N.W.T. government hand picked recipients for one third of $444M in contract work last year

The N.W.T. Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife on May 28, 2021. According to government contracting data, during the fiscal year from April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022, the government chose to go with so-called sole source, non-competitive contracts on 530 occasions. The contracts were for everything from office chairs to advice on airport renovations. (Sara Minogue/CBC - image credit)
The N.W.T. Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife on May 28, 2021. According to government contracting data, during the fiscal year from April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022, the government chose to go with so-called sole source, non-competitive contracts on 530 occasions. The contracts were for everything from office chairs to advice on airport renovations. (Sara Minogue/CBC - image credit)

Slightly more than one third of the $444.5 million in contracts the Northwest Territories government entered into last fiscal year did not go out to competition. And former Government of the Northwest Territories bureaucrats continue to be popular choices when the government hand picks its contractors.

According to government contracting data, during the fiscal year from April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022, the government chose to go with so-called sole source, non-competitive contracts on 530 occasions. The contracts were for everything from office chairs to advice on airport renovations.

Government rules state that all contracts must be put out to competition unless the service or good being contracted for is so urgently needed that putting it out to tender would be "injurious to the public interest," or only one party is available or capable of performing the contract.

Departments can also pick and choose who they give smaller contracts to — those less than $100,000 in the case of architectural or engineering work, less than $50,000 for other professional services, or under $25,000 for all other contracts.

From April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022 the government spent $83.7 million tax dollars through sole source contracting. It spent another $69.3 million on what's known as "negotiated contracts" — contracts given to specific suppliers to maximize local benefits or build capacity in the territory.

A total of $284.4 million was spent on contracts that were put out to public tender, meaning any business could bid on them. Another $7.1 million was spent via contracts that were open to competition, but only to businesses that qualified or were invited to compete for them.

Former employees only ones with required expertise

Last year, when the Department of Infrastructure needed someone to "support GNWT [Government of the Northwest Territories] and Indigenous participation in the Taltson hydroelectric expansion project MOU steering committee and working group meetings," they looked no further than former principal secretary Richard Bargery, who now lives in Vernon, B.C.

The initial contract amount for that seven months of support was $100,000, but it doubled by the time the contract was finished. Bargery was given a sole-sourced contract for the same project the previous year at a cost of $100,000, according to the 2020-21 government contracting report.

In an email, an official with Infrastructure said Bargery was the only person for the contract because he has previously worked with all of the parties involved in the project, "and understands the complex nature of the GNWT's relationships with Indigenous government and Indigenous organizations and consensus building."

The same department saw Bargery as the only person qualified to act as a "negotiation facilitator" for work to extend the runway of the Inuvik Airport. The department said it offered Bargery the $30,000 contract because of his long-term relationships with the parties involved in the project.

For similar reasons, Bargery was previously judged the only contractor qualified to take on a $160,000 consulting contract related to negotiations around Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve.

Negotiations were also the focus of another sole-sourced consulting contract given out by the Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs this fiscal year. The contract went to recently retired territorial government chief land claim and self-government negotiator Fred Talen.

"Mr. Talen was the former director of the GNWT negotiations unit and has a vast amount of institutional knowledge of the files we are currently working on," said an official with the Department of the Executive and Indigenous Affairs in an email, adding that a number of staff have retired over the last three years.

Strangely, though the contracting report says Talen is being paid $262,500 for "negotiation services" from June 15, 2021 to March 31, 2022, in an email a Finance official said that dollar amount was entered in error and that "there was a change order signed on September 13, 2022 to reduce contract amount" from $262,500 to $100,000.

Two sole-source contracts, for $16,800 and $25,000, were given to Jana Shoemaker of Moncton, New Brunswick. According to her LinkedIn profile, up until 2018 Shoemaker was one of the government's more than two dozen staff lawyers.

But seven years after leaving the government, Shoemaker remains the only one with the expertise to help the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) be sure it complied with the Health Information Act and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

"There is a limited pool of lawyers with experience in this specialized area and it is challenging to find someone with knowledge of these acts to provide this service urgently," said an official with the NTHSSA in an emailed response to questions about the contract.

High end furniture selected for MLAs' chairs

Though it did not go to a former government employee, the Legislative Assembly, overseen by Speaker Frederick Blake, decided it was not necessary to shop around when it decided to replace the chairs MLAs sit on when they're in the legislative chamber.

It went directly to high end Edmonton furniture store Dwell Modern, purchasing 26 chairs for $59,540. (In an email a Legislative Assembly official said additional chairs were purchased for staff and witnesses, who sometimes enter the legislative chamber to address MLAs.)

In the email, the official said the legislature went directly to Dwell Modern on the advice of its interior design consultant. Asked who that is, the official responded that it is Taylor Architecture Group. The official said the chairs being replaced had been in use since the building opened 29 years ago.

Flood repair project management sole sourced

One of the biggest sole source contracts — for $2.2 million — went to Colliers Project Leaders. The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) said the contract was to manage damage assessments and oversee contracting and construction associated with the recovery from flooding in 2021.

Kevin McLeod, who recently retired as an assistant deputy minister for the Department of Infrastructure, is a senior project manager at Colliers.

In an email, the department said it contracted Colliers after finding that no one in government was available to oversee the work.

"Given MACA does not have the technical expertise to undertake a construction project, or to manage one, the department reached out to other departments who complete this kind of work to determine if they had the ability to assist. However, due to their own workload pressures and work plans, these departments were not able to assist."

Another sole-source contract, for $19,800, was given to Archibald Robb Consulting, partly owned by former senior bureaucrat Debora Archibald. The contract was to organize geological data for the department of Industry, Tourism and Investment. The same consultancy won a $24,000 competitive Request For Proposals contract to research staking systems for the department.

The department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs gave Marie Wilson a $31,500 contract for "writing, analysis and co-ordination" services. Wilson was a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the wife of former Premier Stephen Kakfwi. The department said the contract required specialized knowledge of the work of the TRC.