Education minister RJ Simpson faced reporters on Thursday as an independent audit found “deeply concerning” failings in the territory’s school system.
Simpson was also questioned on the departure of former Aurora College president Tom Weegar. Simpson said on Wednesday Weegar had chosen to leave his post, only for Weegar to contradict him hours later by claiming he had been fired.
On Thursday, Simpson admitted he had been wrong and Weegar had in fact been sacked. He said he had been quoting from an email sent to Aurora College staff on Weegar’s behalf, which suggested Weegar had departed of his own volition.
Asked if it was damaging that the minister appeared not to know how his own college president met their fate, Simpson replied: “People are talking about it. I don’t know if it’s damaging. It clearly shows – and I’ve been in talks with the college about this – that we need to do a better job communicating.
“There’s been a void. There’s been a lack of information getting out … I think what we’re going to do is move some of that information forward so people can get excited about this, because it is exciting. There’s a lot of progress being made.”
In an occasionally confrontational 15-minute session with reporters, Simpson insisted it was not strange for an education minister to appear bereft of the facts when a senior official was fired.
He also pledged a meaningful transformation of the NWT education system’s failing aspects, promising the Auditor General’s report would be acted upon.
Below, read a full transcript as reporters question Simpson on the audit and Weegar’s departure.
This recording took place on February 6, 2020. This transcript is unedited.
Alex Brockman, CBC: Well, minister, let’s start with your response to this latest report from the Auditor General.
RJ Simpson: Just in general, my response?
Alex Brockman, CBC: Yeah, you know, and yet again, the government failed in its commitments to its youngest citizens, its students. What’s your response to that?
RJ Simpson: You know what, I think that this is a great time for us to be getting this report. Not that we want to see that we came up short in a few areas, but because it’s the beginning of this new assembly, where we’ve made a commitment: we’ve prioritized improving educational outcomes for our students. And so this report, albeit not the most glowing, it’s not a scathing report, which is great. But it gives us a good launching pad from which we can take off and make some improvements. You know, there’s solid information in there. And really, the report reflects a lot of our own internal reviews.
So, you know, it would be great if we were doing everything perfectly, but that’s not the reality. We provide education. We support education in the territory, and it’s a very challenging environment. You know, we have 49 schools across 33 communities with 10 education councils and education authorities and, you know, we have some lofty goals. We want to provide equitable education to all of those people in all those different circumstances. So we set a high bar for ourselves. Maybe we didn’t hit it, but we’re getting there.
Alex Brockman, CBC: And what are you going to do as minister, then? What are some concrete actions you’re going to take to make sure that these action plans don’t get bogged down, as they have before and before and before?
RJ Simpson: You know what… so I’ve been an MLA for four years, and I saw a lot of action plans, and I had those criticisms. So that was one of the first conversations I had with the department. I said, when we have action plans, we’re going to implement those actions and we’re going to make sure they’re measurable. We’re going to make sure that people know that they’re being implemented, and we’re going to be able to measure our success.
One of the things that the OAG [Office of the Auditor General] report and our own internal reviews have found is that perhaps there were some times we were doing too many things, we had too many different initiatives. And so one of the things that we’re going to do is we’re going to find out where we need to focus our energies. And we’re going to pare down those initiatives. Right now, small communities are clearly not getting the level of education they need. And so, you want to talk about concrete actions? Focusing our energy on small communities. We’re not gonna leave anyone behind, but that’s one thing that we’re definitely going to do.
Alex Brockman, CBC: And when will we see that happen? When will that update be, conceivably? A year? Two? What type of what type of timeline are we looking at here?
RJ Simpson: If you’re looking for results… you know, I wish there was a quick fix. Education takes a long time–
Alex Brockman, CBC: Or even just on government planning on this, right? So we can know what these goals are.
RJ Simpson: Yeah, so, with the OAG audit, our staff has been working closely with the auditors over the past year. And so we’ve started to know what those issues are. And like I said, we have our own internal reviews. So the work has already begun. As with every audit, there is – will be – an action plan. It’s going to be a combined action plan because we did finish our own internal reviews. So it’s going to take the lessons learned from that as well.
And that will be ready for when the OAG comes back and presents their report to the committee. It’s usually done after session. So within the next couple months, few months, I think we can expect that – but that is the assembly’s schedule, not necessarily the department’s. But the work has already commenced.
Hilary Bird, CBC: With all due respect, you sound very similar to the– to what was said after the 2010 report. Can you make a commitment now that this is going to be different, that we’re not going to have, 10 years from now, to be in the exact same spot that we are now, not meeting those commitments that you are now committing to?
