North

N.W.T. MLAs ask for health minister's resignation following child and family services audit

Though they didn’t take concrete steps to oust Glen Abernethy, MLAs expressed their frustration with his leadership for the second straight day in the legislature Friday, calling for him to be fired, or resign.

Audit report shows 'evidence of a significant and unacceptable failure,' says MLA R.J. Simpson

N.W.T. Health Minister Glen Abernethy faced down two days of MLAs frustration over a recent audit report from the auditor general. Friday, that frustration led to calls for his resignation. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Regular MLAs want to know whether Northwest Territories Health Minister Glen Abernethy will resign — or be fired — in the wake of a damning audit report on the territory's Child and Family Services division.

Though they didn't take concrete steps to oust Abernethy from cabinet, MLAs expressed their frustration with his leadership for the second straight day in the legislature Friday.

It's part of lingering fallout from Tuesday's report that found the department continues to not meet its obligations to children in care. 

Kieron Testart asked Abernethy whether he'd resign, while R.J. Simpson called the audit "concrete evidence of a significant and unacceptable failure." Simpson pressed Premier Bob McLeod to demand Abernethy's resignation in addition to other questions from MLAs on the report. 

Will the minister be taking responsibility and resign?- Kieron Testart, Kam Lake MLA

"We're faced with a situation where a lack of action means a lack of accountability," Simpson said. "I will have questions for the premier over whether he will keep his ministers accountable of if we will have to do it for him."   

Testart's line of questioning was also blunt, blaming Abernethy for the department's failing grade in the audit.

"He's had plenty of time to start making progress on this and things are worse than they were before," Testart said. "Will the minister be taking responsibility and resign?"     

In response, Abernethy did not directly answer the question with a yes or no, instead restating his commitment to following through with the plans the government currently has in place.

"We are making the changes that are necessary and I believe we are on the right path," Abernethy said, promising that department officials will satisfy MLAs' concerns during a Dec. 12 review of the auditor general's report.

"They will be walking through our action plan that just doesn't demonstrate work we want to do, but it also articulates work that we have done."   

Tuesday's report from the auditor general showed a bureaucracy overburdened by administrative changes and failing to meet key requirements on monitoring children in care following a comprehensive audit of the department in 2014.

In many cases, issues flagged in that 2014 report got worse, according to the report.

In nine out of ten cases, officers with the government did not maintain the required contact with children placed in foster care. In 2014, that number was six out of ten, the report found. 

Listen to Health Minister Glen Abernethy address the audit report during Friday's edition of Trailbreaker:

 

Premier 'satisfied' Abernethy's taking the issue seriously

"This house has made clear it will not tolerate an acceptance of the failure outlined in the auditor general's report," Simpson said during question period, asking McLeod how he will hold his cabinet to account. 

In response, McLeod said understands the seriousness of the report, but that every jurisdiction in Canada has problems delivering services for children in care.

McLeod said he stands behind Abernethy, though he acknowledged his ability to strip Abernethy's portfolio or order him removed from cabinet. He suggested that issues MLAs have with Abernethy or other ministers may be resolved through private discussions he called "fireside chats." 

"It's a very serious situation," he said. "But I believe that, and am satisfied that the minister [Abernethy] has taken this issue seriously."

R.J. Simpson, the MLA for Hay River North used his time in question period Friday to ask Premier Bob McLeod how he's holding cabinet ministers accountable. (CBC)

McLeod also said he still wants more information about how the report came up with its results and will speak with Auditor General Michael Ferguson when he is in Yellowknife in December.

"I understood we dealt with the 2014 audit in good faith where we put in a foundation," he said. "For the report to come back and say: 'you're worse off than you were before,' I wonder what happened to the previous audit.   

"I need more information. I know this is a very serious concern and we're not going to take it lightly."

Regular MLAs can remove a cabinet minister by passing a non-confidence motion in the Legislative Assembly. Last October, Justice Minister Louis Sebert survived a non-confidence motion after the 18th Assembly's midterm review. 

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