The sole adjudicator in a public inquiry has recommended that Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn’s seat in the NWT Legislative Assembly be declared vacant.
Justice Ronald Barclay made the recommendation in a 191-page report in which he found Norn had breached the code of conduct for NWT MLAs by breaking mandatory self-isolation in April and misleading the public regarding his compliance with public health orders.
Following a seven-day public inquiry, Barclay concluded Norn’s actions “irreparably damaged public confidence and trust” in the Legislative Assembly and compromised “the health, safety, and trust of the people” of the NWT.
As a result, Barclay wrote, Norn is “unfit to remain a member” of the territory’s legislature.
“Mr Norn displayed a cavalier attitude by breaching his self-isolation plan, not once, but five times within the 14-day isolation period,” the report states.
“Mr Norn’s actions do not withstand public scrutiny and do not uphold the integrity and honour of the Legislative Assembly as required by the code of conduct.”
Barclay noted that, as elected representatives of the territory, MLAs hold a “position of trust and authority” and are “expected to hold themselves to a high standard of conduct” in both their professional and private lives. He added that NWT residents rely on MLAs “to provide leadership and to be role models with respect to this horrific pandemic and to keep their most vulnerable citizens safe.”
13 witnesses, six days of testimony
The public inquiry was lively from start to finish. Norn failed to appear on the first day, there were allegations that the proceedings were “politically motivated” and “tainted by a lack of impartiality,” and it was revealed that Norn sent a “threatening” message to other MLAs the night before the hearing began.
More than a dozen people testified, including reporters, Legislative Assembly and public health staff, Norn’s friends and family, and Norn himself.
Norn admitted breaking isolation rules four days into his isolation period on April 8 by hugging and kissing his daughter, who was separately isolating. He did so again on April 17 by visiting the Legislative Assembly, then on April 18 by going to the Yellowknife Racquet Club and separately delivering a package to a friend. He denied he had contact with his daughter on April 17, which he had previously told a public health nurse.
Norn’s self-isolation plan stated he was required to isolate from April 4 up to and including April 18. Norn, however, testified he believed his isolation period had ended on April 17, while his lawyers argued the territory’s isolation rules were confusing.
Barclay concluded it was “implausible” that Norn did not know his isolation period ended on April 18, as Norn had chaired a series of public briefings on Covid-19 protocols. In addition, Norn told the legislature’s integrity commissioner he believed his isolation ended on April 18. Barclay also suggested that was why the MLA incorrectly told a public health nurse he had been at the Racquet Club on April 19.
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. The legislature’s acting clerk, Glen Rutland, testified that Norn “frequently changed the information he provided about his isolation.”
Ollie Williams, head of programming and news at Cabin Radio, testified about a short phone interview he had with Norn on April 23, where the MLA claimed he had isolated as instructed from April 4 to 18, stating: “I followed all the rules, I was up front with everybody.”
Norn testified he was sleep-deprived and stressed at the time, saying he got his dates confused and regretted the interview with Cabin Radio. He asserted he “didn’t consciously mislead the public.”
Barclay, however, found the evidence against Norn in that regard was “overwhelming.” He said he did not accept nor believe Norn’s explanation.
“For very selfish reasons, Mr Norn misled public health officials by making these false statements. His motive was to convince the health authorities that he had complied with the mandatory self-isolation requirements,” Barclay wrote.
During his closing arguments, Norn’s lawyer Steven Cooper argued his client shouldn’t face any penalties for what he described as “missteps.” Cooper said the only reasonable sanction would be censure, as Norn had apologized and already “suffered mightily for his mistakes” through the process of being examined at a public inquiry.
In his report, Barclay noted Norn’s apology came on the fourth day of the inquiry. Norn characterized the breach as an “error” and “oversight.”
“In making this purported apology, Mr Norn minimized his actions and failed to take responsibility for the breach,” Barclay wrote.
“The timing of this ‘apology’ is suspicious and leads me to believe it is made to garner sympathy with me as the sole adjudicator and was not made in good faith.”
What happens now?
Barclay’s findings do not necessarily mean Norn will lose his seat as an MLA.
Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr must now table the adjudicator’s report in the Legislative Assembly. Within 15 days of his doing so, MLAs must vote on the recommendations.
The assembly resumes sitting on Monday, November 22.