RJ Simpson: Are we going to be doing everything perfectly in 10 years and hitting all of those marks? I can’t guarantee that. But I can promise that we have learned lessons. There’s been a lot of progress since that 2010 report. That report says we didn’t have enough indicators. We weren’t doing a number of things that we needed to do. And we’ve taken steps to address a lot of those issues.
And one of those things was our Education Renewal and Innovation initiative. That started in 2013 and– like, I keep talking about this internal review, it was an internal review of the programs we implemented under that. And from that, we’re, we’re learning what we need to do better, you know? How we need to design programs better. So I think this is a good time to come into this department, because we now have that information, which we didn’t have before. So we’re in a much better position.
Alex Brockman, CBC: But again, that’s–
RJ Simpson: Can I just get a water? Sorry about that. A lot of talking today.
Alex Brockman, CBC: Yeah. Um, again, with respect to those timelines that we looked at with, like, it’s been 10 years, that’s an entire generation of students who didn’t get those improvements. Is it going to be another 10 years for our students – going to go through more of the same – for another three years, another 10 years?
RJ Simpson: Well, I wouldn’t say there’s been no improvements. We’ve implemented implemented Junior Kindergarten, which is something that’s going to start showing results hopefully in the next few years. And that’s, that’s a generational change. I mean, that’s giving children an opportunity that they never had before. So we are doing things, there has been improvements in terms of how we deliver Indigenous languages. Some of the things won’t reflected in the most recent report because the auditor looks at what has been completed on the day they’re done their audit. So we have made progress that wasn’t reflected in there either.
But, you know, I take your point. This is urgent, I feel that. I feel that sense of urgency. I’m only here for four years, you know? My term isn’t indefinite, so I want to make the biggest impact I can. And the one thing about this department, and about education in general, is everyone is so passionate. My entire staff is passionate. The regional education boards are passionate, the people in the communities are passionate. And right now there’s a real groundswell of support for improving education. And that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take those partnerships. There’s a recognition that we need to do this. There’s a desire to do this. And I think we have the right people in the right places. And now we’re going to make the kind of progress that I want to see.
Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs, APTN: When it comes to Indigenous languages, it showed that, you know, the GNWT was kind-of missing the mark with implementing the curriculum. Is it too little, too late now to expect schools to actually implement this curriculum when they don’t have, say, enough language instructors, and how will the GNWT resolve that?
RJ Simpson: I’ll never say it’s too little too late. I mean, we need to work to revitalize languages and strengthen languages. Like I said, there is work done that isn’t reflected in that report. There’s work being done to help increase the number of speakers, Indigenous language speakers. We have, er, there’s a technical briefing tomorrow which is going to go into more detail on some of these issues. But you know, I take your point, I take the gravity of this situation. Language is important. It’s the foundation of culture, it’s– it goes to more, it’s more than just communicating, it goes to the sense of wellness. And it’s vital that we keep doing what we’re doing and do more of it to revitalize the languages and increase the number of instructors.
Hilary Bird, CBC: One thing that Mr Wheeler [who led the audit] said he was most disappointed in is that he didn’t see major improvements in the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students from now and the 2010 audit. What are you doing to sort-of, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again in the next 10 years? To sort-of narrow that gap?
RJ Simpson: Well, I think that’s what this audit has really shown: is that there’s stark differences between regional centres and small communities. You know, we have a lot of great success stories. There are a lot of very successful students who come out of the territory. You know, we have– I know people in med school, I know physicists who come through the system. So we have a lot of success stories. But you’re right, there are stark differences between those who are successful and in positions to be successful and those who aren’t. And so we need to refocus our energy and do a better job providing equitable education. Right now, we’re distributing money equally. We need to do it equitably.
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: You just said that you might look to pare back some initiatives in order to prioritize, for example, schools in smaller communities. For educators listening to this, what might that look like?
RJ Simpson: Well, I think that some educators might be happy that we’re paring things back. We had 45 initiatives under the Education Renewal and Innovation initiative. And I think it was a bit much. And I’ve heard that personally from educators. So I think they would appreciate a more focused approach.
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: OK. What does that look like?
RJ Simpson: That’s going to be borne out in the action plan. So that work is still in progress. Part of the internal review that we’re going to be talking about at the technical briefing tomorrow discusses the evaluation of some of those programs and shows the ones that are successful – things like Northern Distance Learning – and it talks about some of the other ones that maybe missed the mark. So it’s– we’re going to have to, you know, spend time looking at those and figuring out what’s working, where’s it working, and move forward that way.
And when we design programs, we have to do a better job designing programs from the ground up that can be evaluated so that we know if they’re working or not. So I think that there’s going to be changes but I think it’s going to be for the better. And I think educators are going to share that belief.
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: Just quickly on a separate issue: Yesterday, you said the president of Aurora College chose to leave his position. Today in the House, you said he was terminated. How do you explain that?
