 MLAs won’t be in attendance, a Legislative Assembly spokesperson said, including Łútsël K’é’s own MLA, Richard Edjericon.

Even so, MLAs who are attending said the need for a retreat like this – also known as an annual planning meeting – was apparent after two years without one due to the pandemic.

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“I look forward to spending three uninterrupted days with my fellow members and getting down to business,” said Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, who chairs the caucus of 19 territorial politicians, in a statement.

“I am hopeful we can come out of this retreat with a shared vision for our last year in office. There is much that can be accomplished before the end of the 19th Assembly.”

Alongside Edjericon, absent from this week’s retreat according to the legislature spokesperson are Premier Caroline Cochrane, deputy premier and infrastructure minister Diane Archie, fellow cabinet member Shane Thompson, and regular MLAs Lesa Semmler and Rocky Simpson.

Thompson told Cabin Radio he could not attend as his presence was required until September 1 at a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers in Whitehorse. “I have gone through the caucus agenda and provided my comments and questions to a couple of my colleagues, who will be bringing them forth,” he said by email.

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Simpson said he was away in connection with a personal matter that had been scheduled prior to the dates of the caucus retreat being set. Edjericon, Archie, Cochrane and Semmler did not respond to requests for comment sent on Monday afternoon.

A weekly advisory of ministers’ movements issued by cabinet’s communications team listed Thompson’s trip to Whitehorse but no other conflicting appearances.

“Honestly, we tend to get more done with less people,” said Rylund Johnson, the Yellowknife North MLA and former caucus chair.

“Some MLAs tend to remain quiet when we get into the weeds of sorting out the final legislative calendar and what order we will pass legislation in. But it’s a meeting we need to have.”

Those items are top of the retreat’s formal agenda with a year before the next territorial election.

Also up for consideration are the final reports of the electoral boundaries commission and a commission that reviewed MLAs’ pay and benefits. MLAs received a 3.4-percent pay increase in line with inflation this year, while the electoral boundaries commission – which recommends whether or not to change the number of MLAs and how their districts are divided – suggested that MLAs keep the 19-person system with a few minor alterations to electoral maps.

Amendments to the way complaints are handled at the legislature are also being examined this week, as is the action plan that follows an independent review of the legislature clerk’s office. Those items stem from Steve Norn’s removal as an MLA and allegations of toxic working conditions over the past two years.

The last item on the list is “increased collaboration with Indigenous governments and organizations on the review and enactment of land and resource legislation.”

Johnson called much of the work “tedious but necessary to the functioning of the legislature.”

“We need to make sure we have an improved complaint process after the costs of the Steve Norn affair,” he said, referring to the $800,000 bill the public must fund for the months-long legal battle that concluded with Norn’s removal.

“We need to make sure we all understand how to deal with co-drafted legislation with Indigenous governments,” Johnson continued, “that respects the work put into it but doesn’t limit the legislative branch’s authority to ultimately make what amendments it likes to legislation.”

Yellowknife South MLA Caroline Wawzonek, the finance and industry minister, said she believed this week’s retreat will be productive even with a third of the territory’s politicians absent.

“Not every member attends every caucus meeting, just as not every member of any governance board attends every board meeting, but the work must still advance,” she stated by email.

Wawzonek said three ministers, not one as advertised, are attending meetings of federal, provincial and territorial ministers this week, a statement cabinet communications staff had not confirmed by the time of publication. Ministers needed to appear in person at those meetings to build relationships, Wawzonek said, though she added “the opportunity to build relationships with my MLA colleagues is one of the key things I expect to achieve from the planning meeting.”

“Ministers have had significant opportunities to meet and work together but we simply have not had similar opportunities with all of our MLA colleagues,” Wawzonek wrote, “and while I am attending this meeting as an MLA, my role as a minister is never far away.”

In particular, she said, two budgets – one for capital projects like new buildings, one for departments’ annual operating budgets – still need to be passed before the next election, a process that involves negotiation with all MLAs.

After this report was first published, Martselos, in a separate statement as caucus chair, said the dates for the current gathering had been fixed since the spring.

Martselos wrote: “It is not unusual for a number of members to be absent due to conflicting work obligations and personal commitments. While it is unfortunate that there are members who can’t be in attendance, I’m confident that much can still be achieved by the members who are able to attend. We have a mix of members from across the territory which I hope will allow for a variety of viewpoints on each issue discussed.

“A top agenda item to be discussed is direction on legislative amendments in the run-up to the next general election so that the landscape is clear for those considering running. This important work cannot be delayed.”

No other MLAs attending this week’s retreat had responded to requests for comment by 1:30pm on Tuesday.

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