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Norn shouldn’t be penalized for ‘missteps,’ lawyer argues

Last modified: November 3, 2021 at 9:53am


The lawyer representing Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn in a public inquiry over whether he breached the MLAs’ code of conduct says his client should not be penalized for what he describes as “missteps.” 

A complaint by Norn’s fellow MLAs alleges he broke mandatory self-isolation in April then misled the public about his compliance with public health orders. The public hearing ended on Tuesday afternoon with closing remarks, following six days of evidence and testimony from a dozen witnesses.  

Norn’s lawyer, Steven Cooper, criticized the inquiry process itself as being “tainted by a lack of impartiality,” claiming the results are “largely predetermined.” 

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“Justice isn’t served in a race car. Justice needs to be slow, deliberative, understanding and fair,” he said. 

When his previous requests to delay proceedings were denied, Cooper said the proceedings were “politically motivated” by the impending start of the Legislative Assembly. Sole adjudicator Justice Ronald Barclay has denied that claim. 

Cooper on Tuesday further claimed Norn is being prosecuted for “political ends.” 

“This process is the symptom of a disease where bureaucracy has overtaken democracy in the Northwest Territories, and God help anybody who raises a hand in protest, because that’s why Mr Norn is here,” Cooper said, calling Norn “one of the defenders of the democratic traditions of the Northwest Territories.”

Cooper’s remarks echo statements he made in response to the findings of two reviews examining the work environment at the NWT legislature, in which Norn was a key complainant. Cooper also represented Norn in that case. 

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The MLA was one of four people who accused longtime legislature clerk Tim Mercer of bullying and demeaning staff and MLAs. The company conducting the reviews upheld a complaint that Mercer breached confidentiality, but decided three other complaints – including one from Norn – were not founded.

The workplace review concluded the clerk’s office is “divided” but not toxic in an “overall or broad sense.” Cooper at the time called those findings “largely irrelevant” and the “by-product of a dysfunctional and corrupt system.”

Barclay has previously ruled allegations about the atmosphere of the Legislative Assembly and complaints against Mercer are not relevant to the current inquiry into whether Norn broke isolation and misled the public. 

Summary of the allegations against Norn

Maurice Laprairie, council to the sole adjudicator – whose role is to be impartial – detailed a summary of the evidence in the inquiry on Tuesday. He noted Barclay will have to determine the credibility of witnesses and how to weigh their testimony.

Among the allegations, Norn is accused of breaking isolation on April 8 by hugging and kissing his daughter – who was separately isolating – then doing so again on April 17 by visiting the Legislative Assembly, and on April 18 by attending the Yellowknife Racquet Club as well as delivering a package to a friend. 

Cooper acknowledged the evidence suggests those incidents occurred but pointed to Norn’s testimony that, at the time, he believed his isolation had ended on April 17. Other evidence presented during the inquiry indicated Norn received a letter outlining that his isolation period lasted up to and including April 18.

Cooper, however, said the territory’s isolation rules are confusing and Norn shouldn’t be criticized nor punished for a “miscalculation.”

“It’s so confusing we can’t figure it out,” he said.

Barclay will also have to determine whether Norn misled public health regarding his whereabouts during his isolation period, misled the public by telling Cabin Radio he “followed all the rules,” and whether he failed to accept responsibility for his actions and correct them to the extent possible. 

Stephanie Gilbert, a registered nurse who manages the team that responds to Covid-19 outbreaks in the Yellowknife region, testified that Norn’s contact-tracing investigation was “much longer, more complicated, and certainly at times stressful and difficult” because the MLA kept changing his story.

She said when someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 doesn’t give an accurate account of their activities, it puts others at risk.

Norn testified that he got his dates confused and did not intentionally mislead the public. Cooper described Norn as being under “extreme stress” at the time.

Cooper added that Barclay must separate theoretical risk from real risk, arguing there was no proof of “any passage of Covid” due to Norn leaving isolation. 

Cooper argues against penalties

Barclay is now tasked with deciding whether to dismiss the complaint against Norn or find the MLA guilty of contravening the code of conduct.

In the latter event, Barclay has the power to recommend one or more of a range of consequences, including a reprimand, a fine of up to $25,000, suspension of up to 30 days, costs to be determined by the adjudicator, or that Norn’s seat in the assembly be declared vacant.

MLAs will have to vote on any course of action Barclay recommends.

Cooper argued against Norn facing any of those penalties. He said if the MLA did breach the code of conduct it was minor, inadvertent, or was made in good faith. He added that his client has already “suffered mightily for his mistakes” due to the inquiry process.

“There’s no escaping this in the Northwest Territories. Every store he goes into, every street he walks down, every plane he goes on, there’s the potential for people looking at him differently, treating him differently,” he said.

“There’s really nothing you can do that is going to be even more painful than the pain he’s already suffered.”

Cooper said if Barclay does determine further consequences are required, the only appropriate recommendation would be a censure, arguing anything else would be “unfair and unjust.” 

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