Abernethy: unfair criticism could drive staff away from NWT
The NWT's health and social services minister believes not all recent criticism directed at Child and Family Services was fair, and the result could be dismayed staff leaving their jobs.
Glen Abernethy survived a vote to remove him from office after Canada's Auditor General delivered a report which suggested child protection in the territory had, in many instances, worsened since the last such audit in 2014.
While a number of regular MLAs said Abernethy himself was "a good minister," they felt the bid to remove him would send a broader message to cabinet about perceived underperformance.
In an extensive interview with Cabin Radio, Abernethy reiterated his department had accepted every one of the Auditor General's recommendations.
However, he felt some regular MLAs produced unfair, unsupported criticisms of the department's work without really understanding what had been happening.
"We do lose people, and we will continue to lose people. After the last audit, we lost people because people ... were tired of taking the abuse," Abernethy told Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News.
Asked if he believes that will happen again after recent criticisms, Abernethy continued: "I think so. I really want to say no. I really do.
"Some of the criticisms that came from the Auditor General, and some of the criticisms that came from the MLAs... it hurts, right?
"I think it's an obligation of all of us, as MLAs, to be as informed as possible.
"Some of the MLAs are just relying on what they heard from the Auditor General. They may not have had all the facts they needed in order to have accurate statements that really reflected the truth of what's going on."
Asked if he felt that would have an effect on staff, Abernethy replied: "I do."
In the full interview – which you can listen to below, or read the transcript – Abernethy discusses his future political ambitions, whether the NWT should have party politics, and relations between ministers and regular MLAs, alongside the issues facing his department and staff morale.
This interview was recorded on November 2, 2018.
Ollie Williams: We have a lot to talk about, not just the political drama of the past week but also your work as the health and social services minister, and how the political system of the Northwest Territories works and doesn't work. We've had complaints from regular MLAs – by no means anything new – to suggest the system is not working as it should, that communication isn't happening as it should, and we've seen one MLA propose a set of amendments moving us toward party politics. Those amendments were defeated, we'll get into some of that a little later on.
Facing a vote of confidence
Let's start by looking at the events of the past week. How did you feel when you learned that regular MLAs were seeking to remove you from your position?
Glen Abernethy: It's frustrating, obviously. As a minister I've tried to work hard over the years to make sure my colleagues are informed, to work with them closely. My relationship with the social programs committee, I think, is very good: I brief them on a regular basis on different issues; they provide me with insight, guidance, recommendations. I think we have had a very good relationship. So I was frustrated but, at the same time, I wasn't overly concerned about the end result.
Prior to the notice of motion of revocation, two of the MLAs told me it was coming and they told me they wouldn't be supporting it. The day that the notice came, before that notice was made, I had a third MLA tell me that notice was coming and they wouldn't be supporting it. So I wasn't worried about being removed but I–
Notes: Motions in the NWT legislature require a simple majority to pass, which means cabinet needs the support of three regular MLAs to defeat a no-confidence motion.
So what you're telling me there is you already knew, days in advance, that this vote was not going to succeed.
So essentially we wasted a lot of time, didn't we?
Well... we can't deny the fact that there is significant concern about the Office of the Auditor General's audit, and the findings of it. If I had been a regular MLA, I might have suggested a motion of censure instead of a motion of revocation. A motion of censure would have been an indication that MLAs have massive concerns about a topic or an issue; they would have had an opportunity to express those concerns in the debate of the motion of censure, and I think that was important. I wouldn't necessarily have moved a motion of revocation, but the conversations that occurred and the ability for the MLAs to express their frustration is still important.
Do you feel as though you've had an ability to express your frustration?
Frustration in what area?
I imagine you can't not be frustrated when you read a report like that.
I wrote my speech around the motion of revocation and I worked on it for a couple of days. And when I wrote it the first time, it was, like, 30 pages long. I'm sure everybody is happy that I didn't try to read in 30 pages.
The Auditor General's report
You had a 20-minute time limit, and you reached 18 minutes and 53 seconds. You did OK.
I whittled it down to 17 pages. I travelled to almost every community in this territory and I talked to children and parents, and adults, who had lived through the system that we had in place for years. I travelled with people like Cindy Blackstock who helped educate me on child and family services in this country. She taught me things that I didn't know I needed to know, and I certainly didn't know that I didn't know, about how this system works and how the colonial approach is causing more harm than good. Senator Murray Sinclair, last week, said the monster of residential school is now alive and well in child and family services in this country – and he's right. That's what I heard. I didn't state it as well as he did, but it's the same thing I heard and my colleagues heard when we toured the Child and Family Services Act back in 2010.
