MLA and minister at odds over request for new N.W.T. family violence survey

A large majority of Northwest Territories MLAs voted down a recommendation Thursday that would have paved the way for people convicted of family violence offences to be temporarily barred from running for territorial office.

Tensions over what to do about family violence spill over into next day of legislative assembly

Caroline Cochrane, the minister responsible for the status of women, and Julie Green, one of two MLAs who supported a five-year ban on people convicted of family violence running for MLA, debated heatedly Friday over whether N.W.T. needs a new survey on attitudes about family violence. (CBC News )

A large majority of Northwest Territories MLAs voted down a recommendation Thursday that would have paved the way for people convicted of family violence offences to be temporarily barred from running for territorial office.

The recommendation was designed to send a strong message about epidemic levels of family violence in the territory, and the higher standards of conduct — both before and during office — to which MLAs should be held.

But the debate — which easily rivalled any other recent debate, including budget talks, in intensity — also shoved an uncomfortable Michael Nadli into the spotlight.

Green, Cochrane at odds over new survey

That debate carried over into Friday when Julie Green, MLA for Yellowknife Centre and one of two advocates for the ban, called on Caroline Cochrane, minister responsible for the status of women, to commit $100,000 for a new survey on attitudes surrounding family violence.

Green said the last survey was done in 2010 and a new survey would help address the systemic causes of domestic violence.

"It's clear that we 19 members do not share a common understanding of what family violence is," she said, referring to Thursday's vote. "I suspect that we're representative of the territory as a whole."

Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli speaks in the Northwest Territories legislative assembly in fall 2014. Nadli was front-and-centre at a debate Thursday night, which preceded a vote on a recommendation to temporarily ban people convicted of family violence from running for territorial office. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

"I am quite offended by the member's statement," said Cochrane.

"Because members do not have a desire to continue to punish individuals who have served their time after committing domestic violence, but rather focus on healing; because we want to preserve rights in place, does not mean that members don't understand or care about family violence in the Northwest Territories. 

"If the member meant that we do not agree on punishment versus healing, then, of course, the member is certainly correct."

Cochrane said while several departments have discussed the idea of a new survey, the government won't commit the money for it, citing "the state of the economy."

"How about taking half the cabinet to Vancouver?" Green shot back, referring to a hotly-debated trip by all cabinet members in January that, with other guests of the government factored in, cost $193,000.

"That would free up $100,000." 

Cochrane responded "The root causes of family violence is not an additional survey. It is a lot of other things. It can be host of other ideas."

'Life's lessons'

Nadli, the MLA for the Deh Cho, was convicted in 2015 of assaulting his spouse before being released from jail early enough to successfully run for a second term.  

"It's not the type of wisdom I'm particularly proud of," said Nadli Thursday in his defence before ultimately abstaining from the vote, his voice frequently on the edge of tears.

"But as with most of life's lessons, truly terrible ones are learned the hard way."

Calling the recommendation "a blunt instrument" and an unnecessarily punitive one, Nadli said that while he agreed with the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures about the pervasiveness of family violence in the North, he disagreed with the committee's finding that ethnicity does not play a role in determining the frequency of offenders or victims of family violence.

"The statistics may not be available but it doesn't take a PhD to know with certainty that the incidence of family violence in our Aboriginal communities is far higher than elsewhere in the N.W.T. or anywhere in Canada," he said.

"The recommendation before you will not address this dire situation."

He then concluded by sharing a vision of how he'd like his experience to count in the assembly.

"I'd like to think that by taking responsibility for my actions and for my healing, that I can serve as an example to other Aboriginal men that there's an alternative to violence, that there's hope after punishment."

'We are not on the same page'

The debate pitted MLAs seated in awkwardly close quarters at diametrically opposed poles of each other, even as sympathies were exchanged.

MLA Julie Green voted in favour of the ban. 'I know that the voters of the Dehcho made the right choice in returning [Nadli] to this assembly as their MLA,' she said. 'That said, we are not on the same page.' (CBC)
"I know that the voters of the Dehcho made the right choice in returning him to this assembly as their MLA," said Green while turning to Nadli, who was seated right beside her.

"That said," continued Green, one of two MLAs who voted in favour of the ban, "we are not on the same page."

Green then turned her focus to other MLAs.  

"We have an opportunity as role models in the Northwest Territories to say to our constituents that family violence is not acceptable," she said.

"I know I'm going to be disappointed by most of you. You're going to vote against this strong statement against family violence. And I very much regret that. You can't make it go away by not talking about it."

'I think he manned up'

Green's prediction turned true as MLA after MLA spoke against the recommendation, saying that, while they did not condone family violence, the recommendation went too far in placing restrictions on who can run for office.

Cabinet ministers — freed by Premier Bob McLeod to vote as individuals and not as a cabinet block — spoke in more candid terms about Nadli and the proposed ban than even the most divisive budget items of recent weeks.

"I think he manned up to it and took full responsibility," said Robert C. McLeod, the finance minister and MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes.

Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Robert C. McLeod voted against the ban, saying it opens the door for placing additional restrictions on who is eligible to run for MLA. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)
"What are we going to do next — people only born in the N.W.T. can run?"

Several MLAs equated the right to vote itself with the right to choose and scrutinize for themselves a candidate's suitability for office.

"Only in 1960 Indigenous people in this country were given the right to vote in a free election," said Cochrane, a Metis woman.

"1960 is the year I was born. I consider the right to vote my birthday gift… The right to vote comes with the freedom to be able to vote for the person in your community that you believe is the best person to represent you."

'I regret any stress this has caused'

By the end, committee chair Kevin O'Reilly, who voted alongside Green in favour of the ban, sounded drained and pained.

"I've known the member for Deh Cho for more than 25 years, and I have the utmost respect for him," said O'Reilly, his voice shaking.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly, the committee chair, seemed drained by the end of the debate: 'I think I can say this exceeded my expectations.' (CBC )
"And I regret any stress this has caused him and his family. Certainly that wasn't the intention."

Still, O'Reilly attempted to mount one final defence of the ban.

"We are talking about a narrowly defined restriction on a Charter right. It is not for all Criminal Code offences. It is not a permanent prohibition; it is a five-year one."

As the 13-2 vote took place and was read out, more than one MLA could be seen wiping tears from their faces.

Afterward, several MLAs embraced Nadli before they all filed out of the assembly.

"I guess I had hoped for a respectful and informed debate," said O'Reilly a few moments earlier.

"I think I can say that this exceeded my expectations."


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

Story tips?