The NWT’s mining industry body gave its full support to Katrina Nokleby as she faces a vote of no confidence in the territory’s legislature on Friday.
Nokleby, as the industry minister, holds responsibility for mining. She has defended the right of mines to stay open during the pandemic, despite the risks associated with bringing southern workers to the territory’s remote work sites.
A motion to remove Nokleby from cabinet, apparently backed by at least six of the 11 regular MLAs, will be debated on Friday. No regular MLAs have so far explained why her removal is being sought.
In an open letter, the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines said its members had “worked with many ministers responsible for mines and infrastructure over our history and have never seen sufficient cause for such an unusual action, and nor do we in this case.”
Ken Armstrong, the chamber’s president, wrote: “Bringing such a motion at this time, and towards an individual who continues to effectively work for the NWT’s future success, does not serve our industry well.
“We believe the 19th Assembly is all the better for having Minister Nokleby occupying her current portfolios.”
Mining industry employees were among those sharing a petition on Thursday calling for Nokleby to be kept in her post. She is the minister for infrastructure, industry, tourism, investment, and the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission.
Julie Green and Kevin O’Reilly, two regular MLAs perceived by industry to hold anti-mining views – a characterization they dispute – may be in line to replace Nokleby in cabinet if she is removed in Friday’s vote.
Caitlin Cleveland, the Kam Lake MLA, would be the other candidate under an unofficial system whereby a Yellowknife-based minister, like Nokleby, must be replaced by another Yellowknife MLA.
ITI ‘less than helpful’ to businesses
In the legislature on Thursday it was business as usual, with no reference from either cabinet or regular MLAs to Wednesday’s announcement that Nokleby’s removal would be sought.
Neither Premier Caroline Cochrane nor any of Nokleby’s cabinet colleagues have offered any public words of support in the 24 hours since the motion was first raised. A spokesperson for the territorial government said no cabinet member would do so until Friday’s debate.
The motion comes from the standing committee on accountability and oversight, which comprises all 11 regular MLAs and no ministers. At least six committee members must have supported the motion for it to come out of committee and be announced to the House.
Who exactly supported the motion is not known but will become clear on Friday, when a recorded vote will decide Nokleby’s fate. A simple majority is required. If the motion succeeds, she will be relegated to the rank of regular MLA and a replacement advanced into cabinet.
Though none of the NWT’s 19 elected leaders directly addressed Friday’s anticipated vote, Yellowknife Centre MLA Green did describe Nokleby’s industry department as “missing in action” in an opening statement.
“The GNWT has been less than helpful in this situation,” Green said of Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment (ITI) supports available for small businesses during the pandemic.
While the mining industry has praised Nokleby’s pandemic response – “she is continuing to prove to us to be an ideal candidate,” Armstrong wrote – some small business owners and tour operators have said they feel left behind.
Addressing tour operators by video link earlier in May, Nokleby was asked why their industry wasn’t getting the same attention as mining.
“The mining industry is 33 percent of our GDP. Unfortunately, they did have to have some priority to begin with,” Nokleby replied.
A voice for small business?
Green said that while federal help for small businesses has been forthcoming to a degree, the perceived paucity of NWT-based financial help amounted “to fiddling while Rome is burning.”
“The GNWT has not treated the sector in a way that acknowledges the value it provides,” Green said. “The GNWT has been missing in action when it comes to putting its money where its mouth is.”
A day earlier, Cleveland had been similarly critical of the delay in establishing a promised economic advisory council designed to let the NWT’s business community have a say in the territory’s pandemic response.
Responding to Green on Thursday, Nokleby said: “My goal is to not have any Northwest Territories businesses fail through Covid but of course, that’s going to be a challenge.
“I know there has been conversation around the federal government is doing things and the GNWT is not. But the federal governments knows what the NWT needs through the lobbying efforts of myself and my colleagues.
“My role is to be the voice of small business. I do understand that small business is feeling not heard at the moment.”
Comments on pandemic rule breaches
While those criticisms provided some insight into failings regular MLAs believe they have identified, there remains no confirmation that they are the concerns prompting Friday’s debate and vote.
To many NWT residents, Nokleby’s most noteworthy act in her six months in office has been to urge, in blunt terms, that people report others who disobey public health orders during the pandemic.
The NWT government has a hotline residents can call if they are seen breaking pandemic restrictions around travel or self-isolation.
“I’m a firm believer in public shaming and I think we need to get to that point,” Nokleby said in an off-the-cuff response to a reporter’s question during an April 10 news conference.
“It’s not a great feeling, we’re not like that as northerners. However, that’s the state we’re at,” she added.
Critics have suggested that wording went too far and carried dangerous implications at a time of heightened tension. Supporters have said the message was important and matched the tone used by other ministers. (Diane Thom, the health minister, warned residents in the same news conference that “if you don’t respond to education warnings, we’re coming for you.”)
As of 2:30pm on Thursday, the petition to keep Nokleby in post had received 339 signatures.