A women's advocate in Yellowknife says a policy passed in the legislative assembly two decades ago that said MLAs convicted of domestic violence would not be allowed to hold public office has fallen far short of her expectations.

Lynn Brooks was under the impression that Michael Nadli, the newly-elected MLA for Deh Cho who was recently jailed for assaulting his spouse, would not be able to run for re-election due to a zero tolerance promise made in 1993.

"What's happened to that promise?" Brooks asked when she called CBC North's Talkback line after last week's territorial election.

"Like many other political promises I guess, it's kept until it's inconvenient to do so."

Michael Nadli

Michael Nadli was re-elected MLA for Deh Cho last month, despite being convicted for assault against a woman. (Submitted)

In November 1993, Brooks was president of the Status of Women Council of the NWT, and helped advocate for the policy.

"The NGOs concerned with domestic violence were able to extract a promise from the legislative assembly," she says.

"Every single member of the legislative assembly at that time, some of whom had been convicted of domestic violence, made a promise that there would be zero tolerance for domestic violence in the legislative assembly."

The assembly enacted the motion in February 1994.

Then-Justice Minister Stephen Kakfwi said in the legislature at the time: "Adopting a position of zero tolerance toward violence, although only a symbolic step at one level, is nevertheless a significant step because it will be a demonstration of our commitment as political leaders that things have to change."

Gets teeth, then gets repealed

In June 1995, the zero tolerance pledge got some additional teeth. A new law was put on the books that included a section stating that MLAs could not continue to serve if convicted of an offence involving violence or sexual exploitation of a child.

A decade later, the law was put to the test when former MLA Henry Zoe was convicted of resisting arrest.

At the time, the legislative assembly's clerk, Tim Mercer, consulted lawyers over whether that was considered "violence" under the act.

Mercer says the advice from the lawyers was that the law was weak because it only included those two specific crimes and the wording wasn't in line with offences in the criminal code.

Zoe decided to resign in 2005.

A year later the contentious section of the law was repealed and replaced with the provision in place today, which forces members out of the assembly only if they're sentenced to jail, for any type of crime.

"The intention of the legislature at the time was not to necessarily make the law weaker but to put in place a test that was easy to apply," says Mercer.

However, Mercer says neither the rules today, nor the law put in place in the 1990s, restrict a candidate with a previous conviction from running again for MLA, and he's not aware of any jurisdiction in Canada where that's the case. 

Broken promise

'Whatever commitments and legislation we had, or that I thought we had put in place in the early 90s, has been diminished or set aside,' says former Premier Stephen Kakfwi today.

Today, former premier Kakfwi says their promise from two decades ago was "broken."

"We said... as an organization, the legislature would commit not to have anyone who had committed a crime of violence against another person to hold office, to be able to sit as a member of the legislature.

"Somehow it seems the legislature no longer abides by that," says Kakfwi.

"Whatever commitments and legislation we had, or that I thought we had put in place in the early 90s, has been diminished or set aside."

Kakfwi says the legislature still has to deal with Nadli — saying he could end up as premier or in a cabinet position.

"It has to act. There's a challenge here," he says.

'Maybe that was naive'

Brooks now says she sees that legislation was never there to support the pledge made back in 1993.

"It was our understanding that this pledge would mean that we would not have people convicted of a violent felony sitting in the house," she says. "That just wouldn't happen anymore.

"Maybe that was naive of us to believe that, but that is what we believed, and we thought it was a great victory for women."

with files from Peter Sheldon