North

N.W.T. swears in historic new gender-balanced assembly

Nineteen new MLAs took their seats today in a radically altered Legislative Assembly.

Clerk says its the first time in history Canadians have elected a gender-balanced parliament

The 19 members of the 19th N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

It's official — the N.W.T. has 19 new MLAs.

And at their official swearing-in at the Legislative Assembly Friday morning, most struck an optimistic note about the next four years in government.

"Everything's been going good this whole week," said Jackie Jacobson, MLA for Nunakput, defeated in 2015 but re-elected on Oct. 1. "I think we've got a really good group of 19 members that really want change and want to make a difference for the territory."

"It seems like it's a very upbeat bunch of people," said Ronald Bonnetrouge, the new MLA for Deh Cho. "So far, it sounds like we're heading in the right direction."

Opening the ceremony, Clerk Tim Mercer called the swearing-in "a truly historic occasion" as the territory was now home to the most representative parliament in Canada.

Where just two of 19 members were women in the 18th Assembly, nine took their seats Friday morning.

Guests and dignitaries packed the gallery during the swearing in. Dehcho Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian, outgoing Premier Bob McLeod, and incumbent Liberal candidate Michael McLeod were in attendance. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

"For the first time in the history of our nation, we are about to swear in an elected parliament that is gender balanced," Mercer said at the opening of the ceremony.

The Oct. 1 election drastically altered the assembly in other ways. Only eight of those sworn in had served in the legislature before, and only one cabinet minister, Range Lake MLA Caroline Cochrane, is returning.

Among the new MLAs are a diverse group of individuals, from lawyers to nurses to hamlet councillors. Most can point to previous experience either as a bureaucrat for the territorial government or in politics at another level.

"We've got a mixture of everything," said Lesa Semmler. "We've really got a consensus government here ... If we keep that open communication, we should be able to work together."

"There's definitely a different energy than there was in the last assembly," said R.J. Simpson, acclaimed MLA for Hay River North and one of several members planning to put their name forward for premier.

"I know there was a lot of turnover in the last assembly and a lot of people had hoped for change, but we didn't quite see it," he said. "But this time, with this crew… I think we're going to see some of that change."

"We are still in the honeymoon phase," said Deneze Nakehk'o, who watched the ceremony from the gallery, "but we'll see what happens when the rubber hits the road."

Diane Thom (left), Lesa Semmler (centre), and Caitlin Cleveland (right) were three of nine female MLAs sworn in Friday. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

MLAs will lay out priorities over next week

MLAs took the opportunity of public speeches earlier in the week to spell out their focus and share what they heard on the campaign trail.

"I was surprised that everybody spoke so eloquently, and knew their issues and everything," said Bonnetrouge.

"It's not an easy thing to stand up in the house and give a speech," said Simpson, "and all the members were very poised."

Most mentioned housing, health care and the economy as major issues facing the next assembly. Many argued for new spending, while also raising concerns about the territory's finances.

"I think we all heard the same thing," said Semmler. "That's what we need to focus on."

"We had more in common than not," said Simpson.

Those visions will become priorities for the new government over the next two weeks, as the assembly votes on the guiding concerns for a newly elected premier and cabinet, to be chosen Oct. 24.

Those priorities are then redrafted as specific action items in a mandate written by cabinet after session gets underway.

'Overwhelming' orientation toned down for 19th Assembly

In the short term, MLAs will continue with an orientation to the mechanisms of government, provided by staff whose terms well outlive the duration of an assembly.

In the past, these briefings separated newly elected MLAs from incumbents to offer comprehensive information on the functioning of departments.

"There was a huge amount of briefing," said Julie Green, re-elected in Yellowknife Centre. "It was just like a firehose…. It was hard to walk away with something other than a couple of impressions."

This time, following on recommendations made by the 18th Assembly, all 19 MLAs are taking part in lighter courses providing top-level information on each department. More time is being allowed for socializing and meetings with stakeholders — and for recovery from the rigours of a campaign.

"It's overwhelming at the start," said Bonnetrouge, "but we have an excellent … staff here that make you feel at home."

MLAs from the Beaufort Delta were nonetheless off to a rough start. They were grounded by bad weather in Inuvik during the first day of orientation, arriving just in time for Wednesday's speeches.

"We did the first morning by video conference, and then we jumped on the plane, got here, and got thrown on TV," said Semmler. "But it worked out great.

"Before we talked to staff, talked to anybody," she said, "we were able to say what we heard … during the campaign."

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