As Thursday dawned, none of the Northwest Territories’ 11 regular MLAs had taken any steps to explain why their committee is seeking the removal of a minister.
The territory’s standing committee on accountability and oversight, which comprises all 11 regular MLAs and no ministers, said on Wednesday it plans to issue a motion of revocation for Katrina Nokleby.
If successful, the motion – to be presented by committee chair Steve Norn and seconded by Rocky Simpson – would see Nokleby removed from cabinet and relegated to the role of regular MLA.
A debate and vote are scheduled for Friday at the legislature.
However, residents of the Northwest Territories were given virtually no information by any of the 11 MLAs about why their committee wants Nokleby to lose her posts as minister of infrastructure and industry.
Nor did MLAs address the critical question of why the action is necessary in the middle of the territory’s response to a pandemic – which would require at least two departments to bring a new minister up to speed during a crisis, only six months after present ministers were given their portfolios.
Norn, in an emailed statement, said the motion came as a result of “concerns about the performance” of Nokleby as a minister, but made no attempt to explain what those concerns were.
Reached by phone, Norn said more would be explained in a news release. No further detail was forthcoming.
Cabin Radio wrote to all 11 regular MLAs shortly after 5pm on Wednesday, inviting them to explain the rationale for the motion as they saw it or indicate their intention to support or oppose it.
None of the 11 responded directly to the email. None could be reached by phone.
Julie Green, the Yellowknife Centre MLA, responded by text to state: “No comment at this time.”
Rylund Johnson, the caucus chair and Yellowknife North MLA, said by Facebook Messenger he would “organize a constituency meeting for [Thursday] night to talk to my constituents then give my public statement and make my decision Friday.”
That meeting will not be live-streamed, as previous meetings have been. Johnson’s constituency assistant said this was “mostly just to allow constituents to speak freely.”
The remaining nine regular MLAs gave no response.
They are Simpson, Norn, Ron Bonnetrouge, Kevin O’Reilly, Lesa Semmler, Caitlin Cleveland, Jackson Lafferty, Jackie Jacobson, and Frieda Martselos.
‘This ain’t right’
The inability of all 11 regular MLAs to promptly articulate concerns with Nokleby’s performance does not, in itself, mean concerns are being fabricated or anything untoward is taking place.
On Friday, MLAs will have to show their hand and explain why they believe the minister should or should not be replaced. There is every likelihood that the reasons for Wednesday’s motion will be made clear at that time.
However, the decision to at least temporarily withhold that rationale from the public gave residents little opportunity to understand the reasons and contact their elected representatives accordingly.
That appeared to directly contradict pledges of greater transparency made by many MLAs in their election campaigns last fall.
For example, Norn told Cabin Radio during 2019’s election campaign: “I’ll always make myself readily available. Anybody who knows me, if you’re going to call me at three o’clock in morning, if you have a concern, I will do my best to get up and speak to you. And that’s my vision moving forward for trying to keep open lines of communication.”
Martselos, the Thebacha MLA, said during the campaign: “People don’t want to all be accountable. I’m accountable and I’m transparent … and I will continue to do that when I become the MLA for Thebacha.”
Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, said in an election interview: “You have to think of it as all of us together, or no one will succeed. If we all can’t thrive together, we all won’t get there.”
Johnson, campaigning on a platform of “radical honesty,” said prior to being elected: “It’s hard to figure out what exactly our politicians are saying or doing. Radical honesty is just a policy and a principle I live my life by. I am completely transparent in everything I do. I’m always willing to be quoted by media. Everything I do is out there.”
Green and Frame Lake MLA O’Reilly, both second-term MLAs, have spent years lobbying the territorial government for increased transparency and accountability.
Despite this, by Thursday morning, Cabin Radio had received more calls from residents asking to publicly back the minister than it had from MLAs prepared to explain the move to sack her.
Terry Warner, a former NWT government engineer who worked with Nokleby, phoned the radio station to say: “This ain’t right.”
Warner said: “I always found Katrina to be most competent and confident. She has more qualifications than Rocky Simpson has, that’s for sure.”
Simpson, the Hay River South MLA, was elected in place of former infrastructure minister Wally Schumann last fall. Simpson’s company owed the NWT government’s Business Development and Investment Corporation (BDIC) $2 million on his entry into the legislature.
