North·Year in Review

Apologies, resignations and state of emergency declarations: 2021 in N.W.T. politics

COVID-19 wasn’t the only story making N.W.T. headlines in 2021. Lawmakers also fed our news feeds. Here's a look at the top political stories of the year that was.

A by-no-means-exhaustive rundown of political stories that made N.W.T. headlines in 2021.

COVID-19 wasn’t the only story making N.W.T. headlines in 2021. Lawmakers also fed our news feeds. Here's a look at the top political stories of the year that was. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

What can we say about this second pandemic year in the Northwest Territories? It was kind of a drag.

We wore masks, shrunk our social circles and kept kids home from school — again. 

We tried to be good all year long, and still got a lump of coal called Omicron.

But COVID-19 wasn't the only story driving news in 2021. 

N.W.T. lawmakers also fed our feeds with scandals, resignations and state of emergency declarations.

What follows is a by-no-means-exhaustive rundown of political stories that made N.W.T. headlines in 2021. 

An apology and some allegations

The year in politics got rolling in February, when the Legislative Assembly reconvened, with a high-profile apology.

Premier Caroline Cochrane expressed regret over a handful of senior government officials who travelled outside the territory during the 2020 Christmas holidays after residents were urged to stay put to avoid importing COVID-19. 

Cochrane apologized "to the public who have been hurt by this," adding she hoped all members of the Legislative Assembly would "also be role models and not leave the territory until COVID-19 is done." 

Also in February, one of the territory's most powerful bureaucrats, Legislative Assembly clerk Tim Mercer, was thrust into the public eye when allegations emerged that he bullied employees and created a toxic work environment. 

Mercer said the accusations came from a small number of disgruntled employees, and that an investigation in 2018 dismissed claims against him.

In August, an independent review determined complaints that Mercer bullied and harassed colleagues were unfounded. One complaint, that Mercer breached confidentiality rules, was found to have merit. 

The clerk of the N.W.T. legislature, Tim Mercer, pictured here in 2014. An independent review determined that complaints that Mercer bullied and harassed colleagues were unfounded. (CBC)

COVID anniversary, more pandemic spending

March marked one year of the global COVID-19 crisis, and the start of N.W.T.'s campaign to inoculate the general population.

It was also when MLAs accepted a $2-billion budget, with $117 million in new spending.

Ahead of the budget's approval, senior finance officials warned the "current fiscal plan is unsustainable," with tax revenues expected to fall by almost $40 million, due to COVID-19. 

In her speech on the proposed budget, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek defended her fiscal plan, which she said avoided cuts and new taxes.

Wawzonek said the territorial government is a major player in N.W.T.'s economy and "Budget 2021 has no reductions because right now the economy needs support."

A public inquiry, a threatening Facebook message

In April, Act One opened in what would become the N.W.T.'s stand-out political drama of 2021. 

Late on a Thursday night, then-Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn said in a statement he had tested positive for COVID-19.

The revelation set off a series of events in which Norn played the hapless lead. 

First, he sent mixed messages to reporters about whether he'd broken isolation rules. Then, an integrity commissioner investigation reported that Norn breached public health orders when he visited the Legislative Assembly and the Yellowknife Racquet Club before the end of his mandatory, post-travel isolation period. The commissioner kicked the matter up to a sole adjudicator.

In a public inquiry held over nine days (and costing more than $800,000), that adjudicator found that Norn violated several sections of the Legislative Assembly's code of conduct and recommended he be removed from his seat. 

Former Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn. After he was found to have violated the Legislative Assembly's code of conduct, Norn apologized for pain he had caused, and resigned. (Travis Burke/CBC)

The inquiry also brought to light a threatening Facebook message Norn sent to his caucus colleagues in which he swore at them "for making my loved ones cry," and wrote "I'm coming for you." 

Norn said his message was "in no way meant to be a physical threat," and apologized to his coworkers. 

In November, MLAs stated they would accept the adjudicator's recommendations, but as they prepared to expel Norn, he apologized for pain he had caused, and resigned. (Speaker Frederick Blake Jr. later clarified that Norn's resignation was invalid.)

Floods and a cabinet shuffle

The spring of 2021 brought devastating floods to the Dehcho and Beaufort Delta regions, with an estimated 700 people displaced in Fort Simpson. Some couldn't return home for weeks or months

Community members and MLAs expressed frustration over the government's response, eroding public confidence in the minister in charge of disaster relief, Paulie Chinna.

