Ministers Wally Schumann and Glen Abernethy both survived motions to remove them from cabinet in the legislature on Wednesday.
MLAs voted 12 to six to keep Schumann in office, then preserved Abernethy’s place in cabinet by 11 votes to seven.
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green dramatically backed Abernethy after a lengthy critique of his government’s social services record, saying she had faith in his ability to “do the work.”
Schumann was supported by Nunakput MLA Herb Nakimayak – whose constituents are at the heart of the barge resupply failure over which the minister was targeted for removal.
Nakimayak said he was persuaded to reject the motion by his constituents. He urged the NWT’s politicians to work together and asked Premier Bob McLeod to improve the transparency of cabinet.
Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart, seconded by Dehcho MLA Michael Nadli, proposed the motion calling for the removal of Schumann from cabinet.
Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson, seconded by Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne, proposed the motion aimed at Abernethy.
How Schumann kept his job
Backing from Vanthuyne and Green helped to ensure Schumann’s survival, even as Vanthuyne supported ousting Abernethy.
Needing support from at least three regular MLAs to survive, Schumann saw the motion to remove him defeated by the whole of cabinet plus Nakimayak, Vanthuyne, Green, Sahtu MLA Danny McNeely, and Mackenzie Delta MLA Frederick ‘Sonny’ Blake Jr.
“After listening to my constituents, my job will be to ensure the minister is accountable and working with the people from Nunakput to make a better plan,” said Nakimayak.
McNeely and Blake, known to be sympathetic toward Schumann, rejected a similar motion to remove Justice Minister Lou Sebert last year.
“We in the Sahtu will stand behind this minister,” McNeely declared. Blake said the time any new minister would need to learn the job made removing Schumann impractical with a year remaining until the next territorial election – a notion Testart, angry and shaken, rejected as he closed his argument in the knowledge the motion would fail.
Testart believes Schumann ‘mishandled’ barge resupply to Paulatuk, Cambridge Bay, and Kugluktuk, and also said the minister was a prime example of a cabinet member failing to engage reasonably with regular MLAs.
However, Vanthuyne said he retained faith in the minister’s ability to perform his duties, while Green expressed confidence in the solutions Schumann had provided to the barge resupply issue.
Schumann, addressing members once his job security was assured, defended what he termed the “open and public” nature of his government’s work, saying: “We are continually reaching out … and we will continue to do that.”
“I stand behind the decisions I have made,” he continued.
Listing a range of the minister’s perceived achievements, the Premier said he believed Schumann had been “doing a good job.”
Schumann – the MLA for Hay River South – is the minister responsible for industry, tourism, and investment, as well as infrastructure. He has spent weeks under fire for the territory’s travails in being forced to cancel barge resupply to Paulatuk and the two Nunavut communities, then organize replacement supply services by air.
Schumann maintained impassable ice was primarily to blame for the barge’s cancellation, adding he believed the government’s response was significantly better, and cheaper for residents, than if a private company had been handling barge shipments as in the past.
Proposing his motion in the legislature on Wednesday, Testart addressed ‘hearsay’ about his motives by saying he would “not accept stepping into a ministerial position or stand for election to cabinet” if the motion succeeded.
Referring to Schumann’s management of barge resupply, Testart said: “When we fail our people, there are long-term consequences. At no point has the minister stood up and taken personal responsibility for this failure.
“Instead, he has insisted the faults are due to an unavoidable series of coincidences, and he is not to blame.”
Testart claimed the territory’s Marine Transportation Services (MTS) had been “preoccupied with private contracts” in Alaska and Nunavut, aimed at earning money for the territorial government, at the expense of barge resupply to residents of Paulatuk, Cambridge Bay, and Kugluktuk.
“If MTS had followed the original schedule they published in the spring of this year, they would have been finished,” said Testart. “This costly error cannot be blamed solely on environmental factors.”
Hay River North MLA RJ Simpson, who a year ago helped defeat the motion to remove Sebert, said he had “no choice but to support” removing Schumann in order to hold cabinet accountable.
