Northwest Territories MLAs scolded for leak

Northwest Territories MLAs have been cautioned about the importance of secrecy after CBC referred in a story to information contained in a confidential agenda for a confidential meeting of all MLAs on Monday.

'Caucus' chair and acting clerk warn MLAs of importance of secrecy following leak to CBC

Members of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly were warned about the importance of confidentiality this week, after an agenda for a confidential meeting was leaked to CBC earlier this week. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

Northwest Territories MLAs have received stern warnings about the importance of secrecy after CBC released a story that included details from a confidential agenda for one of their secret meetings.

The first warning came in an email from caucus chair and Yellowknife MLA Rylund Johnson on Tuesday. That was the day after all MLAs met behind closed doors to discuss, among other things, the suspension of the N.W.T.'s chief electoral officer and the results of a $380,000 investigation of bullying allegations against the clerk of the legislature.

In his email, Johnson noted that in a story on Monday about the suspension of the chief electoral officer, CBC referred to information in the agenda for the closed meeting that day. Johnson said he had also heard that a redacted version of the report on the investigation of the allegations against the clerk had been provided to News/North.

"These breaches of Caucus confidentiality go to the very core of our ability to move forward through this mess which necessitates dealing with sensitive information," Johnson told MLAs in the email. "It makes it virtually impossible to brief Caucus on future matters that are critical to the Assembly."

Later that day, acting clerk of the legislature Glen Rutland followed up with an email of his own to MLAs.

"By leaking the Caucus package yesterday, it meant that the other applicants for Chief Electoral Officer found out that they were unsuccessful from the CBC and not from the Board [of management, a committee of MLAs that oversees the operation of the legislature]," wrote Rutland.

The acting clerk went on to say, "the result of the leak is that the Board must now contact these candidates and apologize to them for the manner in which they found out the status of their application."

Rutland also suggested to MLAs that the discussion that occurred behind closed doors at the Monday meeting had also been leaked. He said the leaks are having a harmful effect on morale in his office.

"One employee asked me, 'why is the Office of the Clerk always under attack[?]' For those who think this may be a narrow conflict between one or two people, I assure you that is not the case. This is having a widespread negative effect felt by all employees in the Office of the Clerk."

Rutland concluded the email with, "And for those who were wondering, I did not have a good answer to the question. All I could do was assure employees that the majority of MLAs are supportive and appreciative of the work they do."

Caucus vs 'Caucus'

Outside the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the term 'caucus' is used to refer to a subset of a legislative body, such as members of a particular political party, that will have closed strategy meetings. In the consensus style system of government used in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, it refers to all elected government officials meeting behind closed doors as a group to discuss government business.

In the N.W.T., those meetings typically occur in a round room adorned with original Group of Seven paintings on the second floor of the legislative building. The confidential meetings occur before the start of each sitting and at least once a week during sittings. The caucus also meets twice a year outside of sittings, usually in locations outside of Yellowknife.

In theory, the meetings are meant to be a chance for cabinet and non-cabinet MLAs to meet as equals to discuss issues informally. It is in these closed meetings that MLAs decide the government's agenda and budget priorities, and quietly reach consensus and make decisions around politically sensitive issues, such as disciplinary matters involving MLAs.

No minutes are kept of those closed meetings and there are no records of decisions made there, though it is clear decisions are made.

"Caucus does not have formal decision-making authority," notes the Legislative Assembly members' handbook. "However, once a consensus on action is reached, the appropriate branch within the NWT consensus government structure will take action to implement the decision."

In May, for example, caucus released a rare media statement notifying the public that, during a closed-door meeting, MLAs decided to ask the integrity commissioner to investigate a complaint that MLA Steve Norn had violated COVID-19 quarantine rules.

MLAs also decided in a closed meeting that only Yellowknife MLAs would be allowed to compete for a cabinet position left vacant when Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokelby was removed from cabinet last summer, according to an email from clerk Tim Mercer that was leaked to media.