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Should the N.W.T. Legislature abide by unwritten rules? Former leaders weigh in

Former political leaders in the Northwest Territories are split on whether there should be a wider discussion on who can be nominated for a cabinet seat. 

MLAs told Steve Norn he was ineligible to run for a newly vacant cabinet seat

Former N.W.T. premier Stephen Kakfwi believes now is the time for the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly to look at a possible constitution to solidify its conventional practices. (Jared Monkman/CBC)

Former N.W.T. political leaders are split on whether there should be a wider discussion about who can be nominated for a territorial cabinet seat. 

The comments come after a dramatic sitting of the N.W.T. Legislature last week, in which MLA Katrina Nokleby was ejected from cabinet. Steve Norn, the MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, nominated himself to replace her as a minister — but was told he wasn't eligible because of an unwritten cabinet convention.

Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, was sworn in as the territory's newest cabinet minister Tuesday afternoon. 

"[Conventions are] just floating out there in the air," Stephen Kakfwi, a former premier of the N.W.T, told the CBC.

"There's nothing that prevents Steve Norn from putting his name forward except a group of people from the legislature that say no, no, no, it's against the rules."

The N.W.T. Legislative Assembly upholds a convention for how cabinet ministers are selected, referred to as the 2-2-2 rule. It was accepted by MLAs after the division of the N.W.T. and Nunavut, and is not enforceable by law. 

Kakfwi, who was premier at the time, said that members agreed to appoint two cabinet ministers from Yellowknife, two from the territory's northernmost ridings and two from the south.

By that rule, Nokleby — a Yellowknife MLA — had to be replaced by another representative from the city. Green, the only other MLA who stood up to nominate themselves, was deemed to be the only one eligible to take the position, based on the convention.

Steve Norn, the MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh, nominated himself to replace Katrina Nokleby as a minister — but was told he wasn't eligible because of a cabinet convention. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

A spokesperson for the legislature said all members of the assembly review the 2-2-2 cabinet convention, along with other legislative procedures, before every territorial leadership committee. That's the forum where members select the premier and cabinet. 

The legislature confirmed to CBC News that the convention was agreed to by members on Aug. 26, the day before Norn tried to nominate himself for the N.W.T.'s recently vacated cabinet seat. 

When reached by CBC News on Monday, Norn said he made his point in the legislature last week and had nothing else to add. 

Constitutional reform a possibility

Kakfwi suggested the current assembly could pick up the debate over writing a constitution for the N.W.T.

To Kakfwi, a constitution would embrace every aspect of the current governance style that residents want to keep, while also clarifying how cabinet ministers and premiers can be selected. 

We need leaders that have some vision and enough conviction to go after a broad agreement.- Stephen Kakfwi, former N.W.T. premier 

"All we can do is challenge them to it. You can't just change one little agreement for your own self-interest," Kakfwi said. "We need leaders that have some vision and enough conviction to go after a broad agreement."

Kakfwi said the N.W.T. has written many draft constitutions in the past, but there was very little political will to put something formal in place. 

Former MLA Michael Miltenberger said he believes recording the legislature's conventions would be "a very useful exercise."

Former MLA Michael Miltenberger says the member from Tu Nedhé-Willideh should have the option to decide whether they should represent Yellowknife or the South Slave in future cabinet votes. (CBC)

However, Miltenberger said the appetite to revisit convention might not be there for an assembly already dealing with major issues, like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding the territory's economy. 

"It's going to take time, money, political energy and focus to do something like this when you're dealing with [COVID-19]," Miltenberger said.

"They have some other business to take care of first, but its definitely something that should be flagged ... but that's their call." 

Charles Dent, a former MLA for Frame Lake, said unwritten rules and conventions give MLAs more flexibility to make decisions.

"We elect politicians to make decisions," he said. "If we don't like the decisions they make, we can elect different ones." 

He said it would take at least a decade to hold the appropriate public consultations and to come up with a final constitution that a majority of MLAs would agree to — so it's best to keep the system as is. 

Debate over riding's boundaries

Norn argued his 600 or so constituents in Ndilo and Dettah are part of Yellowknife's municipal boundaries, which should make him eligible to fill Nokleby's vacated cabinet spot.

He also represents constituents in Łutselk'e and Fort Resolution, communities considered part of the North Slave region and South Slave, respectively.

That's the one solution that crossed my mind ... that [Norn] has the luxury of choice.- Michael Miltenberger, former MLA for Thebacha

Miltenberger said a possible solution could be to give the MLA for Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh the ability to decide whether they represent a constituency in the Yellowknife area or from the South Slave in a cabinet seat bid. 

"That's the one solution that crossed my mind ... that [Norn] has the luxury of choice," Miltenberger said. 

In order for that to work, Miltenberger said MLAs would have to look at the number of Yellowknife MLAs compared to the number of MLAs in other regions. They would also have to evaluate what could happen if that member was given this kind of choice going forward.

Some MLAs from communities outside Yellowknife, including Rocky Simpson and Jackson Lafferty, told the legislature they would like to revisit this conversation about cabinet conventions at a later time.

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