North·In Depth

N.W.T. cabinet minister's departure will leave 'void' in government, former MLAs say

Former colleagues describe Glen Abernethy as a passionate and outspoken politician who never lost his personal touch — but others say he failed to reform a broken health-care system.

As health minister since 2013, Glen Abernethy struggled to address systemic issues

N.W.T. Health Minister Glen Abernethy announced his decision not to seek re-election in a Facebook post Sunday evening. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

N.W.T. Health Minister Glen Abernethy's decision not to seek re-election this fall will leave a "void" in the heart of government, friends and former colleagues say.

Abernethy announced his decision not to run in a Facebook post Sunday night.

"I know there has been a fair amount of speculation about whether or not I was going to seek re-election this fall," he wrote. "This weekend we have made a decision."

Former colleagues describe Abernethy as a passionate and outspoken politician who never lost his personal touch — a "natural" in government, said Jane Groenewegen, who served with Abernethy from 2007 to 2014.

But Abernethy's tenure as health minister is also marked by a series of privacy scandals and scathing audits that demonstrate the difficulty of the portfolio he's held since 2013.

"For a guy to hang onto that portfolio for as long as he did is a testament to the job he was doing," said Dave Ramsay, who served as a cabinet minister alongside Abernethy from 2011 to 2015.

Abernethy deferred all interview requests until the end of session.

As health minister, Abernethy oversaw the construction of the new Stanton Territorial Hospital, as well as several other new facilities around the N.W.T. (Walter Strong/CBC)

A fierce opponent

Abernethy has represented the riding of Great Slave for three terms since 2007. Before then, he worked as a civil servant in the territory's Department of Health and Social Services and Department of Human Resources.

"We saw that knowledge shine through at the regular MLAs' table," said Groenewegen.

Groenewegen remembers Abernethy as a powerful advocate for access to addiction treatments and improved child and family services — and a fierce opponent of cabinet.

"I'd like to thank the minister for putting words in my mouth," he said to former health minister Sandy Lee during a debate about cuts to the public sector in 2008. "I'd prefer it, obviously, if she'd actually listen to what I'm saying."

"He was all about accountability and transparency," said Groenewegen. "He was right there with us."

In 2011, Abernethy was elected to cabinet with the promise of being a different kind of minister than his predecessors.

"I don't want ministers who simply say no without providing a rationale for saying no," he said. "I want ministers who will work hard for the people of the Northwest Territories and not support the status quo."

In response to an audit showing systemic failures with child and family services, Abernethy launched a recruitment campaign aimed at attracting new foster parents. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

'Mission impossible'

For his first two years in cabinet, Abernethy juggled a number of portfolios including justice, public works and human resources. Then, in 2013, he shifted to health and social services — a portfolio that current and former MLAs consider among the most challenging.

"It is almost mission impossible," said Ramsay, who has announced plans to run for the Frame Lake seat in this fall's territorial election. "It can take a toll on somebody.… You're always under the microscope."

Almost immediately, Abernethy's department was subject to intense scrutiny.

A 2014 report by the federal Office of the Auditor General found major issues with the territory's child and family services, which falls under the Health Department. Four years later, a second investigation determined the problems had actually worsened under Abernethy's leadership.

Meanwhile, a series of privacy breaches at the department compromised more than 80 per cent of residents' health data.

"We're still in a position today where we're worse off than when he began his tenure as health minister," said Kieron Testart, MLA for Kam Lake.

"The seriousness of those major flaws, and his personal commitment to fix them, and the fact that they got worse in the most recent audit… at the end of the day, the buck stops with him."

But others who worked with Abernethy point to the government's investment in updated facilities, like the new Stanton Territorial Hospital, as evidence of how he has improved health care in the territory.

Donald Prince, the executive director of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, said Abernethy's ambition to reform the system may have gone beyond what was possible.

"Trying to change the structure that's been there for a very long time is very difficult," said Prince. "You have the bureaucrats who have been there for many, many years who are happy with the way things are."

"I gather it was a struggle, trying to change things," he said.

A positive vision

Despite his struggles, Abernethy has maintained a reputation for having a positive attitude.

"Even after three terms, and having had a challenging portfolio, he still has this vision of the Northwest Territories … and consensus government that is positive," said Caroline Wawzonek, a prospective candidate for MLA in Yellowknife South who has sought out Abernethy's advice.

"He said everyone that's doing this is because they care... and if you remember that, you can make a difference," she said. "It was really inspiring."

As one of the legislature's most experienced members, Abernethy's decision not to run leaves a "big void" in the assembly, said Ramsay.

"His departure is going to open up a need for some more leadership in the assembly," said Ramsay. "You are definitely going to need a strong, capable individual in the health portfolio."

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.