North·Analysis

Two N.W.T. MLAs owe money to the gov't. Is it time to change the candidacy rules?

There are now two sitting members of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly who owe money to the government they represent. 

Anyone owing over $500 to a municipality is barred from running for mayor or council

Rocky Simpson, left, and Richard Edjericon are both MLAs who owe money to the territorial government they represent. (CBC File)

There are no rules preventing people owing money to the territorial government from running or representing that very government.

But with two sitting members of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly in that situation, is there a case for changing that? 

Richard Edjericon was sworn into the assembly on Monday owing just over $113,000 to the N.W.T. Housing Corporation, according to court documents from 2019. He joins Rocky Simpson, MLA for Hay River South, who owes nearly $2 million to the NWT Business Development and Investment Corporation.

David Jones, the N.W.T.'s Integrity Commissioner, said in an email the N.W.T.'s policy is that any MLA owing money to the government must disclose it to the territorial integrity commissioner within 90 days of their first sitting.

They would then not be able to speak in the Assembly about a matter that could affect their private interest, the debt.

Public disclosure

For both Simpson and Edjericon, voters were not made aware of the candidates' financial situation before casting ballots. 

Most candidates in the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh byelection, including Steve Norn, Ernest Betsina, and Mary Rose Sundberg, said they weren't aware of Edjericon's debt. 

Candidate Clinton Unka, however, said he did know about it, and decided against bringing it up. 

"It wasn't my values to bring that forward," he said. 

Clinton Unka was one of the candidates who ran in the byelection for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh. He said he was aware of Edjericon's situation. (Submitted by Clinton Unka)

"I wanted to maintain a very clean campaign and just be respectful to all the individuals, but yeah I was aware of this." 

However, Unka said he thinks it is important information the public should have been aware of before going to the polls and if he had been in that situation, he would have acted differently. 

"I definitely think it should've been brought to light," he said. 

CBC News reached out to Edjericon, who said his lawyer would be in touch, but did not respond by publication. 

Local Authorities Elections Act

Rules preventing candidates from running for a government they owe money to do exist in the N.W.T., at the municipal level. 

According to the Local Authorities Elections Act a person is not eligible to be nominated or to stand as a candidate for mayor or councillor, if he or she is personally indebted to the municipal corporation for a sum exceeding $500 for 90 or more days. 

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty spoke with CBC News as the president of the N.W.T. Association of Communities, an organization that represents all 33 communities. 

"I'm not quite sure why there is a difference between the territorial and the municipal," she said. 

Yellowknife mayor Rebecca Alty says she prefers municipal rules for candidates because they avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest. The municipal rules bar anyone from running for office if they owe the municpality more than $500 for 90 days or more. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Alty said this could have to do with how local politics works. 

"It might be because at the municipal level we're closer to the staff level so maybe there's the way we could waive the debts more or influence the debts more than at the territorial level," she said. 

However, she added that influence could still happen at the territorial level.

"That seems funny that we don't have standard rules across all elected officials," Alty said. 

She said she prefers the rule in place for municipalities, as it removes even the perception of conflict.

"It's not always an actual conflict or an actual bias but it can create the perception of it and whenever you can avoid that, I think it's best," Alty said. 

In a report on the 2019 election the territories' chief electoral officer recommended the standing committee "review and consider an amendment to prevent someone from running for office if that person owed a debt to the government."

The standing committee sought advice from a law clerk who found the amendment could be a violation of the candidates charter rights, and the question then became whether that kind of violation could be justified.

In the end, the standing committee did not support pursuing the amendment.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story misstated the district Rocky Simpson represents. He is the Hay River South MLA.
    Feb 23, 2022 10:37 AM CT

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