We came forward with 73 recommendations to move us away from a colonial system to more of a system based on supporting and building families, and we moved away from our old system when Building Stronger Families finally started to become a reality four years ago. The intent of Building Stronger Families is to do exactly what the title suggests – to work with the families to provide them, when they're struggling, with the tools they need to maintain that safe, loving home that everybody wants to provide for their children; and to keep families together, not take Indigenous children away from their parents on a permanent basis but help those families while they are struggling. It may result in children having to be away for a short period of time, but let's have that plan of care in place to make sure those relationships are being maintained if the parents are maybe working on some other issues. Those are things that we are actually doing.
What the Auditor General told us is that some of the work that we're doing with respect to our own standards... standards we have put in place, we are not necessarily following. For instance, the legislation says we are supposed to do a follow-up every three months with the family. The Auditor General is saying we didn't always hit that three months so, as a result, we are increasing risk. And we have accepted those recommendations. They did not, in any way, shape, or form, suggest that we are not doing the right things, but when it comes to actually following our rules as far as monitoring and maintaining, we are not doing what we said we are going to do. The tool, the building blocks, Building Stronger Families, Structured Decision Making, the Matrix, moving to a prevention-based system, that was never in question. It's the day-to-day, "Are you getting out to see those kids every three months like you said?" where we are having difficulty.
Notes: Building Stronger Families is the territorial government’s action plan to transform Child and Family Services, launched in 2014 as a response to the last report from the Auditor General’s office. You can read the plan here and the minister’s March 2018 progress update on Building Stronger Families is here.
The Structured Decision Making model is produced by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, to help agencies and workers manage and assess case files.
The Matrix is a new Child and Family Services information system.
OK. I would take issue a little with the characterization that the Auditor General's report in no way said you were doing the wrong things, I mean–
No no, sorry. We're not doing the wrong things with respect to the system that we have put in place. We are not following up, and not following our own rules, when it comes to specific, legislated portions.
One thing the Premier said in the last week that interested me was that you and he have attended the federal-provincial-territorial meetings on topics like this, and that this is by no means unique to the NWT. The way he put it was that every jurisdiction in Canada is, to paraphrase, failing to the extent that the NWT is failing on this file, and nobody is winning when it comes to child and family services. Is that an accurate portrayal?
There is no question that this is a problem in this country. The federal government, in particular Minister Philpott, has come out publicly, saying we have a major problem in this country with an over-representation of Indigenous children in care. They are taking action. They are currently moving forward with national legislation to help strengthen the response to Indigenous children in care, and many of the principles being put forward by the federal government are consistent with what we've already done in Building Stronger Families: prevention-based, keeping families united and together, providing supports when they need it so they can stay together, and trying to address some of the root causes.
I've participated recently in telephone conversations with provincial and territorial ministers from across the country, and a number of jurisdictions are moving forward with legislation right now – Alberta, one of the Maritime provinces, Newfoundland just moved some legislation recently – most of the legislation being moved is very consistent with what we're doing as far as prevention-based systems focusing on families. There is a real move to go where we are. My caution to all of them is: 'Make sure that you resource it properly, so you can get the work done.' Because changing direction on this type of decades-and-decades of doing things one way, to try to do it a different way, you really need to make sure it's resourced properly.
But it can never be resourced properly. There is no government in Canada that has the money to resource this properly. If the Government of the Northwest Territories was going to budget for 'fixing' this, in its entirety, it would take about 10 times the territory's GDP, wouldn't it? It's a huge problem.
Sure, but... you don't want to put it all on, for instance, Health and Social Services and just Child and Family Services. If that was just the way you were looking at it, it's impossible. But that's not how you deal with the challenges that are facing families today. You deal with the challenges facing families by having strong, healthy economies where people have meaningful work, you deal with these problems by making sure that you have strong education systems in place that allow children and adults to get the educations they need to make the choices they want to make, you do it by making sure there are processes in place to help people that are struggling through addictions or mental health issues. You make sure that there is adequate housing. You make sure that the tools are in place so that those families that may be struggling can break that cycle.
This government, through the mandate items that are before us, is moving on all these initiatives. Ultimately, the results for the families that are struggling are coming from many different places. It's not just Child and Family Services. Child and Family Services is there when the family is exhausted, or doesn't have the opportunities through these other means and they need help.
How big a problem, for you, is morale? You are in charge of a department and many, many staff who are already doing jobs that are extraordinarily tough and demanding, and they're doing so in an environment where there is near-constant criticism of the achievements of the department and its staff, and an environment where there is high turnover at the same time.
