The Premier of the Northwest Territories accused union members of "illegal job action" after activists confronted him at a constituency meeting and surrounded his vehicle.
The incident, which took place on Tuesday evening – hours after the Union of Northern Workers served strike notice on Bob McLeod's government – was captured in widely shared video.
People wearing the union's distinctive orange shirts can be seen in heated confrontation with the premier, who eventually walks out of the building.
One union member, Sean Dalton, subsequently accused the premier of having "hit me with his truck" in attempting to leave the venue, Yellowknife's Stanton Suites.
But in an extensive interview with Cabin Radio about the incident and the threat of strike action, McLeod said union activists had engaged in "illegal job action" by confronting him in his vehicle.
In this story: Scroll down for a full transcript of our interview with Premier Bob McLeod
"They're saying they understood that, in strike action, you can block a vehicle for three minutes. Well, we're not in legal strike action yet," said McLeod.
"They surrounded my vehicle, and wouldn't let me leave. To me it was illegal job action. The strike hasn't legally started yet and to me it was an illegal activity."
Dalton said he would report the incident to police.
RCMP told Cabin Radio on Wednesday evening: "Yellowknife RCMP received a report of an alleged incident involving a vehicle and a person in a parking lot location, occurring last evening. No injuries were reported.
"An investigation has been opened and is ongoing."
Cabin Radio left a voice message and filed two emailed interview requests with the Union of Northern Workers between 12:56pm and 3:30pm on Wednesday. The union, which is currently lacking a communications officer, had not responded at the time of publishing this report.
"My wife is very afraid now," said McLeod. "She wants me to go to the police and report it because I travel a lot and she's at home alone a lot, and she's concerned about that."
'Premature' to say process broken
The union and territorial government will meet for two days of mediation on Friday and Saturday, at Yellowknife's Quality Inn, in a last-ditch effort to reach a deal before strike action, which is due to begin on Monday.
Premier McLeod told Cabin Radio he has faith that an agreement can still be reached, and dismissed suggestions the bargaining process has failed northerners.
Asked why the territory would not accept the union's offer of binding arbitration, McLeod said: "Well, we do have a process that's in place and there will be mediation starting on Friday and Saturday, and I believe that's in our legislation.
"We're following that process. And we don't, we can't just abandon it at the first instance where things get difficult. So we are going through the process.
"I think it's premature to say it hasn't worked," he added.
MLAs Julie Green and Kieron Testart were among those calling on Wednesday for binding arbitration to take place. A vote in the legislature on the use of binding arbitration is scheduled for Friday.
Read a full transcript of our interview with Premier Bob McLeod below.
Listen to this interview in full on Cabin Radio's Lunchtime News from 12pm on Thursday, February 7, 2019 >> Listen live
This interview was recorded on February 6, 2019.
Ollie Williams: A lot of people will have seen video of your constituency meeting. The video is not comprehensive – it doesn't show the whole thing. From your point of view, what happened?
Premier Bob McLeod: I called a constituency meeting before this session like I do before every session and, usually, I get anywhere from 10 to 20 people attending. I was expecting I might have a little bit more people because of the situation.
When I walked into the hotel, some of my regulars came out and advised me that the room was fuller than normal and there were a lot of UNW people there. So I went in and I requested – I asked – if they were all Yellowknife South constituents, and most of them said they were. I recognized a few of them. And so I thought, 'Well, I'll continue with my constituency meeting.'
There was a reporter there. I asked him to leave because I wanted my constituents to speak frankly. He wanted to stay. He asked the UNW contingent if he could stay and they said, 'We don't mind you staying.' But it was my meeting. I was paying for the room, I'm paying for everything. So I said, 'No, you've got to leave.' He asked to stay a bit to cover some of the discussion and then he would leave, he said, no problem.
I started my meeting as normal and I started talking about this session, some of the work that we're going to do – it was a budget session, you know, we are six months away from the election and we have a couple more very short session – and the whole very large contingent of UNW workers, most of their executive, all of their presidents of the locals, were in the room.
To me, they just overtook – they filled the whole room. To me, there was over 100 people. And then they started asking questions, and then they started shouting, and started making inflammatory statements. They started chanting, and it was obvious that it was not going to be conducive to any formal discussion or any engaged discussion. So I said, 'OK, well, I'm shutting down my constituency meeting. The meeting is over.' And I took time to... there was a couple of constituents that had wanted to talk to me. I told them they could phone me and we would make other arrangements.
The UNW people followed me out into the lobby. There was more accusations and more 'why I wasn't doing more.' I told them there was a collective bargaining process that we would follow and it would be inappropriate for me to discuss it outside of that, and then they followed me out of the hotel. I was parked in the parking lot across the street. They followed me out to my vehicle, they surrounded my vehicle, and wouldn't let me leave. To me it was illegal job action. The strike hasn't legally started yet and to me it was an illegal activity.
And so I started to back out – inched out – and at least one fellow took it upon himself to throw himself against my vehicle a couple times. Some of my regulars intervened, I believe, and then I managed to leave. I have since had some of our regulars that followed me out into the parking lot corroborate: they saw what happened and they said that I inched out, that everybody left. Nobody was hurt.
Of course, people do have the right to protest. People do have the right to hold power accountable in different ways. Do you feel as though union members had the right to be at your constituency meeting?
