One of the Northwest Territories’ most senior bureaucrats appeared to use highly charged language in an extraordinary invective aimed at territorial politician Kevin O’Reilly on Tuesday.
A comment from the Facebook account of Willard Hagen, the Deputy Minister of Lands, labelled O’Reilly a “raciest asshole” [sic] and a “white boy who thinks he has all the solutions because he’s a white boy and the natives need him.”
The statements appeared in a comment beneath an opinion piece published by NNSL, shared to Facebook by Jackson Lafferty – who, having just served a four-year term as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, is to be acclaimed in Monfwi and hopes to become the NWT’s next premier.
Lafferty’s post was deleted around two hours after it was first shared. Deleting the post removed Hagen’s comment.
“I don’t think it’s worth responding to,” O’Reilly said when reached by phone on Tuesday afternoon.
O’Reilly has just finished a four-year term as the MLA for Frame Lake and is running for re-election against Dave Ramsay, a former NWT industry minister.
Hagen, who is of Gwich’in ancestry and was born in Tsiigehtchic, could not be reached at his office. Cabin Radio left a message on his cellphone voicemail.
NNSL reported Hagen told the newspaper later on Tuesday he expected to be fired as a consequence of his comments.
“Maybe they will fire me but I didn’t ask for the job,” the newspaper quoted Hagen as saying.
In an emailed response to Cabin Radio, Toni Riley – the Department of Lands’ manager of communications – wrote: “Mr Hagen was not speaking on behalf of the GNWT.” No further comment was provided by the department.
As his department’s most senior employee, Hagen must abide by a strict code of conduct during an election campaign. That code of conduct is published by the NWT government online.
The code states Hagen must not “speak in public or express views in writing for distribution to the public on any matter that forms part of the platform of a territorial or federal political party, including criticism of candidates, position, or policies.”
The NWT government says employees who violate the code “may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.”
‘As a bureaucrat, I’m ashamed’
The opinion piece, written by NNSL publisher Bruce Valpy, called on individuals who win their districts in the upcoming territorial election to pull the NWT government out of the Akaitcho and Dehcho land claims negotiations – leaving land claims to be concluded by Ottawa and Indigenous governments alone.
Commenting beneath Lafferty’s share of the story – which was publicly accessible – Hagen appeared to suggest O’Reilly was part of “the main problem” holding back land claim settlement.
Four separate individuals drew Cabin Radio’s attention to the comments in telephone calls and messages on Tuesday afternoon.
One member of staff at the Department of Lands, who asked for their name to be withheld for fear of the professional consequences of commenting on a senior manager’s actions, told Cabin Radio: “As a bureaucrat, I’m ashamed of this. It’s disgusting, and indicative of how MLAs are considered inside the bureaucracy at the higher levels – in spite of what they may say.”
Hagen, who was appointed deputy minister of the department by Premier Bob McLeod in May 2016, provided no evidence to substantiate any of the claims he made in the comment.
Hagen is also a former chief executive and chair of the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board.
According to a biography on the board’s website, he was a founder of Aklak Air and served as president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council. Hagen referenced this role in his Facebook comment, writing: “I settled the Gwich’in land claim as president in 1992.”
Hagen was elected president of the council in 1990, two years before the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement was signed.
O’Reilly, considered a champion of the environment and climate change action, routinely clashed with cabinet in the legislature over the past four years.
Commenting on the same NNSL opinion piece in a separate share of the article, O’Reilly wrote on Monday: “[The] GNWT has proven to be the obstacle and needs to get out of the way. Our system of governance and resource management is different by design.”
Clarification: September 17, 2019 – 18:01 MT. This report initially ran under a headline that characterized Willard Hagen’s words as a “slur.” The word was not used in the report itself. What does and does not constitute a slur is often a matter of perspective and hence a more subjective word than we should have chosen in the circumstances. The headline has been amended accordingly.