Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn went against the advice of the legislature’s acting clerk when he told a reporter he “followed all the rules” regarding isolation in April, an inquiry into his conduct heard.
Norn faces a complaint from fellow MLAs that he contravened their code of conduct by appearing to break mandatory self-isolation after returning to the NWT from Alberta in April and “misleading the public” about his actions.
On Friday’s fifth day of the hearing, acting clerk Glen Rutland testified that the CBC contacted the Legislative Assembly in late April, indicating they planned to report Norn had Covid-19. Norn tested positive for the disease on April 21, which was not public knowledge at the time.
Rutland helped Norn draft a statement, identifying himself as a positive case, which was released to the CBC on the evening of April 22 and more broadly by the Legislative Assembly the next morning.
Rutland said Norn wanted the statement to include that he followed all the rules during his isolation period. Rutland, however, advised Norn he could not do so as video footage showed him entering the Legislative Assembly on April 17, a full day before his isolation period ended.
Rutland told Norn the statement’s accuracy was important as reporters would “be viewing it closely and seeking to confirm all of the facts.”
The inquiry earlier heard evidence that Norn had broken self-isolation rules on two other dates: when he had contact with his daughter, who was separately isolating, on April 8, and on visiting the Yellowknife Racquet Club and delivering a package to a friend on April 18.
Despite his conversation with Rutland, in an interview with Ollie Williams – head of programming and news at Cabin Radio – on the morning of April 23, Norn stated: “I followed all the rules, I was up front with everybody.”
Shortly afterward, that quote was published in a news article by Cabin Radio.
Norn testified he was sleep-deprived and “groggy” when he spoke to Williams and regrets taking the call. He said he felt pressured by Premier Caroline Cochrane into making a statement about being Covid-19 positive.
“I didn’t consciously mislead the public,” he said.
Rutland said on April 23, he received a phone call from an unidentified MLA raising concern about Norn’s statement to Cabin Radio as they knew Norn had been at the legislature during his isolation period.
Rutland said he contacted Norn to ask him what he had told Cabin Radio, and reminded Norn of the advice not to state he had followed the rules. Norn responded by asking if Williams had contacted Rutland and expressed frustration with Cabin Radio for publishing the quote. Rutland said Norn did not deny making the statement.
Norn later texted Rutland asking if Cabin Radio was regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission, or CRTC, a question the MLA repeated during his testimony at the inquiry. Rutland said he did not know why Norn asked that, but again noted the MLA was frustrated with Cabin Radio’s reporting.
(The CRTC is a regulatory agency with the power to issue and amend broadcasting licences. The agency promotes compliance with rules like the National Do Not Call List and anti-spam legislation. The CRTC states, however, that it is “not a board of censors, and can’t tell broadcasters what they can and can’t air.” It has no jurisdiction over any news outlet publishing a direct quote stated by an elected official during an interview.)
Rutland said he asked Norn if he wanted to issue another statement correcting what he had told Cabin Radio. Norn said he would not take any further calls from the media. No such statement was ever issued.
Three people with direct knowledge of Norn’s April 17 visit to the Legislative Assembly subsequently told Cabin Radio about that incident. Norn did not respond to Cabin Radio’s repeated attempts to reach him once the April 17 visit became apparent.
Norn admitted to the CBC in May that he broke isolation by going to the Legislative Assembly. Norn testified he was sleep-deprived and stressed at the time of his interview with CBC reporter Liny Lamberink.
Inquiry hearing cut short
The inquiry also heard from the legislature’s law clerk Sheila MacPherson on Friday. She testified that with the “unprecedented” number of first-time MLAs elected in October 2019, the Legislative Assembly held the most lengthy and “comprehensive” orientation she’s aware of since she began working there in the late 1980s. That included media training for MLAs from an outside contractor.
Norn also testified about orientation and recalled it being “driven home” that MLAs were in the public eye.
“Once you get elected into office, the message was: you are in the public eye and even some members of your family will be part of that,” he said.
MacPherson further testified that despite Norn and clerk Tim Mercer – who has been on leave since February – being “at odds” with each other, Norn continued to access the same level of services he previously had from the clerk’s office. She noted he was in “daily if not hourly contact” with acting clerk Rutland up until recently, and described Rutland’s assistance to Norn as “fulsome.”
Norn testified that Rutland was “quite helpful.” He said his relationship with the clerk’s office changed when he was removed as chair of the legislature’s Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight on May 14.
The inquiry hearing was cut short on Friday afternoon after a positive Covid-19 case was identified at the Legislative Assembly. While the hearing is being held virtually by Zoom, an interpreter, technical team, and hearing clerk involved in the inquiry have been working in the assembly building and were required to leave for testing.
The inquiry will resume next Friday, when questioning of the remaining witnesses is expected to continue.