As a human being, as a minister, as an MLA, I have been really lucky, because the staff in Health and Social Services – both before I was a minister and while I've been a minister – don't tend to hold back. They have no problem talking to me. Because I worked in the system prior to being an MLA and a minister, I know many of them. I am aware of the challenges that the staff are facing. But I'd like to say, to make it clear... the people that are working the front line in Child and Family Services? Many of them are amazing, and many of them are trying to do everything they can. They have been asked, by us, during this current rollout of Building Stronger Families, to do an awful lot without additional resources. We've spread them pretty thin, which is unfortunate.
In retrospect, based on what we know today, we may have spread them a little too thin during this transition phase – which we are rectifying currently, we are bringing in more resources to support them, and not just social workers but the supports that are around the social workers to make sure that they can do the jobs they do and are passionate about doing. But we do lose people, and we will continue to lose people. You know, after the last audit, we lost people because people, as you said, were tired of taking the abuse.
Do you think that will happen again this time?
I think so. I really want to say no, Ollie. I really do. Some of the criticisms that came from the Auditor General, and some of the criticisms that came from the MLAs... it hurts, right?
Were they fair criticisms?
From who? The Auditor General or the MLAs?
Well, you tell me. Pick one. Which do you think were, and weren't?
The Auditor General's report is factual. It's based on legislation. But it doesn't take into context the realities of doing the work and the environment in which the work is done. So... some files, some checks may not be happening, but it's not because the staff didn't want to do the checks. It's because if an emergency comes in, the emergency is going to be the priority, and some of the other things may not happen when they need to happen. As in all areas, there are some staff that maybe aren't as qualified or competent as others, but mostly the staff we have are amazing and trying really hard. It's the nature of the work that gets complicated.
Did the Auditor General go out to the front line, and spend time with staff and communities?
They were doing file reviews. When they came across concerns in files, they would contact the department, who would deal with them. They did come across a couple where they thought they had identified an immediate risk – we dealt with those right away. There was no requirement for them, based on their methodology, to go out and learn the environment. But there wouldn't be. The Auditor General is looking for compliance, compliance on legislation and policy-driven initiatives. For instance, if the legislation says 'jump high,' they're checking to see if we jumped that high. Not that there was a whole lot of stuff around the platform on which we were jumping that was changing the nature of it. They're like, 'Did you jump that high?' And the answer in some of our areas was, clearly, no.
What about the MLAs' criticisms?
I think it's an obligation of all of us, as MLAs, to be as informed as possible. And I felt that the MLAs that have been engaging with me on files – the MLAs from the Social Programs – were well informed.
Notes: The Standing Committee on Social Development, formerly the Standing Committee on Social Programs, is in part responsible for reviewing the performance of Abernethy's department. MLAs on the committee are: Shane Thompson (the chair), Michael Nadli, Frederick Blake Jr, Tom Beaulieu, and Julie Green. Alternates are Danny McNeely, Herb Nakimayak, and RJ Simpson.
When you say Social Programs... there's a committee.
The Standing Committee on Social Programs, yes. I felt they were very informed. I feel like they work hard to understand the issues that are going on in the departments they are responsible for. But not all MLAs sit on that committee, so some of the MLAs are just relying on what they heard from the Auditor General. They may not have had all the facts they needed in order to have accurate statements that really reflected the truth of what's going on.
And you, then, think that has an effect on staff?
Relations between ministers and MLAs
I want to shift a little, to look at the world of Northwest Territories politics, and whether we're getting it right there. We've seen, not for the first time, a call from regular MLAs to remove a couple of ministers – you were one of them. You survived by 11 votes to seven. Rewind about nine years and you were on the other side doing the exact same thing. There was a very similar motion. I could have taken your words from nine years ago, describing a cabinet that didn't listen and would go back to its old ways if regular MLAs didn't take this action... I could cut and paste those words, and put them in the mouth of a regular MLA today, and it would be virtually identical. Why do you think we have that?
Notes: Here is the text of Glen Abernethy's 2009 statement. One excerpt reads: "To me, this motion is the only thing that I believe they would take seriously. Anything with less potential impact would be soundly ignored by the entity which is cabinet. The beast would go back to its old habits. cabinet would go back to business as usual and continue to ignore us."
I can only talk about my experience, right? In 2009, even though I'd been there for two years, I would still consider myself to have been a rookie MLA, still learning the system. I was frustrated because I was trying to get information and I was trying to get some ideas in, and I think I was still really optimistic that what I was saying was the right thing – that if I said it, it should probably happen, because I'm listening to the people – and I didn't truly understand one of the most fundamental parts of consensus government. This is hard. It involves digging into the weeds, doing the work with each other, going to each other's offices, spending time in each other's offices staring each other in the eye until you understand each other's points of view.
