North·Analysis

'Passionate' outgoing premier Bob McLeod leaves behind complicated legacy

Current and former political leaders say McLeod offered a steady hand during turbulent times, but his critics say the premier just kept the territory afloat.

The outgoing premier is being remembered as hard-working, but whose efforts didn't necessarily pay off

Current and former political leaders say Bob McLeod offered quiet, steady leadership, but his critics say the outgoing N.W.T. premier just kept the territory afloat, and didn’t drive it ahead. (Bill Braden/CP)

Bob McLeod, the Northwest Territories' outgoing premier, is being remembered as a hard-working career bureaucrat, but whose efforts to improve life in the territory didn't necessarily pay off.

McLeod grew up in Fort Providence and worked in the federal and territorial public service before winning the Yellowknife South seat in 2007. He became premier after the 2011 territorial election and re-assumed that position in 2015, becoming the first person to serve two terms as N.W.T. premier in over 100 years.

McLeod announced on Friday morning that he would not seek re-election.

During his eight-year reign, McLeod oversaw the devolution of authority over lands and natural resources from the federal to the territorial government, investments in new roads, and the signing of Deline's self-government agreement. He also narrowly avoided a general strike of territorial government workers. 

Current and former political leaders who knew and worked with McLeod say he offered a steady hand during turbulent times — that he was quietly determined and focused.

"He was passionate about the N.W.T." said Robert C. McLeod, Finance Minister in the last legislative assembly and a cabinet colleague of McLeod's for 11 years. "[He] wanted what was best for the Northwest Territories and I think he demonstrated that through the type of leadership he provided."

Robert C. McLeod said Bob McLeod was a "very effective" leader who had a "good working relationship with Ottawa," and strived to build consensus among MLAs at home.

Robert C. McLeod, Finance Minister in the last legislative assembly, said McLeod 'wanted what was best for the Northwest Territories and I think he demonstrated that through the type of leadership he provided.' (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

He noted the infrastructure projects finished under McLeod's watch, such as the highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyuktuk, N.W.T., and the new hospital in Yellowknife.

But to his critics, McLeod just kept the territory afloat — he didn't drive it ahead. 

They say his government failed to attract new corporate investments to supplant winding-down diamond mines, and that it could have lobbied harder in Ottawa.

Some said that after eight years under McLeod, the territory is no better off — that things may actually be worse. 

'I don't think life has improved'

"I don't think life has improved," said Dennis Bevington, NDP MP for the Northwest Territories from 2006 to 2015. 

He said yes, the territory has changed since 2011, but it's "change to the detriment of what people wanted."

During McLeod's tenure, said Bevington, there was a movement to consolidate powers that were once spread among the regions. He pointed to the amalgamation of the territory's health authorities and the dissolution of Aurora College's board.

"Those sorts of things have eroded the concept of the territory…, which was that we're going to have self-government, we're going to have strong regions, we're going to have strong communities that had a say over their lives," said the former MP.

Bevington's time in Parliament overlapped with McLeod's at the Legislative Assembly.

Bevington said that in his tenure as minister and later premier, McLeod, a former bureaucrat himself, leaned heavily on the public service.

"In many cases, his sense of following his bureaucracy was very strong," said Bevington. "McLeod's behaviour always seemed to reflect what his bureaucrats told him to say, and I think that's one of the problems that we had with the government over the last eight years." 

Dennis Bevington, former NDP MP for the Northwest Territories, said that under McLeod's leadership, there was a movement to consolidate powers in the territory that were once spread among the regions. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Bevington was a New Democrat operating in what was then a Conservative federal government. As such, he said, he often found himself at odds with McLeod, who's government "seemed to have a tremendous fear of standing up to the federal government."

One notable instance when McLeod did speak up was with his so-called "red alert," in which he linked the federal government's five-year ban on new oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean to a "re-emergence of colonialism."

In Bevington's view, the red alert was just noise. "I don't think it was very useful at all," he said.

Territory is 'worse off,' says union leader

Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers, which represents territorial government employees, said the territory is "worse off" now than it was eight years ago.

Parsons attributed this to what he views as McLeod's government's tendency to stoke fear, rather than inspire hope.

"It's hard now for people to come to the Northwest Territories and live because all they hear from our government is doom and gloom," said Parsons. "[That] the mines are closing is the number one thing you hear about, while the territory has a whole lot more to offer."

McLeod's behaviour always seemed to reflect what his bureaucrats told him to say.- Dennis Bevington, former NDP MP for N.W.T.

The union's relationship with the government has been tense, and it nearly snapped in February when a years-long dispute over their collective agreement brought government workers within hours of walking off the job.  

In Parsons' view, McLeod let the government slide too close to the brink of a virtual shutdown. 

Todd Parsons, president of the Union of Northern Workers, said the territory is 'worse off' now than it was before McLeod was made premier. (CBC)

Joe Handley, N.W.T. premier from 2003 to 2007, called McLeod a "workaholic" who tried to accommodate everyone's views, but struggled to achieve consensus in the house.

"There were too many diverse interests out on the regular members' side for him ever to be able to bring everybody together," he said.

To Handley, the last assembly's exceptionally long list of mandate commitments exemplified this effort to be inclusive that ultimately backfired. 

"In my view, if you have that many priorities, you don't really have any," he said.

Handley believes that all told, the territory is in essentially the same place as it was before McLeod's premiership. 

Bobbi Jo Greenland-Morgan, grand chief of the Gwichin Tribal Council, takes a somewhat different view. 

"I will remember him for his great effort in striving to build the economy of the Northwest Territories, and in his efforts to work with Indigenous people to uphold their rights and interests," she said.

Greenland-Morgan said McLeod was "genuinely supportive" of her government and worked to uphold land claim agreements.

"I do have a lot of respect for Bob and for the leadership that he demonstrated."

Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, Grand Chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, said McLeod was 'genuinely supportive' of her government and worked to uphold land claim agreements. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

About the Author

Sidney Cohen

Journalist

Sidney Cohen is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife.

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