Squabbles, shuffles and communication snafus: 2020 in N.W.T. politics

·9 min read

The year 2020 felt at least 48 months long.

In Northwest Territories politics, it's hard to believe some of this year's newsiest events actually took place in the last 366 days.

When COVID-19 took off in March, thrusting the territory and much of the world into a state of emergency, the 19th legislative assembly was just five months old and coming off a territorial vote that saw a record number of women elected.

But the high of October 2019 didn't last long, and the months to follow would be marred by internal conflicts, cabinet shuffles and communication snafus.

Take, for an early example, Tom Weegar's unceremonious dismissal from the helm of Aurora College.

Remember Weegar? The former president of the college and associate deputy minister of post-secondary renewal was appointed after a nationwide search — and dismissed a year later, in early February (you read that right, this February).

A flurry of confusion surrounded who made the call to let go of Weegar.

Walter Strong/CBC
Walter Strong/CBC

First, Education Minister R.J. Simpson said the former president left to "pursue other opportunities," which checked out, kind of, with an email Weegar sent to college faculty and staff. Simpson then changed the story so that the decision came from the premier herself, but later told the Legislative Assembly that he advised Premier Caroline Cochrane to give Weegar the pink slip.

Weegar told CBC at the time he faced a "real strong resistance to change." He was replaced by N.W.T. government insider Andy Bevan, the former assistant deputy minister of labour and income security.

We didn't know it then, but the Weegar saga foreshadowed a year in territorial politics punctuated by misstatements and mixed messaging.

'We are not in a crisis' — wait a minute ...

At the end of February, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek proposed her first budget — a run-of-the-mill, $1.9-billion fiscal plan with no new taxes and modest spending on the government's 22 mandate priorities.

The niggling question, then, was how the government would avoid bumping up against its federally-imposed borrowing limit of $1.3 billion.

In her Feb. 25 budget address, Wawzonek made a proclamation that would not age well: "We are not in a crisis."

Oh, the cruel clarity of hindsight.

Fifteen days after the 2020-21 budget was tabled, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

The novel coronavirus would go on to spur a global recession and prompt more than $240 billion in Canadian government spending.

For many in the North, the pandemic hit home on March 7, when the Arctic Winter Games, set to take place in Whitehorse a week later, were cancelled.

Nearly all N.W.T. events quickly followed suit, as did the territorial legislature, which suspended its sitting on March 13. Soon after, most government employees began working from home and schools shuttered for the remainder of the academic year.

(The federal government would, in June, increase N.W.T.'s debt cap to $1.8 billion.)

A star is born

In March, the N.W.T. had gained a new and unlikely celebrity in Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola.

When then-Health Minister Diane Archie declared a public health emergency on March 18, Kandola was granted extraordinary powers: among them, the ability to prohibit travel within the territory.

Mario De Ciccio/CBC
Mario De Ciccio/CBC

She exercised that power on March 20, closing the territory to most non-essential travellers in 24 hours, and ordering all returning residents to isolate for 14 days in Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith or Inuvik.

Also on March 20, the territorial government released details of its first COVID-19 relief package, priced at $13.2 million. The territory has since projected it will spend more than $53 million on its pandemic response this fiscal year, with another $50.1 million coming from Ottawa.

COVID-19 arrived in the North a day later, on March 21, when the first case among the three territories was confirmed in Yellowknife.

N.W.T.'s house of cards

The department of Municipal and Community Affairs is in charge of the territory's emergency response, and in early April, the premier seized control of the department from its minister, Paulie Chinna.

Cochrane, leveraging her experience as cabinet's longest-serving member, said the move would give her a "hands-on role" as the government confronted the coronavirus.

Though Cochrane claimed the takeover was not a reflection of Chinna's performance, the minister was absent from the press conference announcing the shuffle, and she wasn't quoted in the accompanying news release.

Was it a consolidation of power or an efficiency, since the premier would inevitably be called on to answer for the N.W.T.'s pandemic response anyway?

The 19th assembly would see four cabinet shuffles this year, a brand new minister (Health) in Julie Green, and the acrimonious ouster of former Industry and Infrastructure minister Katrina Nokleby. More on "Noklegate" later.

With the N.W.T. under a strict COVID-19-imposed lockdown in April and all indoor gatherings banned, one of the territory's more distant anxieties barreled into the foreground: Dominion Diamond Mines, the part owner of two N.W.T. mines, filed for and was granted insolvency protection. The company placed much of the blame for its situation on COVID-19.

The filing sent a shock to the territory's 250-or-so N.W.T. residents who worked for Dominion, and the countless others in mining-related businesses.

