North

Did N.W.T. premier break law by firing Aurora College president? MLA demands answers

Premier Caroline Cochrane is defending her decision to dismiss Tom Weegar, a top official at the education department and president of Aurora College. She says there's a difference between 'hiring' and 'appointing.'

Jackson Lafferty quotes law in Legislative Assembly, calls move to fire Tom Weegar 'troubling'

Premier Caroline Cochrane is defending claims she broke the Aurora College Act by firing the college's former president late last month. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane is facing questions in the Legislature over whether she broke the law when she dismissed a top education official.

At the end of January, Cochrane fired Tom Weegar, the former president of Aurora College and assistant deputy minister responsible for education renewal.

The story of how and why Weegar was dismissed has been murky. R.J. Simpson, the education minister, told  three different versions of the story over three days last week.

In his last version of events delivered Friday, Simpson said he approached Cochrane with concerns he'd had about the college and told her a change was needed weeks ago. Soon afterward, Cochrane fired Weegar, though he only found out about it after the fact, he said.    

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty, himself a former education minister, questions whether the premier overstepped her authority when she fired Tom Weegar. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Monday, Cochrane faced questions from Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty over whether removing Weegar as president violated a provision within the Aurora College Act, which governs the college.

He called it "troubling" that Simpson did not make that decision himself, as the act states the power to appoint the president — and therefore to revoke that appointment — lies with the education minister, and not the premier.  

"There's lots of confusion, both from this side of the house and the public that wants answers," said Lafferty, who was education minister in the 17th Legislative Assembly.  

In my eyes, this is a law that we follow, both inside this house and out. - Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty 

"In my eyes, this is a law that we follow, both inside this house and out," he said. "Why did the premier overstep her authority?" 

A copy of Weegar's termination letter, dated Jan. 30 and obtained by CBC News, is signed by Cochrane and says Weegar's employment as associate deputy minister and as president of Aurora College will "terminate effective immediately."

While Martin Goldney, Cochrane's deputy minister for executive and Indigenous affairs and secretary to cabinet, was copied on the letter, Simpson was not.

In the Legislative Assembly Monday, Cochrane defended her decision, drawing a distinction between "hiring" and "appointing."  

"My interpretation of the Aurora College Act does not say the minister is responsible for hiring and firing," she said. "The minister is responsible for appointing the president. Different [terminology]. It doesn't say firing at all, or terminating.

"Except for hiring their secretaries and special advisors, [ministers] do not hire employees into the public service," she said. 

Cochrane argues the responsibility for hiring and firing employees remains with the public service, and not the minister — even if the law states the minister appoints employees to positions.  

It appears that in her interpretation of the law, once Weegar was fired as associate deputy minister of education, his appointment as president of Aurora College went with it. 

Cochrane has declined all interview requests from CBC News on this issue. 

Calls for independent commissioner 

Meanwhile, officials in Fort Smith, N.W.T., are calling for an independent commissioner to oversee the college's move to a polytechnic university. 

Since Weegar's firing, that responsibility now lies with Andy Bevan, a senior bureaucrat within the territorial government. 

Fort Smith Mayor Lynn Napier released a statement Monday stating she's lost confidence in the department's ability to manage the move and that the department "does not demonstrate an understanding of how a competent post-secondary institution functions." 

Fort Smith will be bringing the motion to the Northwest Territories communities association meetings at the end of the month.  

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now