The NWT Legislative Assembly has released a plan to address recommendations made in a review that examined whether aspects of the legislature workplace are toxic.
Earlier this year, Ottawa-based Quintet Consulting found the office of the NWT Legislative Assembly’s clerk was divided but not broadly toxic. Quintet made seven recommendations for improvement.
Issues highlighted by the consultant included perceptions of conflict of interest or preferential treatment, concern regarding some MLAs’ interactions with staff, and a perceived “proximity between managers and MLAs.”
Quintet said many employees reported feeling as though silos existed at the legislature, despite staff at the office of the clerk “sharing one hallway in a single building.”
On Tuesday, the legislature published an action plan in response to those findings.
Measures listed include the creation of various supports to help staff at the clerk’s office and the addition of some accountability mechanisms. In some places, the legislature lightly pushes back against Quintet’s suggestions.
For example, Quintet’s recommendation that a dedicated human resources professional be installed at the office is tweaked in the action plan, on the grounds that the GNWT’s Department of Finance controls all human resources and the legislature may be too small to warrant its own staff member.
The action plan states members of GNWT human resources staff will now “hold weekly office hours at the Legislative Assembly and attend weekly stand-up and management meetings” – as they once did, a practice that had disappeared in recent years.
In response to concern about “real or perceived nepotism or conflicts of interest,” the legislature says it will adopt guidelines for direct appointments and conflicts of interest. The office of the clerk’s code of conduct will also be revised to include a section on conflicts of interest.
While some of the solutions in the action plan are policy-driven, others are physical in nature. The problem of silos between employees will in part be addressed, the plan states, by building a digital sign that lists events and meetings happening each day.
The sign will be accompanied, the plan adds, by “annual events bringing employees together to celebrate Indigenous languages and cultures in observation of National Indigenous Peoples Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.” More work will happen to have staff present to each other about their work.
A perceived lack of access to training will be addressed in part by a new orientation and onboarding program for staff, and a commitment that all staff complete GNWT programs that feature the likes of the blanket exercise.
An outside facilitator will be brought in to help address concern that research advisors’ work is sometimes minimized in comparison to that of the clerks. Advisors assist committees of MLAs with their work.
Relations with MLAs
The worry expressed by some staff that interactions with MLAs don’t always end well will be addressed by a series of measures.
Quintet, in its report, stated: “Some elected officials may see themselves as omnipotent, while employees perceive these officials as untouchable. It is important that MLAs, especially newly elected members, be informed in a timely manner after taking office of the limitations of their role, the need for staff … to enforce established rules, the expectation regarding their interaction with staff, and the manner in which unwelcome behaviour will be addressed.”
In response, the legislature said the consensus style of government in the NWT – political parties do not exist in the territory’s governance – restricted the means available to handle such conflict.
“Unlike a party-based system where party whips are responsible for disciplining members, there are limited avenues available to members and staff when disagreements occur over the purpose and application of rules,” the action plan states.
The plan calls for a respectful workplace or lateral violence awareness session to be held for MLAs in the near future, while the office of the clerk will develop its own “clear and measurable service standards.” In the longer term, MLAs who are newly elected will receive “enhanced training” on working with legislature staff.
Lastly, the action plan sets out how the legislature will handle the “pervasive” perception, as Quintet put it, that senior staff at the legislature are too close to some MLAs.
That Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr, the Mackenzie Delta MLA, and clerk Tim Mercer are friends has long been cited by the likes of ex-MLA Steve Norn as a concern. Norn was removed from the legislature last month over concerns about his own behaviour but, before that, had complained about Mercer’s conduct. His complaint was one of four that triggered Quintet’s workplace review.
“Some employees believe that issues with members are not addressed or resolved because of perceived and real relationships between employees, particularly at the senior level, and some members,” the action plan states.
The plan promises education for all staff on “necessary and appropriate working relationships and boundaries between employees, managers, and members,” alongside the creation of a policy “that requires the disclosure and management of new or pre-existing friendships or family ties between employees and members.”
The plan also calls for the introduction of “a standard, slightly more formal way of addressing members to be used by all staff in the building.”
On this last concern, the plan pushes back a little, arguing the territory is too small for such relationships to be avoided entirely.
“The need for some employees, including management, to work in close proximity with members [is] part of their jobs,” the plan states.
“The Northwest Territories is a small jurisdiction where friendships between employees and members may exist prior to a member being elected or develop while they are in office.
“As a small organization, there is not always the option of putting in alternate working relationships to address concerns about proximity between employees and members.”
Progress on the action items outlined will be reported on regularly during meetings of the five-MLA board of management that governs the legislature’s inner workings.
“The creation of this action plan is an important step in improving workplace culture, but it’s only the beginning,” said Blake in a statement.
“I look forward to overseeing the plan’s implementation and want to thank staff for actively contributing to its development.”