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As finale, 19th Assembly fines Nokleby and passes capital budget

Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr enters the chamber on the penultimate day of the 19th Assembly, October 5, 2023. Photo: Bill Braden
Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr enters the chamber on the penultimate day of the 19th Assembly, October 5, 2023. Photo: Bill Braden

The 19th Assembly of the NWT legislature petered out on Friday by fining one of its own members, a final act that served as shorthand for the past four years.

Katrina Nokleby is to be fined $4,000 for returning to Yellowknife in August, days after the city was placed under an evacuation order, then remaining.

That one of this assembly’s last acts should be a matter of internal discipline was no surprise. In the past four years, an MLA has been removed, a minister – Nokleby – has been kicked out of cabinet, and the impression left with the public has been one of bickering and animosity.

On Friday, in a series of goodbye speeches, many MLAs sought to push back against that characterization, asserting they had often worked together closely and productively.

Yet education minister RJ Simpson summed up much of the prevailing mood when he joked that it was time to “finally and mercifully put the 19th Assembly out of its misery.”

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Years of fires, Covid, floods and feuding have taken a toll, leaving some politicians – and some voters – glad of an upcoming election.

Even so, multiple MLAs were left in tears as they delivered farewell remarks on Friday, among them Frame Lake’s Kevin O’Reilly and Nunakput’s Jackie Jacobson, who have served in territorial politics for a combined 20 years.

Mental health issues ‘affected many’

After rose-tinted valedictory statements, the return to earth came in a vote to fine Nokleby that passed unanimously.

O’Reilly said integrity commissioner David Phillip Jones’ recommendation that the Great Slave MLA be fined needed to be followed “to ensure the honour of this House and public confidence.”

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Jones made the recommendation earlier in the week. He said her return, when 19,000 others had followed a request to head elsewhere, brought her office into disrepute.

The fine would have been $7,500 but was reduced to $4,000 as Nokleby told Jones she had already donated $3,500 to charity.

Several MLAs took the chance to speak on the motion.

Richard Edjericon, the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA, noted that Steve Norn – his predecessor in the district – had been expelled from the legislature for violating a public health order when he broke isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. That Norn is Indigenous and Nokleby is not “is not lost on me and should not be lost on anyone in this assembly,” Edjericon said, drawing an equivalency between their actions.

The integrity commissioner said he would have considered recommending Nokleby be suspended, rather than simply fined, had an election not been imminent. RCMP have said their investigation into Nokleby’s conduct is over and no charges will be laid.

Yellowknife South MLA and finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said the mitigating factors Nokleby cited for her actions, such as deteriorating mental health, “affected many of my constituents, who were evacuated – and who abided by the order.”

Nokleby was not present for the debate, though on Friday morning she told the CBC she accepted the integrity commissioner’s verdict.

“I regret not going on the first day and being down in Alberta to begin with, so it wouldn’t have been a point, or it wouldn’t ever have arisen,” she told the broadcaster.

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Capital budget passed

In other business on Friday evening, MLAs passed a 2024-25 capital budget by 14 votes to three. O’Reilly, Edjericon and Yellowknife North’s Rylund Johnson opposed it, with O’Reilly and Johnson voicing concern that the Taltson hydro expansion will become, in O’Reilly’s phrasing, “a boondoggle.”

There is concern among multiple regular MLAs that Taltson, a huge project connecting a South Slave hydro dam to the North Slave, will ultimately have very few buyers for its cheap energy and deliver few measurable benefits for the vast cost. (Other MLAs, like Thebacha’s Frieda Martselos, actively champion the project as job creation for the South Slave.)

Taltson’s cost is far from certain, and far from public.

A preliminary business case is said to have been drawn up but has been kept secret, and even a simple estimate of the project’s overall cost is being actively withheld from the public domain despite repeated requests.

Ron Bonnetrouge, the Deh Cho MLA, sits alone in the chamber during a break in proceedings on October 6, 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Ron Bonnetrouge, the Deh Cho MLA, sits alone in the chamber during a break in proceedings on October 6, 2023. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Through inflation alone, the project would now cost at least $1.5 billion based on a 2014 estimate of $1.2 billion. In reality, changes in the supply chain are likely to mean the cost would be significantly higher.

Not that Taltson is even a real feature of the 2024-25 capital budget, beyond a little cash for feasibility studies. O’Reilly and Johnson were using Friday to set out positions that they, as MLAs not seeking re-election, hope others will take up in future.

Instead, the 2024-25 capital budget promises money for the likes of replacing the Frank Channel bridge, extending Inuvik’s runway and building a territorial fire centre. Just over half of the $361 million in spending contained in the budget is federally backed.

The capital budget does not publicly assign exact dollar figures to large projects, which the territorial government says is to avoid compromising the GNWT’s ability to get the best deal it can during procurement.

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Overarching figures provided include $94 million for roads, $73 million for community infrastructure, $62 million for airports and $55 million for healthcare infrastructure. There is $13 million for housing.

The disparity between the sums for roads and housing triggered complaints from some regular MLAs that the territory’s priorities are out of order, but ministers say the spending is more nuanced than that.

For example, ministers have argued in the past week that large sums of housing cash are now flowing directly to Indigenous governments, while finance minister Wawzonek said on Thursday that despite the $94-million figure, the budget share given over to roads has “decreased every year, including this year” since she has been in cabinet.

A tradition for MLAs involves tossing their sets of papers into the air at the end of each four-year assembly, in an apparent act of joy at being relieved of their responsibilities.

This time around, the YouTube live stream airing proceedings reached its eight-hour limit and cut out at almost the precise moment that was about to occur – a fitting end to a greatly interrupted four years in which joy was hard to find.