RJ Simpson: I gave an explanation in the House. I know you guys were in your briefing, but I kind of– I laid it out pretty clearly in the House. So.
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: What did you say?
RJ Simpson: So… last week, I was aware that there was a meeting between the president of the college and the premier’s office. I didn’t know what the outcome of that meeting was going to be. I don’t know if it was predetermined. I learned late last week that the president and the GNWT had severed their relationship and were going in separate directions. I wasn’t sitting in on those conversations, so I didn’t know if it was an outright firing. I didn’t know if maybe both parties had said to each other, ‘You know what, I think it is time to go our separate ways.’
On Tuesday, shortly after the media release went out, I saw an email sent out to all staff of Aurora College and a number of ECE employees, and it was sent out on behalf of Dr Weegar, and it clearly stated that he was voluntarily stepping aside from the position. Shortly after that I had an interview with Cabin Radio and I reiterated that point because that’s what I was, er, that’s what I was told. Obviously, the story has changed and we– it’s come to light that it was a termination.
Ollie Williams, Cabin Radio: How damaging do you think it is that that communication has come out the way that it has?
RJ Simpson: People are talking about it. I don’t know if it’s damaging. It clearly shows – and I’ve been in talks with the college about this – that we need to do a better job communicating. In the House today, there was a lot of discussion about how are we going to communicate to staff, to students, and to the general public about what we’re doing and the state of the transformation.
And I’m making steps to expedite some of that information getting out because there’s been a void. There’s been a lack of information getting out. I think people wanted to wait until the plan was perfect and completely laid out and then release it – which would come in the summer – but I think what we’re going to do is move some of that information forward so people can get excited about this, because it is exciting. There’s a lot of progress being made. And I want everyone in the territory to be able to share in that excitement. Because before I became minister, I felt that same sort of sense of wondering what was going on. Then I started getting the briefings and I realized there’s been a lot going on. So I want to make sure that we get that information out to the public.
Mario De Ciccio, Radio-Canada: Do you find it strange that you, as the Minister of Education, were not part of these discussions surrounding the termination of Mr Weegar? The fact that you were just, you know, made aware the day after, or during…
RJ Simpson: Um, associate deputy ministers and deputy ministers serve at the pleasure of the premier.
Mario De Ciccio, Radio-Canada: But the fact that you weren’t involved in any of these discussions?
RJ Simpson: I mean, it’s– it’s not like I haven’t had discussions with the premier about my portfolios.
Hilary Bird, CBC: But you obviously didn’t know what the situation was involving him leaving. Don’t you think that, as education minister, that’s something that you should be made aware of immediately? Are you saying that because they serve at the right of the premier that she has full discretion?
RJ Simpson: I was made aware after the decision was made.
Hilary Bird, CBC: After the interview on Cabin Radio.
RJ Simpson: I was made aware that the position had ended. To me, honestly, to me it didn’t matter how it ended, if it was a mutual or if it was a firing. You know, I’m moving on to the next step. So, you know, I think we have– I was happy to get Mr Bevan in that position. I’ve worked with him, I know that he has the management skills that are needed in this phase of the transformation. So, you know, the details of what happened behind closed doors weren’t of consequence to me. What I’m looking at is how we’re going forward.
Alex Brockman, CBC: What does it say about this cabinet, within a hundred days of taking office, that this is how the premier is going to make decisions and not talk about it around the cabinet table? I thought things were going to be different with this government?
RJ Simpson: I’m not gonna say that, er– as I said, we had, I had conversations with the premier. This didn’t come as a surprise to me necessarily. Because I didn’t know the– I didn’t read the transcript of what happened in the meeting there… I wasn’t shocked by what happened.
Nick Pearce, NNSL: Why weren’t you shocked?
Cabinet Communications staff member: OK guys, I think we’re talking about the OAG audit or we’re–
Alex Brockman, CBC: [Inaudible–] education? We’re asking questions.
RJ Simpson: So I just want to say, like, I respect Dr Weegar. I learned a lot from him personally, I appreciate what he’s done. I appreciate what he’s done in his career. But really, this is an HR matter, and I don’t really want to get too deep into the details. And really, these are questions for the premier as it is, uh, as it is her responsibility to, you know, hire and dispose of these positions as she sees fit.
Alex Brockman, CBC: Is she available?
Cabinet Communications staff member: [Inaudible–] feel free to send your questions to Trista and we can–
Alex Brockman, CBC: We have questions now and, if the minister isn’t able to answer them, is the premier able to answer them?
Cabinet Communications staff member: She’s not here with me right now. So do you guys have any more questions about the OAG audit? You’re welcome to send any questions you have to Trista and we can handle those from there.
RJ Simpson: Right on. Thank you guys very much. Appreciate it. Take care.