In early June, the premier stripped Chinna of the Municipal and Community Affairs portfolio, handing it to Minister Shane Thompson.

It was the second time Chinna was taken off MACA. The first was in April of 2020, after COVID-19 snowballed into an international public health disaster. She was re-installed the following July.

Roughly 700 residents of Fort Simpson, N.W.T., evacuated the community due to severe flooding. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Legislature becomes majority women

June also saw a noteworthy exit from the Legislative Assembly.

Then-Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty announced his resignation after 16 years representing the Tłıchǫ region, and his intentions to run for Tłıchǫ Grand Chief. 

A by-election installed Jane Weyallon Armstrong in the Monfwi seat. 

Not only was Weyallon Armstrong the first woman elected to represent the riding, but she tipped the gender balance of the Legislative Assembly, making it majority women — a first among Canadian legislatures.

Lafferty was elected Tłıchǫ Grand Chief in November. 

Jane Weyallon Armstrong was the first woman elected to represent the Monfwi riding and her victory tipped the gender balance in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Marching for lost children

June was also a month of mourning. 

Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. announced in late May it had located unmarked graves of an estimated 215 children near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. On June 4, hundreds marched in Yellowknife to honour children who lost their lives at residential schools. 

"It's heartbreaking to hear, but it's not shocking," Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler said about the Kamloops grave sites. "As an Indigenous person, many of us have heard stories of what our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents have told us and what they've had to endure."

Semmler also remarked upon Indigenous people's determination to combat racism "so that this is never forgotten and never repeated."

In the fall, Cochrane said the government could help Indigenous communities "in developing strategies for recording unmarked burial sites at residential schools" and "leveraging federal funding and resources." 

Hundreds took to the streets of Yellowknife on June 4, 2021, to honour children who died at residential schools. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Day shelter debated, again

In 2021, Yellowknife was again embroiled in a dispute over where to put an additional day shelter. 

The previous year, the city's day shelter cut capacity as a COVID-19 precaution. Without that space for people to go during winter, and with pushback from businesses that didn't want a shelter in their backyard, then-MACA Minister Paulie Chinna took what she called an "extraordinary step" and declared a state of emergency in Yellowknife

The move allowed the government to seize the downtown Mine Rescue Building for a temporary day shelter.

But the building wasn't meant to be a lasting solution, and when temperatures warmed, the state of emergency lifted, and the temporary day shelter closed

At the time, Health Minister Julie Green said she hoped to find an alternative space before Oct. 1, 2021. But when October arrived, a new spot had yet to be secured. 

Green pleaded with residents to support a day shelter at the former Aurora Village building, but city council voted against it.

Ultimately, the government once again resorted to declaring a state of emergency so it could build a temporary day shelter where the city's old visitors' centre used to be. 

Yellowknife's temporary day shelter going up at the site of the former visitors' centre. This day shelter is meant to operate until 2024, when a permanent space is set to open. (April Hudson/CBC)

Another apology and a high note

The year in politics closed out like it began: with an apology.

This one, from Green, who said sorry to families forced to leave the territory to have their babies after birthing services were cancelled at Stanton Territorial Hospital due to a staff shortage.

Beyond the disruption this continues to cause for parents, the closure is expected to drain the N.W.T. government's coffers of more than $1 million.

It was admittedly difficult to keep one's chin up this year. Good news would land — the vaccines, the loosening of restrictions — and then there'd be an outbreak, our loved ones would get sick, and we'd have to cancel plans. 

As the territory braces for a tsunami of new COVID-19 cases, it will be hard to celebrate the dawn of 2022 with the ebullience of New Year's Eves past. 

But we're determined to end the year on a high note.

So please, read this story and watch its extremely adorable videos of toddlers dancing the jig in Tuktoyaktuk.

And here's to more small moments of pure joy in 2022.

Giselle Kimiksana, left, Elias Gordon-Ruben, centre, and Eva Raddi-Felix were all entered in the Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk's online jigging competition this year. (Caroline Jane/Facebook, Tianna Gordon-Ruben/Facebook, Crystal Raddi/Facebook)

With files from Richard Gleeson, Natalie Pressman, Hannah Paulson, Liny Lamberink, Loren McGinnis, Avery Zingel and John Last.