Katrina Nokleby was demoted from cabinet as MLAs lined up behind Premier Caroline Cochrane’s scathing assessment of the former industry and infrastructure minister.
Cochrane painted a damning portrait of Nokleby’s conduct as she introduced a debate on the matter in the legislature on Wednesday. MLAs later voted 16 to one in favour of ousting Nokleby, the lone nay vote, with one abstention.
Nokleby said she had been unfairly targeted and victimized in a “toxic culture.”
Looking beyond Wednesday’s vote, Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty suggested a convention to elect a replacement from Yellowknife be abandoned in favour of nominating a minister from a smaller community. However, MLAs later said that convention would stand.
Opening Wednesday’s session, Cochrane for the first time explained in more detail why she sought her cabinet colleague’s removal.
The premier accused Nokleby of a “failure to manage her office” – such as waiting weeks to respond to inquiries – and expressed concern about her interaction with civil servants and the premier herself.
She described Nokleby as “yelling, angry, and using vulgar language” on occasion, adding her conduct had been “extremely inappropriate.”
Cochrane said Nokleby “targeted staff for discipline based on unsubstantiated rumours” and “openly expressed negative, degrading, and potentially harmful personal opinions about various public servants, both to the individuals and others.” She said staff were “unable to defend themselves against someone with an unequal amount of power.”
The premier continued: “I accept we can all get frustrated and even angry. However, the minister’s continual tantrums in meetings, walking out … were not productive.
“She has continually stated that these are not her issues: they are either untrue, the department’s fault, or mine, either directly or indirectly. I have not seen the kind of self-reflection required to find improvement.
“I gave minister Nokleby ample opportunity to improve [and] I was left with no choice except to remove her portfolios.”
Cochrane’s statement still took care not to delve into specific incidents. It was not clear why such an assessment was not provided a week earlier.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said processes needed to change so allegations and rumours did not “swirl around” in future.
Nokleby ‘unfairly disparaged’
Nokleby, speaking on the matter for the first time, said she had “worked hard to make positive changes where I could” and “stayed true to who I am.”
“I had many concerns with current practices, including what I call gaming the system, and raised those concerns with colleagues at every opportunity. In all cases, I carried out my duties with integrity and passion,” she said in her defence.
“Was I perfect? Of course not. Was I outspoken? That is who I am. I am always striving to get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible for the people who sorely need the services and support we as a government can provide.”
Nokleby described being disparaged by a “toxic culture of secrecy” that did not allow her to respond or defend herself. She said she had been “unfairly admonished without due process and based on nothing more than hearsay, gossip, rumours, and bruised feelings.”
She concluded: “I will always fight for the betterment of every person in the territory no matter where I am sitting in this house.”
Premier’s ‘decisive action’
Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, seconding Cochrane’s motion, said: “As a government, we have to move on – and so does the Member for Great Slave. The Government of the Northwest Territories must be inclusive, and we must respect each and every person that lives in this territory.”
Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn, who has acknowledged a confrontation with Nokleby earlier in the year – and who in May brought a later-abandoned motion to remove Nokleby – urged the government to be more open about such problems in future, rather than citing confidentiality.
Norn spoke to different concerns with Nokleby’s performance, highlighting Indigenous governments’ complaints about the infrastructure department’s handling of issues like procurement – since moved to Caroline Wawzonek’s finance department.
Caroline Cochrane reads in her motion at the start of the debate.
“I thank the premier for taking my concerns seriously and taking decisive action,” Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly – who could replace Nokleby – said, adding he did not believe “the public interest is served” in providing further detail about many allegations.
He did, however, go on to criticize Nokleby for appearing too few times in front of committees of MLAs, while providing an example of an inquiry he said was not handled for 16 weeks.
Finance minister Wawzonek backed the premier’s motion, describing a “bizarre contest” with Nokleby and her departments “for control of programs and announcements that the minister appeared to believe were exclusively hers.”
“This was emotionally exhausting for me and my team to navigate,” said Wawzonek. “We must work as a whole government and not put up blinders around ourselves as ministers, or around our departments.”
Wawzonek concluded by implying both she and others had held some reservations about speaking against Nokleby in the House on Wednesday, for fear of the repercussions.
Ministers Shane Thompson, Diane Thom, and RJ Simpson all stood to support the premier’s motion.
Lafferty, who joined Norn in stating the Tłı̨chǫ people had been unfairly penalized by procurement policies, took the premier to task for failing to provide more notice of her decision to remove Nokleby’s portfolios.
He said residents were “far from happy about the whole affair, very confused, and frustrated.”
Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland, attempting to summarize concerns she had heard in confidence, said: “Cabinet and minister Nokleby are at a point that they cannot move forward from. I am deeply disappointed that we are here, but the minister’s relationships have been broken.”
For Nokleby to be removed from cabinet, the support of 10 MLAs in the formal vote was required.
Cochrane introduced the motion after last week stripping Nokleby of her two portfolios. The premier can change a minister’s portfolios but only a majority of MLAs can alter the composition of cabinet.
Business leaders with whom Nokleby worked as minister had expressed their surprise at calls for her removal and offered their support.
What could happen next?
With Nokleby voted out of cabinet, a successor is set to be chosen on Thursday by a secret ballot of MLAs.
Convention dictates that Nokleby, the Great Slave MLA (which she remains), is replaced by another Yellowknife politician.
Johnson says he is not interested in the post, leaving O’Reilly, Cleveland, and Julie Green as potential candidates.
Lafferty said any new cabinet member should come from a smaller community in order to better represent interests outside the NWT capital, but a news release issued later on Wednesday stated the convention would be maintained.
This week’s emergency four-day sitting at the legislature was hastily convened after the premier’s decision last week to hand Nokleby’s industry portfolio to Thompson, while giving infrastructure to Simpson.
Cochrane tried to have the motion debated on Monday but Nokleby used a procedural tool to delay the discussion until Wednesday. Tuesday’s sitting was among the shortest on record.