Coronavirus
Politics

Late into the night, MLAs argue over Covid-19 secretariat cash


While the eyes of the world watched political events in the United States, the NWT’s MLAs went late into the night on Tuesday debating the money that will fund the territory’s new Covid-19 secretariat.

The secretariat, a way to centralize the NWT’s pandemic response in what amounts to a mini-department, is controversial. The territory forecasts it could cost $87 million to run over the next two and a half years – with an emphasis on the word “could.” (It depends how long the pandemic lasts.)

Ministers say keeping the territory safe means dedicating money and staff to the extra tasks the pandemic has created.

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Opponents say the same money should be spent directly on issues like housing or addictions instead of on bureaucrats. The GNWT counters that the pandemic is currently dragging staff away from their day jobs related to problems like housing or addictions, which is why some of the secretariat’s new positions are needed.

Tuesday night’s debate included arguments about personal attacks on Premier Caroline Cochrane, the use of the word “crap” in the NWT legislature for the first time in at least 30 years (possibly ever), and an emotionally charged vote on whether to cancel $8.3 million in initial funding for the secretariat.

On this page, we’ve put together a Q&A regarding the basic issue behind the debate, what some of the concerns are, what people said, and what the outcomes were.

What was Tuesday’s debate about?

The NWT government needs MLAs’ permission to spend extra cash on a range of pandemic-related things. The Covid-19 secretariat is one of them.

As explained above, the secretariat moves some GNWT positions – and creates some new jobs – to put all of the territory’s pandemic response in one place. Things like border enforcement, Protect NWT’s hotline, and isolation centres are involved.

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From now until March 2021, the NWT government is asking MLAs to approve spending $8.3 million of the territory’s money – plus $23.4 million from the federal government – to run the secretariat and its operations.

MLAs had the chance to discuss that spending on Tuesday. Two MLAs made motions seeking to strip back some of that funding. Both of those motions were ultimately defeated, but not before some highly charged comments were made.

What was said?

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, channelling some of the rhetoric of US politics, called the secretariat a “monument to the premier’s vanity” and urged his fellow MLAs to declare whether they were “with the government or for the people.”

(Lafferty and Cochrane, who both ran for premier in 2019, have clashed several times in the course of this government’s opening year. Lafferty was briefly sent from the legislature in March when he refused to apologize for comments aimed at Cochrane that were ruled out of order.)

His remarks about the premier on Tuesday earned him a reprimand from Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, a man not ordinarily considered a fan of the premier or cabinet.

Kevin O'Reilly
Kevin O’Reilly.

“I do not support personal attacks on the premier. This is not about the premier’s vanity, and I do not accept those kinds of remarks being made. I just don’t think that they are appropriate,” O’Reilly said.

That, in turn, prompted Great Slave MLA and former minister Katrina Nokleby to state: “I’m getting a little tired of people policing what other people say around here. If people want to speak to their opinions, then they should be allowed to do so.”

The bulk of the night’s discussion examined why ministers think the secretariat is necessary, why some regular MLAs agree with them, and why a few MLAs remain unconvinced.

Why don’t some MLAs like the secretariat?

While Jackson Lafferty opposes it, the secretariat has majority support in the legislature. He questioned whether it enjoys the same support outside the GNWT bubble.

For example, he asked for proof – in writing – that Indigenous leaders supported creating the secretariat, and the associated costs.

Premier Cochrane said nine out of 10 Indigenous governments consulted had given her “overwhelming support” for the secretariat, and the 10th had not expressly rejected the idea. (Frieda Martselos, the Thebacha MLA, added that her local Salt River First Nation and Fort Smith Métis Nation were in support, too.)

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn pointed out that 10 Indigenous governments is not all of them, and the lack of 100-percent support was “something that you should really listen to.”

Lafferty also suggested there is “public outcry” about the secretariat, though the evidence for that – beyond Facebook comments – isn’t clear. Other regular MLAs have described their constituents’ reaction as mixed.

Lafferty said people would rather see the money go toward problems like housing and addictions than a bureaucracy.

Nokleby agreed, saying the federal money being used to pay for part of the secretariat could be used to “hire nurses, purchase equipment and PPE, support the private sector,” and eventually create a broader department of public safety instead of the pandemic-focused secretariat.

“That would have been way more useful than something so reactive that is way too late and past the time it was needed,” said Nokleby.

“I don’t see that creating more bureaucratic layers and crap is really going to do any good.”

Why does the GNWT think this is needed?

The territorial government disputes the suggestion that the secretariat is taking away money that could have been spent on other problems.

Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said it’s almost the opposite: the secretariat will mean GNWT staff can go back to focusing on their day jobs fixing some of those issues, without dropping the ball on the pandemic, she argued.

Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek in the legislature in May 2020
Caroline Wawzonek.

“I think we peaked with 188 staff who were redeployed in the course of fighting the pandemic. When 188 staff are redeployed, those staff members are not working in housing. They are not working in addictions. They are not working in social services,” Wawzonek said.

“At the same time, we were being asked: why aren’t there more people at the border? Why aren’t there more people at the airports? Why isn’t there more enforcement? Why isn’t somebody answering the phone line at Protect NWT?”

Wawzonek said having the secretariat will, over time, ensure all of the above services can function well.

“I am sure we have all heard different things from our constituents, but I have certainly heard a lot of people saying that they are happy with the response that the territorial government has initiated and maintained and are not looking to have reopening particularly quickly,” she said.

“Nobody is going to have jobs – in the way that they want to have jobs – if we have to shut everything back down because there is a community spread that develops.

“So far, we have not had community spread in the Northwest Territories, and it is our intention to do everything we can to continue that.”

Why did the two motions to cut funding fail?

Both Lafferty and Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson made motions to cut back the funding being given to the Covid-19 secretariat, though they did so for different reasons.

Lafferty tried to convince colleagues to take away the entire GNWT share – $8.3 million – of the initial funding being given to the secretariat for this financial year.

Only Norn, Nokleby, and Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge supported him.

O’Reilly, again siding with cabinet, said Lafferty was misunderstanding the purpose of the secretariat.

“This is not another bureaucracy. This is continuing functions that have been going on since March, April, May. This is continuing the efforts of our government attempting to respond to a public health emergency,” said O’Reilly.

“This is unprecedented. We have a pandemic. We have a public health emergency on our hands.”

The motion was defeated by 12 votes to four.

Rylund Johnson.

Johnson’s motion sought to remove $5 million in spending for isolation centres with the apparent aim of instead handing that money to municipalities.

That motion was also defeated with little debate. (Separately on Tuesday, a new $5.7-million contribution toward municipal governments’ operations was passed without much comment and should be finalized in the coming days.)

Both motions were never likely to succeed but may serve more broadly as a reminder to the territorial government that the secretariat cannot operate with a blank cheque.

So is the money now approved?

There are still some procedural stages to go through but, in all practical senses, the funding is approved. While it needs to be formally rubber-stamped by passing an appropriations bill in the legislature, there are clearly enough votes to support that among regular MLAs.

What would have happened if the money wasn’t approved is less clear, given the secretariat already exists.

Premier Cochrane on Tuesday insisted residents (and regular MLAs) would see more benefits over time.

“I wish that MLAs would also talk to the staff because they said it wasn’t sustainable. Sometimes, we have to listen to the people who are providing the services,” Cochrane said, replying to Nokleby’s concern that money was being wasted on bureaucracy without any sign of improvement.

“The secretariat has only been in place for less than a month, now. I don’t know what kind of miracles you’re wanting. Before that, absolutely, it wasn’t coordinated well. That’s why we said we had to do this.”

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