Nokleby is the minister responsible for BDIC. Simpson is seconding the motion to remove her from cabinet, which the managing editor of the territory’s largest newspaper group suggested may be a conflict of interest.
“I can’t say enough good things about the woman,” said Warner.
“She might have stepped on a few toes – and it wouldn’t be the first time she annoyed somebody by trying to do the right thing.”
Posting online, Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly wrote: “I have not seen or heard any reason to remove her. And who would replace her? Would they be as qualified? Let’s get serious.”
‘And they said we were divisive’ – Testart
David Wasylciw, an NWT-based open government expert who ran for MLA himself in 2015, said on Twitter: “Disappointing that MLAs haven’t had more to say about this.”
Wasylciw continued: “While they can wait for Friday, presumably there was (at least some) thought put into it and residents have a right to know what those reasons are and provide feedback to their MLAs in advance of any debate/vote.”
MLAs’ reticence to share those reasons left them in the awkward position of appearing less transparent than the immediately preceding set of territorial politicians.
The 18th Legislative Assembly, which ran from 2015 to 2019, had been roundly criticized for secretive, high-drama politics and bickering instead of straightforward governance.
Yet in 2018, when then-ministers Schumann and Glen Abernethy were faced with the same motion of revocation, the reasons for both were clear from the start.
Schumann’s oversight of that year’s disastrously delayed sealift operation was cited among reasons for his proposed dismissal, while Abernethy faced the axe a week after publication of a damning report into child protection services in the NWT, run by his department.
Both men ultimately kept their posts.
“And they said my Assembly was the most divisive!” exclaimed Kieron Testart in a Facebook post on Wednesday. Testart, then the MLA for Kam Lake, had in 2018 brought forward the motion calling for Schumann’s removal.
“It took two years and a colossal failure of leadership before we put forward non-confidence motions,” Testart added on Facebook.
How the vote works
The power to remove ministers from their portfolios rests with Premier Caroline Cochrane, and is a power she has already used. Paulie Chinna was replaced by Cochrane as Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs in early April, ostensibly so the Premier could help lead the territory’s pandemic response. Chinna remains the housing minister.
However, under the territory’s consensus government system, the legislature as a whole decides who gets to be in cabinet in the first place – and has the power to entirely remove ministers from cabinet.
As Nokleby is a Yellowknife MLA (for the Great Slave electoral district), the convention is for a Yellowknife MLA to replace her in cabinet if Friday’s motion is successful.
Johnson, in a Facebook comment on Wednesday, said he had “no intention to run” if a vacancy in cabinet emerges.
That would mean Green, Cleveland, and O’Reilly are the three regular MLAs meeting the unofficial criteria to step in.
For Nokleby to be removed, in all likelihood 10 or more votes in favour of the motion are required. (There are 19 MLAs in the legislature – 11 regular MLAs, seven cabinet members, and the Speaker of the House, Frederick Blake Jr.)
Traditionally, cabinet votes en-bloc in these instances, guaranteeing seven votes in Nokleby’s favour. However, this vote represents the first major test of en-bloc cabinet voting for this government. RJ Simpson, the education minister, would be voting against a motion his father, Rocky, seconded.
If cabinet does vote en-bloc, that means three regular MLAs will need to join them in order for Nokleby to keep her seat.
A majority of the 11 regular MLAs must have backed the motion for it to get out of committee and reach this point, meaning there are theoretically at most five regular MLAs who could side with Nokleby. Exactly who backed the motion at the committee stage is not known.
If the vote is a nine-nine split on Friday, parliamentary convention dictates that Blake, as the Speaker, sides with those opposing the motion and preserves the status quo – keeping Nokleby in post.
There was silence on both sides of the House on Wednesday. While no regular MLAs said a word of substance about Friday’s motion, nor did any cabinet members issue any defence of the minister.
Nokleby, for her part, provided a short written statement when asked for comment.
“There is a process for discussing and debating non-confidence motions in the House and I want to respect that process,” she wrote.
“I am not going to comment about the concerns of members until they have had an opportunity to explain them fully in the Legislative Assembly, as part of the debate on this motion.
“Until that time, I do not wish to comment further on this matter.”