I think, in 2009, I got caught up in the excitement. There was a lot of excitement by some of the returning MLAs that they were going to do something big and bold. But, through the whole process, I was thinking to myself: 'Some of these ministers I don't have a problem with. Some of these ministers are really good.' I had a problem with the Premier and the Minister of Finance, those were the only people I really had a problem with. The whole time, I was thinking to myself: 'This doesn't feel right.' But the excitement was there, everybody was rolling with it. I wish I could go back and talk to myself.
Right, because you'll understand how that sounds ridiculous to some people listening. That people are getting 'carried away with the excitement' of it? I mean, it's the future of the territory...
It's the future of the Territories. But, I mean, consensus government is hard, and it's hard to sometimes understand. When these things come up, excitement, you know, 'We're going to do something to send a message, we're going to do it,' without recognizing that there are other options... to go back in time, that government probably needed a motion of censure – which is, 'You guys need to get your stuff together and you need to work with us. We see X, Y, and Z as your problems. You need to do better. If you don't do better, we're going to have to do something.' To me, that's a way better first step than moving to revocation... unless the minister has done something illegal, unethical, or immoral. At that point, there is no question a removal would be necessary. But if it's just that you are concerned about performance or your own relationship with that person, revocation is not the right way. A motion of censure would be far more appropriate.
Do you feel as though there has been an improvement? Let's go back to you in 2009, on the other side of that chamber, supporting the motion. Now, many of the issues seem to be the same. 'Cabinet is not listening, cabinet solidarity is getting us nowhere...' – is there any progress in this?
You know what, I mean... we have a strong cabinet accomplishing things. We have moved on all the mandate items. Cabinet solidarity is an important cornerstone of consensus government, and I think people don't recognize that, within cabinet itself, we fight like cats and dogs. We are coming from different perspectives, we have different responsibilities, we fight like cats and dogs – but, when we find consensus, when we finally get a general agreement on a topic, we agree to agree publicly in order to show that we will stand with each other.
But the danger of that – and I understand there are many, many plus points to acting that way – a danger of that, though, is you can come across robotic and of a hive mind, as though it's all just one wall.
I appreciate that. But if there was no support of the concept of cabinet solidarity... I do have to say, one of the other cornerstones of consensus government is 'no surprises.' We work hard to make sure the MLAs are not surprised by issues. In many cases, they have way more heads-up than the public. They see the business plan months and months before the budget comes through. They see budgets long before they come forward. This does not exist in other governments, but it's a reality. When it comes to legislation, members get what is called the legislative proposal sometimes months, if not years in advance of a piece of legislation coming through, that they have the opportunity to provide insight to. There are protocols that we follow. When it comes to solidarity, it's important so we can demonstrate a commitment to particular issues and ideas. The same is true for some of the things that are decided in caucuses in the Legislative Assembly. There is often a requirement for us to support, publicly, some of the decisions we've made in caucus – and I can promise you there is never full agreement, but there is a consensus.
And yet, we still have regular MLAs standing up virtually every day and saying, 'I haven't been able to get anyone to pay attention to this for years,' or, 'No one has come back to me on this for years.' So where is the breakdown? If MLAs are getting all this information so far in advance, why do we end up with the theatre, year after year, of MLAs standing up and saying, 'Nobody over there is listening, nobody cares'?
For me, back in 2009, I have to admit that I was a newer MLA. I was learning the ropes. I was really learning to understand what consensus government was, and realizing how much work it was to actually get things through and done. I was coming to the realization that... being heard, and agreed with, are two different things. Having people understand your position, and having them agree with you, are two different things. And as a member of a consensus government, it's my obligation to make sure I am bringing forward the voice of the people so it is heard. And I try to do that in a way that people will agree. But not everybody is going to agree and, if they don't agree, it doesn't mean I wasn't heard. It took me a while to understand that. When we were going through that motion in 2009 is, I think, when I was really coming to the realization that this is about hard work, getting down into the weeds, doing it, and trying to ensure that my voice was not only being heard, but agreed to.
The MLAs are being heard. If you look at all the pieces of legislation that have come forward... let's look at the cannabis legislation as an example. There was a lot of noise, and a lot of anger, coming out from the MLAs on the cannabis legislation. If you go and look through the Hansard on what happened there, ultimately, we agreed with every recommendation that they put forward except for one. The only one we didn't agree with was the requirement to have a separate door into a liquor store, if the liquor store happened to be the location that was selling cannabis. Everything else we agreed with. The one issue that was very contentious was whether or not we'd be opening ourselves up to other retail outlets, other than liquor stores. We did agree. We just didn't agree to doing it that day. We said we needed time to make it happen. We said we'd get it done in a couple months. We did. Anybody who wants to open up a non-liquor store-based distribution can now go to the guidelines and work with the department to make it happen.