“The fact that he doesn’t understand why he is in this position is a prime example of why he is in this position,” said Simpson, adding he felt Schumann failed to abide by the spirit of consensus government.
“A lot of the pressure is coming from my constituents,” Nakimayak, who represents Paulatuk, acknowledged.
Nakimayak said he was following instructions from local leaders in his riding in voting to support Schumann, urging that politicians “work together to get things done.”
How Abernethy kept his job
A simple majority was required in either vote to see the minister in question removed.
Great Slave MLA Abernethy was supported by Green, McNeely, Blake, Nakimayak, and cabinet, with all other regular MLAs voting for his removal – several of them saying they did so on broader principle, despite feeling the minister was good at his job.
Vanthuyne’s switch, opposing Abernethy, was the only change between the two votes.
MLAs had produced a range of fiercely worded statements aimed at Abernethy following the recent publication of a report from the Auditor General of Canada.
On Wednesday, Nahendeh member Thompson ran through a list of failings documented by that report – which said child protection services in the territory had, in many instances, deteriorated over the past four years.
“Less talk, more action,” is how Thompson characterized past demands from MLAs. “Yet here we are today. We are just not seeing meaningful progress.”
Abernethy has said his department spent years working to address a daunting range of inadequacies and is making progress on fronts not documented by the Auditor General’s report. He feels demonstrable steps have already been taken to address many of the faults the report found.
Yet in explaining why he supported the removal of Abernethy but not Schumann, Vanthuyne – despite calling him “a friend to all of us” – added: “What was needed was less time with org charts and more time with real children and real families.”
He continued: “No heads have rolled and no accountability was taken. Circumstances have changed for the worse.
“As we speak, children are at serious risk. There is too little will to really help the children in the government’s care.”
‘A good minister’
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said Abernethy was “perhaps our best minister” as he voted to remove him, calling Abernethy “receptive and responsive” but saying he had been sufficiently disturbed by the Auditor General’s findings – and, he said, the lack of an apology – to vote out the minister.
O’Reilly said his vote also reflected his opposition to cabinet’s priorities since the last territorial election in 2015, describing a “huge gulf” between cabinet and regular MLAs.
Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu, the NWT’s health minister from 2011 until 2013, joined O’Reilly in saying Abernethy “is a good minister” but voting for him to be removed.
Simpson, in a starkly different statement, said he could not understand how anyone opposing the motion “could sleep at night.”
In doing exactly that, McNeely said social services in his riding had improved and he supported the minister.
Blake, also opposed, said: “Our first reaction is to get rid of this minister. We are in a crisis [but] we can’t blame, solely, the department.
“Many people here don’t understand it because they don’t come from a small community.”
Green, second-last among regular MLAs to speak to the motion, said: “All of cabinet must stand indicted in this motion. What cabinet doesn’t get or care about, or what this minister has been unable to budge them on, is the need for resources to ease our social pain.”
Having left her voting intention unclear throughout her speech, Green concluded by stating she believed the minister to be capable of the work required in the remaining year of his term – and announced she would oppose the motion, providing the third vote necessary to ensure Abernethy’s safety.
“It appears some members don’t believe I am committed to the Child and Family Services file,” said Abernethy once his job was safe. “I am 100 percent committed.
“I will continue to fight to improve this system whether I am a minister, a member, or even after I have left this assembly and entered non-political life.
“I asked for Health and Social Services. This is an area I am incredibly passionate about.”
In an extensive statement setting out actions taken and those to come, Abernethy issued an apology to the affected children and families, acknowledging the progress everyone wanted to see had not been made.
“I have to give credit to the minister. That’s leadership,” said Thompson, in response. “But my problem is we still did not put resources to it. That, cabinet has to wear.”
“I do not believe action to revoke Minister Abernethy’s appointment is warranted,” said Premier McLeod.
“The recent audit of child and families is concerning, but I am satisfied the minister is taking this seriously.”