A leading NWT politician last week accused the territory’s premier of acting as though she were “above the law” in firing the president of Aurora College.
The handling of Tom Weegar’s dismissal as college president – characterized as “a zoo” by Weegar himself – has inflicted significant early embarrassment on the government of Premier Caroline Cochrane.
Her education minister, RJ Simpson, three times in three days changed his version of how Weegar came to leave the post. Now, Cochrane is accused by Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty of breaking the law in appearing to herself order the firing of Weegar.
Lafferty’s complaint relies on how NWT legislation is interpreted. He believes the education minister, not Cochrane, is the only individual empowered to legally terminate the contract of an Aurora College president. He has raised the issue several times in the past month.
In a stinging exchange on Thursday, Simpson suggested Lafferty was trying to “create doubt about the integrity of the premier and … discredit the premier in the minds of the public.”
Lafferty, in return, said the premier had “violated [a] fundamental principle of our society” by – in his view – acting to fire Weegar without legal authority and thereby obstructing “the ability of the legislature to carry out lawmaking functions.”
“The premier has repeatedly refused to accept that she erred in impeding the statutory authority of one of her ministers,” said Lafferty. “Appropriate sanctions must be sought to curb this behaviour.
“I was hoping for real, positive changes within our government – an accountable government, a transparent government. But not this.”
The extraordinary back-and-forth on the legislature floor came just weeks after the territory’s 19 newly elected MLAs uniformly pledged to improve cooperation and collaboration.
‘Confusion’ over premier’s role
Lafferty, a minister under former premier Bob McLeod then speaker from 2015 to 2019, was one of four contenders for the premiership of the NWT last fall. He lost to Cochrane in a secret ballot of fellow MLAs.
He contends that the Aurora College Act – legislation governing how the college is run – allows only the education minister to hire and fire the college’s president.
The act itself only mentions who gets to hire the president, and says nothing about who is allowed to fire them. However, a separate piece of legislation named the Interpretation Act states the power to hire also comes with the power to fire.
Lafferty last week produced a legal opinion from a Lawson Lundell lawyer suggesting the premier had therefore erred in apparently choosing to fire Weegar herself.
However, justice minister Caroline Wawzonek disputed this.
On Thursday, Wawzonek said: “A legal opinion is just that. It is an opinion, at the end of the day, based on one’s professional judgment and best efforts, but it is still just an opinion.”
Wawzonek said the Aurora College Act “doesn’t change, or impede, or take away from the authority of the premier to terminate a deputy minister,” which Weegar also was. Wawzonek said the fact Weegar was both an associate deputy minister and the college president causes an overlap between various pieces of legislation and, consequently, “a fair bit of confusion.”
The Speaker of the House, Frederick Blake Jr, has now been asked by each side to dispense a telling-off to the other. Cabinet, through Simpson, demanded Blake ask Lafferty to apologize; Lafferty has asked for “sanctions” against the premier.
Blake says he will deliver a decision on the matter at a later date.
How much did all this cost?
The argument about what happened to Weegar is wrapped in the broader political machinations of a new cabinet trying to bed in and regular MLAs attempting to find their voice.
Lafferty’s complaint focuses on the letter of the law and how the premier adhered to it, rather than the practical consequences for Aurora College. (In his most recent version of events, the education minister clearly stated he had desired the firing of Weegar – suggesting the president would have been dismissed regardless of the premier’s actions.)
In the legislature last week, Cochrane sarcastically addressed Lafferty as he began a new series of questions about her decision to let Weegar go.
“I want to start out by saying that I am actually really excited that the constituents from Monfwi, their biggest concern is about this hiring,” Cochrane said.
“Man, I have been hearing all about housing, education, all kinds of things.
“It does show that one of the regions is actually doing really well in the Northwest Territories, and I am happy to hear that.”
Weegar has refused to discuss whether he is considering further legal action of his own against the territory following his dismissal.
The NWT government says Weegar was sacked, just nine months into the post, because the territory desired a change in direction at the college. Weegar believes somebody “sabotaged” his attempts to transform the college, adding he encountered significant resistance to change while working to turn Aurora College into a polytechnic university.
On Friday, a written response to questions from Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green revealed the entire process of hiring, paying, and then firing Weegar was likely to have cost the NWT government around half a million dollars.
MLAs were told the headhunters who found Weegar were paid $80,000 and Weegar’s salary would have been between $182,805 and $279,289 per year. Cabin Radio understands the exact figure to have been near the top end of this range, in order to deliver on Cochrane’s promise that the NWT hire “the best of the best.”
Relocation expenses to bring Weegar north were not given but the document estimated the average cost of moving a senior manager to Yellowknife was $21,600.
Weegar’s termination letter from the NWT government, seen by Cabin Radio, states he will be paid a year’s salary in severance. Though Friday’s written statement refused to give precise details, the information provided suggests Weegar’s employment and dismissal will result in a total outlay of more than $500,000.