Led by Thebacha’s Frieda Martselos, more than half of the territory’s MLAs rose in the legislature on Monday to condemn the conduct of their colleague, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn.
Several described in raw terms a sense of fear after hearing Norn use the phrase “I’m coming for you” in a series of threats both to MLAs and legislature staff. One, sent via Facebook Messenger on the eve of a public inquiry into his conduct, had already been documented.
One MLA said they had called RCMP over a message sent by Norn.
Norn, addressing colleagues, apologized for the things he had said and insisted they were not “meant to be a physical threat.” He said he felt he had become a victim of “gotcha culture.”
Monday’s extraordinary discussion of Norn’s conduct, which consumed the opening hour and 20 minutes of the legislature’s delayed fall sitting, was separate to the debate MLAs must also hold about the findings of that public inquiry.
The inquiry examined whether Norn broke self-isolation in April and whether he subsequently misled the public about it. Ronald Barclay, who led the inquiry, concluded Norn had done both and recommended Norn’s seat be vacated – a conclusion the MLA has disputed.
On Monday, MLAs had yet to get anywhere near Barclay’s report when Martselos rose and, as the fall sitting’s first order of business, raised a question of privilege with Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr.
A question of privilege is a procedural device. It can be used to query whether an MLA has infringed on the ability of other MLAs to do their jobs.
“A number of incidents have occurred that undermine the dignity, integrity, and efficient functioning of this assembly,” Martselos announced. “Each of these incidents arise from the conduct of the Member for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh.”
Martselos, a former Chief of the Salt River First Nation who represents the Fort Smith area, went on to list three occasions on which Norn had directed some variety of the phrase “I’m coming for you” at either MLAs or legislature staff. He had also, she said, “used a Latin phrase referring to cutting the neck off a snake in reference to an officer of the Legislative Assembly.”
All of Martselos’ allegations fell outside the scope of Barclay’s inquiry and report. Most MLAs who spoke on Monday were careful to make the distinction, as they cannot comment on Barclay’s report until it is formally tabled later.
“It is clear to me that the Member for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh has engaged in a pattern of threatening behaviour,” Martselos concluded, asking Blake to find that a breach of privilege had on the balance of probability occurred, the consequence for which would be decided later.
Norn, Martselos said, “has demonstrated profound disrespect for his colleagues and for the assembly as an institution of democratic governance.”
O’Reilly called RCMP over Norn
MLA after MLA subsequently rose to reiterate some of the same points, many thanking Martselos for coming forward as the first to raise the matter.
In some cases, MLAs appeared visibly angered and emotional as they spoke.
Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek fiercely denounced the “revenge” Norn had spoken of exacting upon his colleagues.
“I was present on more than one occasion when I heard language used from the Member for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh to public servants that was more than rude. It was abusive,” Wawzonek said.
“One specific, graphic metaphor was used to describe the lengths to which the MLA would go to exact his revenge.
“The MLA is telling us very clearly that any further actions or statements any one of us have to make in relation to his conduct … will be met with him coming for us.”
Lesa Semmler, the Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA, said those threats had made doing her job almost impossible at times.
Departing almost immediately from a statement she had prepared, Semmler said: “I have never felt my safety was compromised coming here until that.”
She said she feared attending meetings in Yellowknife because of the prospect of some form of retribution from Norn.
“This was going to prevent me from being able to do my job as an MLA,” Semmler said.
“As a Legislative Assembly member, this is unacceptable behaviour toward anyone. I have been unable to participate fully in committee meetings for fear I might say something wrong that might put myself or my family at risk of more of these threats.”
Kevin O’Reilly, the Frame Lake MLA, said he had called the police after receiving one of the threats also documented by Martselos.
“I made a complaint to the commanding officer of RCMP G Division the next day. He called me within minutes of the receipt of my complaint to check on my safety and that of my family,” O’Reilly said.
Referring to Norn’s previous career as a police officer, O’Reilly added: “The Member for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh lives in Yellowknife. He has been member of the RCMP. He has likely received firearms training.”
O’Reilly called both the threatening messages and a range of statements from Norn’s lawyer, Steven Cooper, at a news conference last week, a “clear attempt to intimidate me and other members.”
Cooper had told MLAs to “be afraid, be very afraid” if they chose to declare Norn’s seat vacant. O’Reilly allowed that Cooper’s words could be interpreted in a variety of manners, but felt the totality of the various messages formed an “attempt to intimidate me in my role as a member.”
Julie Green, the health minister, said of Norn’s Facebook Messenger threat: “I had to think twice about whether I was going to stand up and talk about it today or whether I was, in fact, enlarging the target on me.
“The intention of the member was to intimidate me and everyone else who received the message.”
Rocky Simpson, RJ Simpson, Caitlin Cleveland, Rylund Johnson, Diane Archie, and Premier Caroline Cochrane all rose in support of Martselos.
Johnson described Norn walking out of a meeting of all MLAs at which his conduct had been raised.
“He became visibly upset, raised his voice, and left,” said Johnson, who chairs the caucus of 19 MLAs.
“He told members he would only take further questions through his lawyer,” Johnson continued, adding that course of action “breaks down the fundamental way we try to resolve differences in this House.”
Norn regrets what he said
Norn, rising in his defence, said Martselos’ motion was “news to me” and said he had had little time to prepare a speech.
“The words that were mentioned here … were in no way, shape, or form meant to be a physical threat. If I scared anybody, I am truly sorry from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
“This has been twisted out of context, all of it. I am a very passionate person when it comes to my work. I am fiery and militant.
“So much of what I’ve said was just taken out of context. It was never meant to intimidate anyone. People who know me personally know I would never harm anybody. I would never do that. I want to make that clear, here, today.”
Norn cited a recent Oprah Winfrey interview with the musician Adele in which Adele referred to a “gotcha culture.”
“Everything we do or say nowadays is watched, recorded, and judged to the Nth degree. I think, with me, that also is applicable,” he said.
And though he briefly suggested O’Reilly’s decision to involve RCMP meant police had been “used as a political instrument,” he went on to allow that the action could be justified.
“From listening to some of the comments I can see now why I had to be spoken to, and that is fair,” he said, claiming RCMP had accepted that his threats were “merely a political statement and not physical.”
“What I said was regrettable and I apologize for that. I wish I could take it back,” Norn said.
As he attempted to address the Barclay report’s recommendation that his seat be vacated, Norn was several times interrupted by MLAs noting the report could not yet be discussed as Blake had yet to formally table it in the House.
Norn, appearing to lose steam, eventually gave up after accusing Barclay and inquiry lawyer Maurice Laprairie of unspecified “racism.”
His apology was not enough for Archie, the infrastructure minister, who rose after Norn to state: “Intimidation of members of this assembly and our staff is not acceptable at any level.
“We cannot condone or dismiss the action of the member. To do so is to devalue the work and commitment of MLAs and the staff that work so hard to support us.”
Blake told the legislature: “I will take this matter under advisement and provide my ruling at a later date.”
Barclay’s report has still to be tabled or discussed, and MLAs are no closer to voting on the recommendation that Norn’s seat be vacated. That vote technically may not take place until February, though MLAs appeared energized on Monday to dispense with the matter at the earliest opportunity.