Plan for addressing workplace review unclear as N.W.T. clerk returns to work

Tim Mercer, the clerk of the N.W.T Legislature, is expected to be back on the job starting Thursday. It's not clear yet when an action plan to address issues found in a workplace review will be shared with the public.

Consulting firm made specific recommendations to improve the Office of the Clerk

The Legislative Assembly building in Yellowknife on Oct. 12, 2021. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

One of the most powerful unelected officials in the N.W.T. is expected to return to his post this week — though what kind of changes will be rolled out at his office remain unclear.  

Tim Mercer, clerk of the Legislative Assembly, has been on leave for eight months while Ottawa-based Quintet Consulting investigated allegations of bullying that had been made against him, and carried out a review of his office's workplace environment. 

An email obtained by CBC News from the assembly's Speaker and MLA for the Mackenzie Delta, Frederick Blake Jr., said Mercer would be returning to the role on Thursday. That's the same day the second session was expected to resume, until it was postponed to Oct. 21.

Through the course of its review, Quintet found that the Office of the Clerk was not "in an overall or broad sense, a toxic or poisoned" workplace.

However, it did conclude there were "important problems" that, left unaddressed, "are likely to continue to negatively affect the health of the workplace for an increasingly large number of employees." 

The full review report included seven specific, non-binding recommendations that were "offered for the BOM's [board of management's] consideration in the hope that they will be helpful." 

A timeline for when the review — and its recommendations — would be addressed is unclear. 

(Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Blake, who is also the chair of the board of management, has said that a human resources action plan is being developed. However, he turned down an interview request from CBC News about the future of the Office of the Clerk.

"The Speaker has been quoted on three separate occasions through Assembly media releases and is not commenting further at this time," said Nicole Bonnell, manager of public affairs and communications for the Legislative Assembly. 

She then issued a statement, from Blake, reiterating that an action plan was in the works.

"I look forward to reviewing the draft plan with the board of management and I may have more to say after the board has reviewed the plan," it said.

The findings of Quintet's workplace review, as well as its investigation into bullying allegations, were part of a confidential caucus agenda leaked to CBC News. That means the findings were up for discussion by all MLAs at a caucus meeting that took place on Sept. 13. 

According to that agenda, Quintet's investigation and review cost $170,000.

Summaries of the review and the investigation were posted on the Legislative Assembly's website in August, and full reports became available a month later.

Quintet's recommendations, outlined in the full review report, are to create a dedicated human resources position, to address perceptions of conflicts of interest and preferential treatment when it comes to staff, to improve communication, to create a training or onboarding program for new staff, to address issues between clerks and research advisors, to address issues about MLA and staff interactions and, finally, to address the perception of proximity between managers and MLAs. 

The consulting company said, in its review, that the board of management would be best suited to decide which — if any — of the recommendations would be implemented.

Through the course of its investigation into allegations of bullying, Quintet found that three complaints of bullying and harassment against Mercer were unfounded. A fourth complaint, from an unidentified person, accusing Mercer of breaking privacy rules and his code of conduct, was found to be valid. 

The caucus agenda said disciplinary action, related to code of conduct breach, would be at the discretion of the board of management as well, and would take into consideration a number of factors — including Mercer's 18-year career as clerk. 

The clerk, a position that was temporarily filled by Glen Rutland, has the power, duties and functions of a deputy minister who manages and administers the Legislative Assembly.

CBC News attempted to reach Mercer for an interview, but did not hear back by publication time.