'Noklegate'

In 2020, perhaps no N.W.T. politician was the centre of as much controversy as Great Slave Lake MLA Katrina Nokleby.

(Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty comes in a close second, for, among other public dustups, refusing to recant after accusing the premier of acting in contempt of the legislative assembly when she fired the president of Aurora College. For this, he was expelled from the legislature for a day.)

Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada
Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada

Nokleby oversaw the department of Infrastructure, as well as Industry, Tourism and Investment, and thus the government's economic response to the pandemic. In the early days, some N.W.T. businesses said governments weren't doing enough to help them.

Called "a bit of a bull in a china shop" by caucus chair Rylund Johnson, Nokleby was rebuked in the Legislative Assembly by Premier Cochrane for allegedly yelling at staff and throwing "continual tantrums" in meetings.

But a May 27 confidence motion citing concerns with Nokleby's performance — the first attempt to push her out of cabinet — died before going to a vote.

Initially, a vocal contingent of supporters vouched for Nokleby. An online petition to "Save Minister Katrina Nokleby" garnered nearly 1,500 signatures and Cochrane expressed her "complete confidence" in the minister.

But Nokleby faced additional ire this summer when Tłı̨chǫ leadership lambasted the territorial government for its handling of public works contracts on their land. Soon after, the premier plucked Procurement Shared Services, which deals with such contracts, out of Nokleby's hands and placed it into those of Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek.

Nokleby was, eventually, stripped of her portfolios and ejected from cabinet.

In the legislature, she decried a "toxic culture of secrecy [that] has allowed my character and professionalism to be disparaged, while not allowing me to respond, reply, or defend myself."

In the end, all MLAs but Nunakput representative Jackie Jacobson, who abstained, and Nokleby herself, voted to give her the boot.

What's that you say about tourism?

For months following the March 21 order restricting travel in the N.W.T., residents believed the territory was out of bounds to most everyone but themselves and essential workers.

So naturally, some were befuddled when, in early June, the premier told CBC's Rosemary Barton on national television that in the Northwest Territories, "tourism is on the table" and that visitors are welcome.

Submitted by Kristian Binder
Submitted by Kristian Binder

It was four days before the record was corrected. While certain visitors could enter with, for example, a compassionate exemption, the chief public health officer made clear that leisure travellers would not be among them.

Cochrane later admitted that the government mishandled its messaging on travel restrictions and changes to those rules.

This wasn't the only communication fumble: since the start of the pandemic, Cochrane's government withheld information about major changes to the territory's laws on at least three occasions.

While all this was going on, a wellspring of activism was bursting forth, unleashed by the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a Minnesota police officer. In Yellowknife, hundreds descended on the RCMP detachment downtown on June 9 to demonstrate peacefully against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and police brutality. Nearly all participants were wearing masks.

At a press conference addressing the rally, the commanding officer of Northwest Territories RCMP admitted there is racism in the force.

One agency, under Cochrane

As a second wave of COVID-19 began swelling in the provinces, the territorial government announced in September the creation of a COVID-19 "co-ordinating secretariat": a single agency to manage its pandemic response. The secretariat's head would report directly to the premier.

The division would create 150 new government jobs and cost an estimated $87 million over 2.5 years, with $23.4 million coming from Ottawa.

Critics loudly denounced the expansion of government at a time when residents were struggling and communities were underfunded. The N.W.T. Chamber of Commerce asked why the territory wasn't spending this money on health care, while Monfwi MLA Lafferty made a motion to delete funding for the secretariat, saying no one in the territory had died of the coronavirus, yet many are dying as a result of suicide and addiction.

Lastly, some kudos

When it comes to N.W.T. political reporting, it can seem as though the media's heart is two sizes too small. But we're not grinchy all the time at CBC North, and we'd be remiss not to mention the territorial government's successes, specifically, the remarkable job it's done so far at preventing community transmission of COVID-19, and keeping cases lower here than in any other jurisdiction in Canada.

The territorial government also stepped up when some of its most vulnerable residents needed it to.

Kate Kyle/CBC
Kate Kyle/CBC

It helped transform Yellowknife's Arnica Inn into a COVID-19 isolation centre for people experiencing homelessness; it declared a local state of emergency in the capital to quickly open an additional day shelter downtown; and it supported managed alcohol programs.

Now, with the arrival of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the N.W.T. is on track to inoculate 75 per cent of adult residents in the first three months of 2021.

By every measure, 2020 was an unprecedented year, and this government, led by a new and majority-first-term assembly, deserves some credit.

Through a frightening and devastating global pandemic, it's done the one job it really needed to do: it's kept N.W.T. residents safe.