North

'Thanks for the heads up': N.W.T. integrity commissioner flags media request to minister

CBC News emailed the integrity commissioner requesting disclosure details on Julie Green and her association with the local funeral home. An hour after sending the request, CBC News received an email from Green thanking the integrity commissioner for the heads up.

A journalist's questions to the commissioner about Julie Green, were forwarded to her

Health Minister Julie Green responded to a media request that was not sent to her. In her email, she thanked the N.W.T. integrity commissioner for the "heads up." (CBC photo)

The N.W.T. integrity commissioner notified the territorial health minister that a journalist was asking questions about her family business.

The integrity commissioner is an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly required to remain impartial. The role includes providing advice to members and ministers about avoiding conflicts between their public duties and their private interests.

On Dec. 14, CBC News sent an email to David Phillip Jones, the N.W.T.'s integrity commissioner and an Edmonton based lawyer. According to an annual report, Jones has been the N.W.T.'s integrity commissioner since Dec. 1, 2013.

The email requested details on funding provided by the territorial government through the social services department and health authority to clients of the McKenna Funeral Home, which Health Minister Julie Green refers to as "the family business" in her bio.

Jones responded over email, he did not provide the requested information but said as the McKenna Funeral Home is one of the few funeral service providers in the territory, he had determined there was no conflict.

About an hour after the request was sent, CBC News received another email, this time from Green but directed to Jones. 

"Hi David, Thanks for the heads up. Best wishes for the holidays," Green wrote. 

'Not uncommon'

When Jones was asked if he had forwarded the media request to Green, he said "sure." 

David Phillip Jones, the N.W.T. integrity commissioner, alerted a territorial cabinet minister that CBC News was requesting information on her spouse's business. (sagecounsel.com.)

It's unclear if Green accidentally hit reply all, or intentionally wanted CBC News to be aware that she was in receipt of the media request which was only sent to Jones.

Trista Haugland, the N.W.T. cabinet press secretary, said in an email Green wouldn't be available for an interview by publication deadline.   

CBC News reached Jones by phone. Jones objected to the interview being on the record, claiming he is unable to be quoted for his role. But this was not agreed upon. 

He said he forwarded the media request because it "involves the minister" and "a fundamental rule is everyone knows everything."

When asked if he has forwarded other media requests to the members in question, he said "I expect that I have." 

Jones said he would "probably" do the same if a member of the public sent a request, but has never come across that.

He said a complaint would be "a different matter." 

According to the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council Act, the Integrity Commissioner "shall take an oath to faithfully and impartially perform the duties of the office" before undertaking the position.

Jones said he doesn't think sharing a media request with a cabinet minister breaks his oath of impartiality in "any way, shape or form."

This was echoed by an email from the press secretary with no sign-off. 

"It is not uncommon for the Integrity Commissioner to share the details of a media request received with an MLA or minister who is implicated in the request."

A normal practice?

Andrew Sancton is a retired political science professor at Western University. He has published work on municipal integrity commissioners.

He said he doesn't know the territorial legislation on the position but said an integrity commissioner alerting a cabinet minister about a media request is "not normal practice."

"If I heard that for an Ontario municipal integrity commissioner, which is what I know more about, I would certainly say that was improper," he said. "The integrity commissioner's job is not to alert ministers or municipal councillors onto possible media stories." 

David Wasylciw is the founder of Open NWT, a non-profit that develops tools to make government information accessible to the public.

David Wasylciw is the founder of Open NWT, he said the situation involving the integrity commissioner and health minister sounds strange, but could also be a sign of a positive working relationship. (Submitted by David Wasylciw)

He says Jones notifying Green is "odd" but not the "the worst thing ever."

"It's fairly benign," he said. "In some ways it demonstrates them having a working relationship." 

He doesn't believe the integrity commissioner is breaking any rules as a media request isn't confidential information and he would be following oath impartiality as long as he alerts every member and minister equally. 

"As long as [it is] consistent, I don't think there's any issue," he said.

But Wasylciw added, a good practice would be if the integrity commissioner informed journalists that the requests may be shared.

He said the situation is definitely strange and brings up an interesting question around the role. 

Bronwyn Johns-O'Hara is the communications manager of the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada.

This is different from the territorial integrity commissioner, as it covers unelected federal public service employees. 

As a result, Johns-O'Hara said it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on the specific incident.

But she did discuss the importance of remaining impartial, describing it as "paramount" for the role. 

"There absolutely can not be any, even perception, of a conflict — it's absolutely essential that people trust our office," Johns-O'Hara said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Luke Carroll is a journalist with CBC North who has worked in both print and radio in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario. Luke is originally from Brockville, Ont., and moved to Yellowknife in May 2020. He can be reached at luke.carroll@cbc.ca.

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