I heard, immediately after that, one of the MLAs saying: 'They didn't listen to us, they didn't do anything we said.' And I'm like, 'But... we agreed to everything you said. The legislation shows we agreed to everything you said.' I don't understand that. I don't understand why, if we agreed to everything, the message that's being sent out is that we disagreed with everything.
In the last week or two, we've had discussion of bringing party politics to the NWT. This has been characterized various ways. Kieron Testart, the Kam Lake MLA who proposed it, said this was not the death of consensus government and that the two could co-exist: you could have political parties in the NWT but people could still stand as independents. He had various proposals, each of which were soundly defeated earlier this week in the legislature – opposed by, among other people, yourself. Why did you not feel as though any of his proposals worked?
That's not what I said in the House. I said I had major concerns with how he was choosing to bring forward his amendments on a piece of legislation that, in my mind, did not have any public debate or discourse on the topic he was trying to include. The Chief Electoral Officer had made a report and a number of recommendations on things that needed to be looked at. Those went to the Standing Committee on Social Programs. They did a review of those recommendations and had public consultation on what amendments needed to be done to the legislation. None of them were anything about party politics, and there was no discussion in public, or anybody telling anybody to include this in the Elections and Plebiscites Act.
Notes: The report and recommendations referenced above actually went to the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures, not the Standing Committee on Social Programs.
So your issue is there was no public consultation and it was the wrong way, in your opinion, to go about introducing the topic and the debate?
In the debate, I said it's not the appropriate way. It feels like an end-run to accomplish something that was not discussed or debated in public. I also said that if you're going to change the form of government in the NWT – if party politics is something that's going to happen - it is a major and significant change in the way that you do business in this territory. If you're going to do that, you need to take it to the people of the NWT and get their input. Now, I've heard some people say party systems. I've heard some people, in particular Indigenous governments, say they want guaranteed seats. I've heard other structures suggested. And I've heard a lot of people say it's not consensus government that's the problem, it's MLAs who aren't interested – on both sides of the house – in working together. I'm of the opinion that consensus government can be an incredibly powerful and effective form of government if you've got people who are willing to dig into the weeds and do the work.
Big 'if'. Should it be preserved?
There are very few places in the world that operate to this kind of consensus government. Party politics, on the other hands, is almost uniformly used in many other democracies. Why do you believe we have so few people coming to the NWT and saying, 'Oh, man, we should adopt consensus government'? We seem to be forever looking at party politics wistfully... why do you think consensus government doesn't seem to be so highly ranked?
I don't think most people even know that it exists. I've had an opportunity to attend meetings all over this country and I've had people from provinces and territories go, 'Oh, man, that would be awesome.'
Probably because they feel like, as incumbents, they'd be able to stay in power longer...
Well, maybe. But it also means it's an opportunity to work together in a collaborative way with all colleagues, and work for the common good without having partisan behaviour or politics creep in.
But cabinet solidarity is partisan behaviour, isn't it?
That's assuming that we all agree. We argue, debate, and fight about issues on a daily basis.
Political parties do, but then they come out and present the party line.
Fair enough, but, if that's the argument you're going to make, then we are in a constant minority system. Which means we still have to work with the parties on the other side – which we do.
The next election
Do you feel, in about a year's time, you'd want to remain the Minister of Health and Social Services?
I'm going to run again, and hopefully the people of my riding support me. If they support me and I am honoured with their support and get re-elected, then I will put my name in for cabinet again, and it will be the will of the 19 members of the House whether or not I stay there.
I didn't ask if you thought you would be selected – and let's not forget you were interested in the Premier's job last time around. What would you like to do?
There is a lot of work to do in Health and Social Services that I am committed to doing. There are big things afoot that I think will make a profound difference for all people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – with respect to the provision of health and social services, and I would like to remain a part of that.
And I know we're a year out, but what would you like to see the next Premier of the Northwest Territories do? What kind of leader is the NWT going to need? What kind of changes are they going to need to marshal?
I think we need to focus on the things that could make profound change in this territory. We really need to make sure we get our economy under control. We really need to make sure we put the pieces in place, and I'm optimistic a lot of those things are going to happen, just as a note, as far as legislation is concerned. But legislation is a piece. It's bringing those pieces to reality, and the next government is going to be in a position to bring those pieces to reality in a way where we are collaborating with our Indigenous partners, community governments, MLAs on both sides of the house, for a common good to make these things happen.