An Elections N.W.T. returning officer who became president of the federal Liberal riding association can be considered non-partisan under territorial jurisdiction, according to the N.W.T. Chief Electoral Officer.

This revelation comes after a messy internal brawl within the territory's Liberal riding association.

John Dalton

John Dalton, a longtime Yellowknife politician and businessman, has resigned as president of the territory's Liberal riding association. (CBC)

John Dalton, longtime Yellowknife politician and businessman, resigned as president of the territory's Liberal riding association after an internal dispute that brought forth allegations against him. One of them relates to a perception of conflict of interest in his role as a returning officer for Elections N.W.T.

"There is no conflict," said Dalton.

Kieron Testart, a member of the territorial legislature for the Kam Lake riding, has also stepped down as the vice-president of the Liberal riding association, citing work and family commitments.

Turmoil in the N.W.T. liberal riding association

David Monroe, an executive member of the riding association, raised the motion to remove Dalton as president, making several allegations in an email to the riding's executives including questioning Dalton's role as a returning officer for Elections N.W.T. 

David Monroe could not be reached for comment.

Dalton was appointed in early 2015 as returning officer for Yellowknife Centre for the November territorial election. One of the candidates in that riding was Robert Hawkins, who had dropped his campaign for the federal Liberal nomination to seek re-election as an MLA.

Dalton was elected president of the Liberal riding association in December.

Under the territory's Elections and Plebiscite Act, "the Chief Electoral Officer may revoke the appointment of a returning officer who … at any time after being appointed, engages in politically partisan conduct."

Nicole Latour

N.W.T. chief electoral officer Nicole Latour says Dalton's 'personal political affiliation is not necessarily viewed as a contravention of the Elections and Plebiscites Act.' (CBC)

N.W.T. chief electoral officer Nicole Latour declined an interview with CBC News, but provided an email statement saying that adherence to the clause is "generally" referring to the pre-election and campaign period, but "not meant as an overarching law that governs an individual's personal life beyond administering a territorial event."

"For the greatest of clarity; Mr. Dalton's personal political affiliation is not necessarily viewed as a contravention of the Elections and Plebiscites Act."

'Avoid perception of bias'

Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, a Yellowknife resident and an adjunct professor of public policy at Carleton University, says since there are no political parties represented in the territorial legislature, in a strictly legal sense, there is a legal separation between the federal and territorial jurisdictions.

However, she says there could be a perception of bias.

"It's not always about what does the law say. It's about what's reasonable and how does this look," says Irlbacher-Fox.

"I would think just to avoid perception of bias, you might not want to have a very partisan person involved in a non-partisan role for sure."

Moving forward? 

Jerald Sabin, a territorial politics researcher at Carleton University, says that the Elections and Plebiscite Act is "ambiguous around the term 'partisan activity.'"

The term is not defined in the Act, but in the context of the territorial legislation, it's clear it's referring to the territorial election itself, he says.

But he says that the political crossover from federal to territorial involvement is "something you can't really avoid" in the North.

"Here we're seeing a unique situation in Canada where one person could participate federally in a partisan way, and act independently on the territorial level," he says.

"You're dealing with a small pool of people, so you're going to find people wearing multiple hats."

Both experts agree this might be an issue the legislative assembly may need to revisit.

"Moving forward, it's something the members of the Legislative Assembly can examine and reexamine to update the statute to better reflect the interconnectedness of federal and territorial politics," says Sabin.