The NWT’s MLAs have referred their colleague Steve Norn to an independent integrity commissioner after legislature staff were told he broke isolation last month.
In a joint statement, the territory’s other 18 MLAs said nothing about the substance of their complaint to the commissioner. They simply said it followed “public allegations” against Norn, the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA, and was “in relation to those allegations.”
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation has called for Norn to resign.
As first reported by Cabin Radio in April, Norn visited the NWT legislature on April 17 – a trip that caused one security guard to be placed into isolation. Before news of that visit emerged, Norn had said his isolation period was April 4-18.
Norn has not directly commented on the April 17 visit since its existence became public. He could not be reached by Cabin Radio on Tuesday. NNSL reported Norn had said he would not step down.
The MLAs’ statement followed a meeting of caucus – all 19 territorial politicians – earlier in the day. Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, the caucus chair, told Cabin Radio he could say “almost nothing” about Tuesday’s meeting as it was confidential.
Johnson said Norn took part in the meeting, which lasted for approximately two hours, and had the opportunity to address the allegations against him.
Last month, Norn proactively came forward to identify himself and a family member as the first two Covid-19 cases in what ultimately became a five-case Yellowknife cluster. Those cases involved the so-called UK variant of the virus that causes Covid-19, which is said to be more easily transmitted and deadlier than earlier forms of the virus.
It’s not clear if the latest cluster in Yellowknife, centred on NJ Macpherson School, is connected to last month’s cluster. Nor is it yet known if the NJ Macpherson cluster is also the UK variant.
How process works
Filing a complaint with the integrity commissioner sets off a process that could lead to a fine, suspension from the legislature, or even a declaration that the MLA’s seat is now vacant.
MLAs in the Northwest Territories operate to a mutually agreed code of conduct. “Members must act lawfully and in a manner that will withstand the closest public scrutiny,” that code reads in part.
The complaint to be filed by Johnson, in the name of the caucus of MLAs, suggests they feel Norn has contravened part of that code, though the specific section is not clear.
The integrity commissioner – currently lawyer David Phillip Jones, QC – will now investigate and can then either dismiss the complaint or order that an inquiry be held before a sole adjudicator. (Nobody answered the phone at Jones’ office on Tuesday afternoon.)
A sole adjudicator has the power to issue a fine for minor contraventions of the code. For more serious contraventions, the adjudicator can recommend that MLAs reprimand, fine, or suspend a colleague, and can also recommend that an MLA’s seat be declared vacant.
A majority of MLAs would have to support the adjudicator’s recommendation for action to be taken.
“In regards to what will go specifically in the complaint, I think there’s some scoping of the allegations that needs to occur. It’s not the role of the integrity commissioner or the code of conduct to replace public health investigations,” said Johnson, who is now drafting the text of the complaint.
He said the integrity commissioner’s review would be a “fair process that doesn’t deal with rumours and hearsay … given the allegations, the public expects nothing more than an investigation to occur.”
Deninu Kue supports Norn, YKDFN opposes
Meanwhile, Chief Louis Balsillie of the Deninu Kue First Nation wrote to Premier Caroline Cochrane to voice support for Norn.
Chief Balsillie – whose First Nation said on Tuesday it would reinstate a highway “monitoring stop” outside the community because of Covid-19 in Yellowknife – has been outspoken in defending his community’s at-times hardline stance in operating checkstops and imposing its own travel restrictions.
In his letter to Cochrane, Balsillie said he was “not in support” of Norn’s removal. (Cochrane alone does not have any power to remove Norn. The caucus of MLAs would have to vote to accept an adjudicator’s recommendation that Norn’s seat be vacated, if that conclusion were reached.)
Balsillie wrote: “We are aware of concerns raised regarding his violation in going to the Legislative Assembly after hours during his recent isolation upon returning from travel out of the NWT.
“We do not know the facts surrounding any incidents that have been posted in the media but do support reprimand if required.
“In our view, we do not believe that his actions were deliberately negligent but more of a situation of basic human error in this circumstance.”
Balsillie said Norn had “performed well for his people … and has always been accessible, supportive, and proactive in advocating for all people in our region.”
According to the CBC, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation – in a letter to MLAs – stated its chiefs had “lost all confidence and trust in this MLA [and] he should not be allowed to represent our members in the legislature.”
The two Yellowknives Dene chiefs were “extremely concerned by the risks posed to our members and the NWT due to the selfish actions of the MLA in question,” that letter reportedly continued.
There was no clear timeline for the integrity commissioner’s investigation and any subsequent investigation by a sole adjudicator.
Norn initially told Cabin Radio he had travelled to the Alberta community of Grande Prairie for a family emergency at the start of April. He said he “stayed home” and isolated as instructed from April 4 to 18.
“I followed all the rules, I was up front with everybody,” Norn told Cabin Radio before news of his April 17 trip was reported.
Meaghan Brackenbury contributed reporting.