From disasters to disputes and new legislation, how will the Northwest Territories’ 19th Assembly be remembered in years to come?
While many people would probably like to never again hear the word “unprecedented,” there are few words to better explain the number of crises and emergencies the last assembly faced, from a global pandemic to historic fires and flooding.
“It’s been a weird four years,” said David Wasylciw, founder of Open NWT, a website designed to make some territorial government data more accessible.
The past four years were also marked by spats among MLAs and a few cases of misconduct.
“This group had a pretty hard time coming together,” Wasylciw said. “The discord of this group hasn’t been seen to this degree in a while.”
Members of the legislature launched several complaints and more than a dozen points of order and privilege against each other. (MLAs can raise a point of order if they believe there has been a breach of the legislature’s rules or customs. They can raise a point of privilege if they believe a member’s privileges have been breached.)
But the 19th Assembly also had bright spots, including a record number of women leading the territory.
Wasylciw noted the legislature also formalized an intergovernmental council process and developed a new protocol that gives Indigenous governments equal decision-making power when drafting laws, policies and regulations related to lands and resources.
He said those moves would result in some of the “most impactful” longer-term changes from this group of politicians.
As an example, Wasylciw pointed to the Forest Act, legislation co-drafted by NWT and Indigenous governments.
“That’s a really big shift in the way things happen here and the way our public government works. And I think the longest impact of this government will be that,” he said.
How MLAs saw the assembly
Cabin Radio reached out to 18 of the 19 MLAs that finished the 19th Assembly with the same set of questions about its legacy. (We weren’t able to reach the 19th, former Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson.)
Six of the group responded, including three running for re-election and one who was acclaimed.
Julie Green, the outgoing health minister and MLA for Yellowknife Centre, declined to answer Cabin Radio’s questions but pointed to a speech she had given in the legislature on October 5. Other MLAs also gave speeches in the final days of the Assembly.
In that statement, Green said the 19th Assembly “couldn’t have been more different” than its predecessor because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Other MLAs told Cabin Radio the number of natural disasters also made the last Assembly different.
Caroline Wawzonek, elaborating on that wrote: “Beyond the physical difficulties each emergency created, these events also eroded people’s relationships and patience with one another, leading to a breakdown of communications and trust.”
Wawzonek, who spent most of the past four years as finance and industry minister, was recently acclaimed in Yellowknife South. She wrote: “It is difficult to govern without communication, and especially difficult to govern by consensus without trust.”
She said she was personally proud of slowing debt growth, making the GNWT’s capital budgets more transparent and accountable, tabling an action plan to respond to the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and improving the procurement process.
Johnson said he spent most of his time in the legislature focused on transparency and “got some small wins.” He pointed to greater transparency in the capital budget and better use of asset management proposals.
Green told the legislature she was proud of her work to increase the number of women in politics, saying she hopes representation becomes the norm.
“Having women here in the legislature has made a difference,” she said.
“There has been an unprecedented focus on housing, childcare, education and health. At the same time, women have shown they can lead on the economy, finance and infrastructure.”
Green also pointed to work by health and social services staff over the past four years to complete an alcohol strategy, seniors’ framework, and baby bundle program, alongside work to introduce Indigenous patient advocates, the office of client experience, and a draft agreement with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation to take the lead in caring for youth.
Nokleby also highlighted equal representation of women as one of the biggest accomplishments of the 19th Assembly. She said she was personally proud of her work advocating for constituents and residents from across the territory, including members of the 2SLGBTQIPA+ community.
“I am proud that I used my time to give a voice to people that just didn’t have it,” she said.
You can read Cabin Radio’s interview with Premier Caroline Cochrane, who is not running for re-election, here.
MLAs elected to the 19th Legislative Assembly set an ambitious 22 priorities shortly after the government was formed in October 2019, ranging from settling and implementing treaty, land, resources and self-government agreements to increasing food security. Those priorities were reflected in the territory’s mandate, which included 149 actions.
According to a final report on the mandate, by the end of the assembly, 77 percent of those actions had been filled and 13 percent remained in progress, while nine percent were delayed.
One action, to advance Sachs Harbour’s wind power and energy project, was discontinued. The report states that was due to poor wind resources, harsh environmental conditions and the community indicating it did not want to advance the project.
“We continued to ensure the work carried on and less disruption to government services,” Archie wrote to Cabin Radio, noting the assembly was able to complete the majority of its mandate despite the challenges it faced.
She advised the next assembly to focus on a few priorities that are achievable.
A transition report from a committee of six MLAs, which made seven recommendations to the next set of politicians, also suggested limiting the number and scope of priorities.
Martselos’ advice to the next group of MLAs is “to remain transparent, accountable and to be open to new ideas and approaches – to keep an open mind.”
Wawzonek said the next assembly should focus on priorities rather than the minutiae of policies.
“When the goal becomes process, there is no room for creativity or adaption,” she wrote.
“Departments are then at risk of being incentivized to simply do the process that was already pre-determined, rather than identify a process to achieve the prioritized outcome.”
Nokleby’s advice to incoming MLAs is “shut out” outside forces trying to interfere with the assembly and work together.
“If the next assembly wants to be successful, they really need to start from the beginning as a united group and truly live consensus government,” she said. “If people are elected with huge egos, it doesn’t work.”
Johnson advised new MLAs they will need to make trade-offs that may be unpopular as there are limited resources to address many needs.
“You just have to be willing to make a hard decision and own it,” he said. “That doesn’t come naturally to people who are eager to please.”
Correction: November 13, 2023 – 15:01 MT. This story initially stated that the Forest Act had not been amended by MLAs upon review because it had already been negotiated. In fact, the bill was amended by the Standing Committee on Economic Development and Environment.