Premier says he gave up on some MLAs and got things done anyway

Cabin Radio’s Ollie Williams interviews Premier Bob McLeod on September 17, 2019.

Premier Bob McLeod, in one of his last interviews as the NWT’s leader, acknowledged giving up on some of the territory’s 19 MLAs as he tried to get things done over the past four years.

Regular MLAs spent years complaining of being shut out by cabinet, while ministers accused those MLAs of groundless obstructionism.

Some candidates in next month’s NWT election have decried what they claim was a counterproductive breakdown in communication at the legislature, vowing to change things for the better.


Speaking to Cabin Radio, McLeod questioned whether some regular MLAs had wanted his government to fail. His solution was to ignore them.

“If you have candidates that get elected, that have one or two priority items and that’s all they focus on, and you know you’re not going to get them on-side on any matter… the reality is, in consensus government, you can operate with a cabinet and three friends,” said McLeod.

“And so it’s a lot easier to talk to members that have a more flexible agenda.”

Asked if that meant he had abandoned trying to work with some regular MLAs quite early in the last four-year government, McLeod replied: “More or less, yeah.”

McLeod did not name the MLAs in question.


Of the 11 regular MLAs, three routinely backed cabinet, operating as the “friends” to whom McLeod alluded – the Sahtu’s Daniel McNeely, Nunakput’s Herb Nakimayak, and the Mackenzie Delta’s Frederick Blake Jr.

By contrast, Kevin O’Reilly – who is campaigning for re-election in Frame Lake – readily acknowledged: “We have some very different priorities.”

Questioned about his working relationship with McLeod, O’Reilly replied: “I look forward to an opportunity to work with a new cabinet that may have a more collaborative approach and is willing to work together better.

“I guess history will judge his record.”


Asked if he regretted this apparent breakdown in consensus government, McLeod suggested it would be impossible to run such a government any other way.

“If you had to work to get everybody on-side, you wouldn’t get a lot accomplished,” he said.

“We’re here to achieve results. If we can only operate by having a 19-member cabinet, then you’re not going to get very much done.”

McLeod instead hopes he will be remembered as a leader who did get things done.

He lists the building of the Deh Cho Bridge, the Inuvik to Tuk Highway, and the new Stanton Territorial Hospital as major accomplishments of his eight-year, two-term tenure as premier.

Colleagues approached by Cabin Radio highlighted his work in “operationalizing Devolution” as a cornerstone of his contribution to the territory.

However, McLeod – who expressed a vision of a “unified, sustainable, and prosperous” territory on becoming premier in late 2011 – admitted the NWT of 2019 was “not as united or sustainable as I was hoping it would be.”

He also lamented the adding of his name to “the list of former premiers that haven’t been successful in advancing land claims as much as we would like.”

Saying the territory had struggled to cope when Indigenous governments changed leadership and changed direction at the negotiating table – while taking pains to point out they had the right to do so — McLeod concluded: “I guess there’s a reason it’s taken 30-some years.”

Set up to fail?

McLeod dismissed critics who say he rubbed shoulders too closely with southern, conservative premiers over the past year, insisting he was only acting as all premiers had before him. He countered by suggesting his declaration of a “red alert” in November 2017 had unleashed a comparative torrent of Liberal government funding after a rocky start to the NWT’s relationship with Justin Trudeau’s Ottawa.

With voters heading to the federal polls later in October, McLeod declined to suggest which of the federal parties he felt might be best-equipped to partner the NWT over the coming four years.

Yet he did urge the NWT’s next leader to find a new way of putting the government to work and measuring its success.

McLeod said the four-year mandate crafted at the start of his second term as leader was far too unwieldy, again appearing to blame regular MLAs for much of that outcome.

The mandate, which according to government documents contained 230 items (McLeod says it’s 232), was “way too much,” he said, pointing out that the mandate is a creation of all 19 MLAs, not just cabinet.

“I guess there’s two schools of thought. One is some people thought, well, we had all this work to do,” said McLeod, “and others more cynically would say, well, there were so many mandate items added because some people wanted us to fail.

“We accepted it … and we worked very hard to achieve as many of the commitments as we could.”