An MLA was interrupted mid-speech on Thursday evening as Premier Caroline Cochrane sought an apology over a comparison between the fates of white and Indigenous children in care.
Debating whether the over-representation of Indigenous children in the territory’s Child and Family Services division is a crisis, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler found herself cut off.
“When 90 percent of the children in Child and Family Services in the Northwest Territories are Indigenous, this is a crisis,” Semmler had been saying.
“If this was the other way around, they were non-Indigenous, this would definitely [be considered] a crisis and the whole government would be trying to figure out how this happened.
“But because this is just generational, it went from residential schools to the Sixties Scoop, and now the Child and Family Services is just a continuation. This is a crisis. And I am supporting this motion–”
At that point, the audio from Semmler’s microphone cut out. Semmler, appearing remotely by video, was asked to wait by Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, chairing a committee meeting open to all MLAs.
Premier Cochrane then spoke out against Semmler’s comments.
“I take offence to this one,” Cochrane said, citing a rule of debate in the NWT legislature that forbids MLAs from suggesting a colleague has “false or hidden motives.”
“The comment that the member stated – that the children are Indigenous and therefore it’s not as important but if they were Caucasian, there would be an all-government response – imputes false or hidden motives to another member,” the premier said.
“It implies that the whole cabinet would make this a priority. And I think that’s disrespectful to all of us.”
Simpson, the chair, agreed with the premier.
“I feel the comments did cross the line. I ask the member to apologize and withdraw the comments. I recognize the fact that this is a very passionate subject that we’re discussing. But I caution and urge careful language be used,” Simpson said.
“I apologize and take back my comments,” said Semmler in response, clearly emotional, before adding: “If they would have let me finish my statement, maybe they would have understood what I was leading to.
“I was never making a point that it was this government. This is an ongoing historical problem that we need to raise. It’s the same fight that many Indigenous families have fought for missing and murdered Indigenous women… that it was never recognized as a crisis.
“If that’s what this government thinks that I was leading to, then, you know, I apologize for that. But that’s not my intention, never was.”
Semmler went on to repeat her comments about Child and Family Services, calling for change to a system she said hasn’t changed since residential schools.
“Do I have to speak to the recommendations from the inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women? Do I have to repeat what the TRC says? This is a crisis. This is an ongoing crisis… and we need to come together as a government, with Indigenous governments, and find a way to resolve this.”
‘How systemic racism works’
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson rose to the defence of his colleague, noting the rule the premier raised imputes faults or hidden motives to another member.
“If all the children in care were white, there would be a whole-government response,” said Johnson. “It is absolutely insane to think that is not the case. That is how systemic racism works.”
That comment quickly drew a second point of order from the premier.
“I take offence that any member would say that this would be different, from our government, if these children were Caucasian. It’s totally offensive and I do not accept that from any member,” she said.
Johnson refused to withdraw the comments and refused to apologize.
“The test is whether a motive is imputed to cabinet,” he said. “I don’t believe I was imputing a motive. I was stating a fact about systemic racism.”
Johnson, again asked to apologize, once again held his ground. After a five-minute recess, Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr allowed a debate on the issue, saying: “The topic you’re debating now is a sensitive one. It is also very important.”
By now, a wider debate had begun.
“I was offended when the comment came,” said the premier. “The majority of our cabinet members are Indigenous and the majority of the members here are Indigenous. So I took offence to it.
“And when the second member stated it again, it was like a slap in the face… this government cares… it cares about Indigenous children.”
Johnson responded that the test “is not whether anyone was offended.”
“We are allowed and in fact encouraged to say things that will offend people in this house, and that is healthy debate,” he said.
“I don’t believe the motives of my cabinet colleagues or any of the people in this house are remotely racist or prejudiced toward Indigenous children. I know they deeply care. But that is not how systemic racism works.
“Systems in our territory that clearly arise – as the member for Inuvik Twin Lakes stated – out of residential schools, out of the Sixties Scoop, carry on. And I believe it is a simple fact that if all of the children in care were white, there would be a whole-government approach.
“We need to be able to talk about systemic racism and make statements like that. We need to build a frank debate in this house. It is not a matter of offending anyone on either side of the aisle.”
A number of MLAs leapt into the debate in support of Johnson’s statement and in support of Semmler, including Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland, whose words brought applause from colleagues.
“We continue to see examples of people facing discrimination based on their national origin, race, religion, ethnicity and culture. It is an uncomfortable truth, but one that we must fearlessly acknowledge and confront if we want change,” Cleveland said.
“I hope I don’t get called on a point of order for those words, but I can’t take credit for them because they are those of the premier. They were read into this house on March 3, 2021, about systemic racism. And this motion is about systemic racism.
“I’m shaking right now, in the sense that I’m very passionate about this, and I have a lot of sadness right now because I can see that my colleague from Inuvik Twin Lakes is hurt. So I believe the only apology that is holding up this house is one from the premier to this side.”
After several more comments echoing Cleveland, Cochrane backed down.
“I have no problem apologizing. I believe that if we do things wrong, we need to stand up and be strong,” she said.
“If members are offended because I was offended, because I thought they were attacking my cabinet, then I should apologize to the members if that’s not what they meant.”
Ultimately, the motion originally being debated – for the Government of the Northwest Territories to declare that the over-representation of Indigenous children and youth in Child and Family Services is a crisis – was passed.
The NWT government says it will explore developing a whole-of-government response, in partnership with Indigenous governments, to address the issue.