For the first time, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn publicly apologized on Thursday for breaking mandatory self-isolation by visiting the Legislative Assembly in April.
Norn did so as he testified on the fourth day of a public inquiry into whether he breached the MLAs’ code of conduct by allegedly breaking self-isolation after returning to the NWT from Alberta and “misleading the public” about his compliance with public health orders.
In response to questioning from Maurice Laprairie, counsel for the inquiry commission, Norn admitted going to the Legislative Assembly on April 17 – one day before his isolation period was set to expire – to retrieve his glasses and some documents.
“I realize I did that in error. That was an oversight on my part and I apologize for that,” he said.
Norn testified that, on April 17, he thought his isolation period had ended after counting 14 days on a calendar. He said he forgot about a letter he was sent about his self-isolation plan that instructed him to isolate from April 4 “up to and including” April 18.
The inquiry earlier heard from Dennis Marchiori, director of compliance and enforcement operations for the Covid-19 Secretariat, who explained day one of the 14-day isolation period doesn’t begin until the day after travellers return to the NWT. He said the rules are “fairly clear” in letters sent to those self-isolating.
Yet at least two witnesses at the inquiry and Norn’s lawyer, Ronald Halabi, indicated they were confused by the territory’s isolation rules.
Trisha Smith, who lived with Norn in April and was self-isolating with him at the time, said she believed their isolation period ended after they received a symptom check phone call from Statistics Canada on April 18, not at the end of that day. As a result, she said she wasn’t concerned when Norn told her he was headed to the Yellowknife Racquet Club that afternoon.
However, Smith said she did not know Norn had gone to the Legislative Assembly on April 17 and when she found out, she was upset.
Laprairie noted Norn received a symptom check email from the NWT government on April 18, notifying him it was his 14th day of isolation. But Norn insisted he didn’t realize he had broken self-isolation by going to the assembly building a day earlier until he was informed by legislature deputy clerk Glen Rutland on the evening of April 21.
‘Follow it religiously’
Letters sent by Protect NWT to people self-isolating state it is up to them to abide by the conditions of their self-isolation plan and an offence under the Public Health Act not to comply with public health orders.
In a video played at the inquiry, shared to Norn’s Facebook page in April 2020 after a case of Covid-19 was identified in Fort Resolution, the MLA urged residents to take Covid-19 recommendations and public health orders seriously.
“If you have an isolation plan, please follow it religiously. Listen to it. They’re there for a reason, they’re there to protect us,” he said.
Norn said he still agreed with that statement on Thursday.
When Norn tested positive for Covid-19 on April 21, documents from the contact-tracing investigation suggest he initially told public health he hadn’t been in contact with anyone outside his household during his isolation period.
Stephanie Gilbert, a registered nurse who manages a team responding to Covid-19 outbreaks in the Yellowknife region, testified on Wednesday that public health began investigating further after they received numerous phone calls from members of the public self-identifying as potential contacts.
In subsequent interviews with public health, records indicate Norn said he saw his daughter – who was separately isolating – on April 8 and 17, went to the Legislative Assembly on April 18, and the Racquet Club on April 19. Gilbert said in some instances, Norn only revealed information about his whereabouts after specifically being asked.
Gilbert said public health received information from the legislature that Norn had actually been at the assembly building on April 17, and the office of the chief public health officer reported there was video footage showing Norn had been at the Racquet Club on April 18. Gilbert said that affected public health’s ability to notify people that may have been exposed to Covid-19.
“If somebody isn’t able to give us an accurate story and an accurate account of their activities, it puts others at risk,” she said.
‘I didn’t consciously mislead the public’
Norn told the inquiry on Thursday that when he first spoke to public health, he had difficulty remembering where he had been. He added he was “sleep deprived” and “exhausted” during the contact-tracing investigation.
Norn said he got the dates “mixed up” regarding his visit to the Legislative Assembly. In response to questions from Laprairie, he agreed that “in hindsight” he could see the risk he created.
As for April 8, Norn described the encounter with his daughter as brief. He said she and her mother stopped outside his home in their vehicle after returning from the airport. He hugged and kissed his daughter, who he hadn’t seen in a few weeks, after she called out to him.
“I know I did wrong there but it was just out of emotion and, yeah, I love my children,” he said.
Norn said on April 17 he picked up some items outside his daughter’s mother’s house but didn’t have contact with either of them.
In a public statement shared by the Legislative Assembly and a subsequent interview with Cabin Radio on April 23, Norn disclosed he had tested positive for Covid-19 and said he isolated as instructed from April 4 to 18.
“I followed all the rules, I was up front with everybody,” he told Cabin Radio.
Norn said he was pressured by Premier Caroline Cochrane to “come forward” and make a public statement about being Covid-19 positive.
He stressed that at the time of his interview with Cabin Radio he was sleep-deprived and “groggy,” and regretted taking the call.
“I was worried about my family, I was alone, I felt powerless to help my family. I was worried sick,” he said.
Norn said that was also the case when he spoke to the CBC in May and admitted to breaking isolation.
In response to questions from Lapraririe, Norn said he didn’t feel he was misleading the public at the time but conceded it seems that way now.
“When we see all the dust settled now, it appears that way on its face,” he said.
“I didn’t consciously mislead the public.”
‘I’m doing the right thing’
During questioning from his lawyer – Steven Cooper – Norn said once his Covid-19 diagnosis became public he received a “barrage” of messages and calls, anonymous threats, and believes his vehicle’s fuel tank was tampered with. He described a “frightening time” for him and his family.
“I felt like a pariah,” he said. “I had people that wanted me thrown in jail, wanted me to be punished, and it just didn’t seem proportional.”
Norn said three of the 19 MLAs support him while others have called for him to resign or told him he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“I’m still staying my course,” he said. “I really, really feel I’m doing the right thing … I’m just hoping that we get some resolution and hopefully work in harmony, the way governments should work.”
On Thursday morning it was revealed that Norn sent what Laprairie described as a “threatening” Facebook message to 16 of his fellow MLAs, stating “whoever backed this, I’m coming for you,” the night before the inquiry began. Cooper said the subject of his client’s message may not necessarily have been the inquiry.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson filed the conduct complaint against Norn to the legislature’s integrity commission in May on behalf of caucus as its chair. Caucus consists of all 19 members of the Legislative Assembly.
In June, integrity commissioner David Phillip Jones recommended the complaint be heard by way of a public inquiry before a sole adjudicator.
The inquiry is set to resume on Friday at 9:30am. Deputy chief public health officer Dr Andy Delli Pizzi and Sheila MacPherson, law clerk at the Legislative Assembly, are scheduled to testify. Closing arguments aren’t expected until the end of next week.
Once the hearing concludes, sole adjudicator Justice Ronald Barclay may either dismiss the complaint against Norn or conclude that he did breach the MLAs’ code of conduct. In the latter case, he can recommend penalties such as a fine of up to $25,000, a suspension of up to 30 days, or a declaration that Norn’s assembly seat be vacated. MLAs must ultimately vote on whichever recommendation Barclay makes.
Norn separately faces two charges of breaking self-isolation under the Public Health Act. He pleaded not guilty to the charges in August.