In his second extraordinary exchange of recent weeks, Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty was first ordered to apologize for remarks made about Premier Caroline Cochrane – then called for the speaker to “shut down the House” as he had no interpreter.
Late last month, Lafferty accused Cochrane of acting as though she were “above the law” in a heated exchange over the firing of former Aurora College president Tom Weegar.
On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr ruled a series of Lafferty’s remarks about Cochrane that day had “crossed the line.” The remarks had been the subject of a complaint from cabinet.
Blake rejected a complaint from Lafferty that Cochrane had misled the House, overstepped her authority, and broken the law in personally ordering the termination of Weegar’s contract in January.
Having been ordered by Blake to withdraw his remarks and apologize, Lafferty began addressing colleagues in Tłı̨chǫ – before switching to English and asking that proceedings be abandoned.
“I speak one of the eleven official languages in the House … and today I do not have an interpreter,” Lafferty said. “I highly encourage you to shut down the House at this point in time since I can’t speak my language.
“We cannot continue having our discussion or debate today as I do not have an interpreter at this point in time. It is my right to speak my language, as I have done over the last 15 years, and I will continue to do so.”
Lafferty said both interpreters were “away today for various personal reasons.”
Speaker Blake said he would take Lafferty’s request “under advisement” – then proceeded to announce “we’ll deal with this matter tomorrow” before allowing ministers to begin their usual daily statements.
Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, said on Twitter Lafferty had subsequently left the chamber.
The exchange between Lafferty and Blake was noteworthy as there is no recent precedent for an MLA being ordered to withdraw remarks aimed at the sitting premier, nor for the lack of an interpreter triggering an attempt to suspend the House.
Lafferty has made a point since his first election to the NWT’s legislature, almost 15 years ago, of speaking Tłı̨chǫ as a matter of routine. He ordinarily switches to English after a statement in Tłı̨chǫ.
As an example, on March 3, Lafferty used Tłı̨chǫ to provide a form of commentary for residents on questions as he posed them to the housing minister.
Speaker finds against Lafferty
In reaching his ruling, Blake – reading from a lengthy script to start Tuesday’s proceedings – said Premier Cochrane’s actions in the House may be open to legal interpretation, but could not definitively be termed an attempt to mislead.
Cochrane had duelled with Lafferty a number of times on the subject of whether a premier may, legally, directly fire the president of Aurora College. Lafferty produced a document from law firm Lawson Lundell stating the premier had no right to fire Weegar; Cochrane and cabinet argued what had taken place was more complex than that, involving Weegar’s positions both as president and associate deputy minister.
“The member and the premier rely on differing legal opinions,” Blake declared on Tuesday. “Unless a ruling is made in a court of law, neither opinion can be considered right, wrong, or misleading.
“It is almost impossible to conclude a member has deliberately misled the House unless a member provides completely different responses to the exact same question. That is not what happened in this case.
“Although frustrations mounted on this particular subject, this difference of opinion does not prevent members from fulfilling their parliamentary functions, nor does such a disagreement breach the collective privileges of the House.”
He dismissed Lafferty’s complaint, filed in the form of a point of privilege.
Jackson Lafferty was told his comments “crossed the line.”
Turning to the complaint filed against Lafferty himself by RJ Simpson, acting as government house leader on behalf of Cochrane and cabinet, Blake noted Simpson had alleged Lafferty’s comments “seriously violated the rules of order and decorum in this House.”
The Speaker decided Lafferty had indeed broken Rule 24, which states MLAs cannot make allegations against another member, “impute false or hidden motives,” claim an MLA lied, or “issue abusive or insulting language of a nature likely to create disorder.”
“I find the comments did cross the line and are contrary to Rule 24,” said Blake.
“Unkind or inflammatory comments made by a member addressing another member are not necessary and do not encourage a respectful, balanced discussion,” he continued.
“As members, we have to work with one another in the best interests of all the people of the Northwest Territories. We are a consensus system of government and have our own standards, standards we are proud of and would like to uphold.
“Other legislatures may allow this style of debate but we find it unacceptable, and I think most of the people we represent would agree.”