They gave us notice that they were going to go on strike on Monday. They gave us notice of strike. They're saying they understood that in strike action, you can block a vehicle for three minutes. Well, we're not in legal strike action yet. So.
Would you have welcomed them to your constituency meeting had they simply sat down and held a discussion with you?
Oh, sure. I mean, if they had been orderly, if they had been respectful of the process, you know. Not to come and just take over the whole meeting and start yelling and screaming.
Well, that's what I was going to ask: where would you draw the line? What is acceptable and what is not when an environment is as charged as the one in this territory is right now?
Well, in my mind, and not only in constituency meeting but any meeting I'm in, if you're not being respectful and talking in a form that is not challenging you... otherwise, I'll cancel the meeting. I'll stop the meeting, right there.
Some people listening to this who've been here for a long time will have long memories and will well remember very violent, very horrible strikes in the early 90s – that I frankly have very little knowledge of, I was not here at the time. I wonder how sensitive you are to that and, when people see footage like that of last night, and they hear people talking in such heated tones, what goes through your mind about how carefully both you and the union have to manage the climate, the atmosphere in which this happens?
Well, I think we have to be very careful, very cognizant. My wife is very afraid now. She wants me to go to the police and report it because I travel a lot and she's at home alone a lot, and she's concerned about that. You know, I don't want Yellowknife citizens to go into the same sort of feeling as the strike that you referred to.
Out of interest, have you gone to the police? Have you raised it at all?
I haven't had a chance to go. I'll talk to my officials here and take the appropriate action.
I want to ask you a couple of broader questions about this whole process because, of course, people would expect that of me. I do want to ask about binding arbitration because that has been offered by the union. I know a lot of people struggle to see why that would not be a good option for everybody at this point: where an independent third party listens to both sides, and then comes up with a deal that you both have to accept. So it's different to mediation. What do you think?
Well, we do have a process that's in place and there will be mediation starting on Friday and Saturday, and I believe that's in our legislation.
But the process in place has failed, hasn't it, Premier?
Well, that remains to be seen.
So... so you're happy with the way things have gone so far?
No. I mean, we're following the process. I mean, we have a process that's been negotiated with the UNW and other unions. And we're following that process. And we don't, we can't just abandon it at the first instance where things get difficult. So we are going through the process. The mediation will take place on Friday and Saturday. And then from there, the union has notified us that they're going on strike on Monday, and then we'll have to look at our options going forward.
So does that mean binding arbitration may be an option after that? I mean, where does that fit in?
Well, I mean, I haven't looked at all of the options yet.
We've had this for more than three years. I mean, who has looked at all of the options yet in that time?
Well, we have our minister of finance who's our lead on collective bargaining and I'm sure he's well aware of all of the options and, at the appropriate time, he'll make a recommendation to us as to how we can move forward.
What are the consequences going to be if strike action happens, for the Northwest Territories, do you think?
Well, I mean, we have agreed to essential workers – work will continue. management will step in, and I'm sure certain programs and services that are non-essential will not be delivered.
Where do you expect that impact to be felt the most from what you've seen of your government's plans and what might happen?
Well, I think mostly in government administration, I would say.
And so what impact on people's everyday lives might people listening to this expect?
Well, we have contingency plans for things like cheques and so on, but I'm sure a lot of the paperwork for day-to-day administration will be impacted. I'm sure that where there's essential services there also will still be some changes there, too.
How often have you spoken directly to the leader of the union, Todd Parsons? I mean, I know you both have bargaining teams, but have you picked up a phone at all, recently? Have either of us spoken to the other?
No. It would be inappropriate for us to do so.
OK. So both of you leave it to bargaining teams, and you have no contact yourselves?
I mean, if it was up to us, then it wouldn't need a bargaining team, would it?
Well, no, but people will see you as the two figureheads who are the key players here. I appreciate that from your point of view it's your bargaining team, but people listening to this see you and see Todd Parsons as the people, frankly, responsible.
Well, I mean, we have a process which involves bargaining teams and different processes, so we are following those processes. Or else why have those processes if it would just be me and Todd Parsons sitting down and working it out?
Some would say, why have those processes if they don't work? Do we need to look at having a new process after this? You've been through this process, we all have. Do you think we need to, once all of this is done, go back and look at whether this is the right way to do it?
Well, I think it's premature to say it hasn't worked. I think the union has... it has always worked very well. I think the union has benefited from it over the years. I think the pay and benefits that our workers have are probably some of the best in Canada.
So what changed?
What do you mean, what changed?
Well, the process doesn't... I mean, you say it's a little premature. From my point of view, we're four and a half days away from strike action. Why hasn't the process worked the way it used to in the past?
Well, I mean, there's still six days for it to work.
So... so, OK, so you as far as you're concerned, the process hasn't failed until people go out through the door and strike.
That's right. It's not over till it's over, as they say.
OK. I feel like there's a hockey analogy floating over this somewhere in a minute, and you're going to tell me about overtime. How much faith do you have, then, that come Monday morning everyone's going to get to walk in the door as usual, and this will be put to bed?
Well, I certainly am optimistic. I know we want a deal. I know we have a very, very experienced mediator. The union has said they are not bluffing, they're going on strike. And so I guess we'll see. We'll see if that comes to pass or not.
And just lastly, I wanted to ask if there was anything else you wanted to add?
Well, I think that we want to have a deal we want to have our employees work and get a fair wage, and also work in a safe environment. So that's what we're hoping.