N.W.T. premier, most MLAs silent after minister demoted

The premier and most MLAs of the Northwest Territories are staying tight-lipped after Minister Katrina Nokleby was stripped of her portfolios Wednesday.

Legislative Assembly will have emergency meeting on Monday

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane announced Wednesday that Minister Katrina Nokleby has been stripped of her cabinet portfolios, and has not been available for comment since. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The premier and most MLAs of the Northwest Territories are staying tight-lipped after a minister was demoted this week.

In a news release Wednesday, Premier Caroline Cochrane announced that Minister Katrina Nokleby had been stripped of her cabinet portfolios: minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment, and minister of Infrastructure.

"Last spring, the minister and I made a collective commitment to members of the Legislative Assembly to address concerns that had been raised in relation to the minister's performance," Cochrane said about Nokleby in the statement.

"I have not seen significant progress on these commitments and no longer have confidence in the minister and her ability to fulfill her responsibilities."

This is very different from what Cochrane said three months ago.

In May, Cochrane pledged she had "complete confidence" in Nokleby after Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn attempted to oust her from cabinet by calling a vote of non-confidence. The motion was subsequently dropped.

Most MLAs offered no public justification for the motion to remove Nokleby at the time.

'Public has a right to know'

CBC reached out to all regular MLAs about this latest decision. Those who were reached declined to comment by time of publication.

However, on Friday afternoon two of them took to Facebook to voice their concerns. Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, and Caitlin Cleveland, MLA for Kam Lake, both said they were surprised about the decision.

Johnson and Cleveland both said they were given notice of the decision one hour before the press release was put out.

David Ramsay, former N.W.T. minister of industry, tourism and investment, said he isn't surprised most MLAs aren't commenting right now.

"In the current setup with consensus government, I mean you'd have a short shelf life in that building if ... after every meeting you're out bad mouthing ... your colleagues."

But at the same time, he also believes the public deserves to get more answers about what is going on.

"The public for the second time here in three months really doesn't know what's going on," said Ramsay. "The public really has a right to know and deserves to know."

David Ramsay, former N.W.T. minister of industry, tourism and investment, isn't surprised that MLAs aren't commenting right now. (CBC )

Tom Hoefer is the executive director of the NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines, which threw its support behind Nokleby in May during the threat of a non-confidence motion.

He is calling for answers from the premier, saying the industry needs support from the government at this time. When the pandemic hit in March, Dominion Diamond Mines suspended operations at its Ekati mine.

"These are the worst times we've probably ever experienced here in the North from both a health and an economic perspective. 

"So to have shakeups in the middle of it, it sort of does beg the question of uncertainty," said Hoefer.

What happens next? 

The Legislative Assembly will now meet on Monday, after previously stating that it would meet again on Oct. 15. 

In a news release sent Friday, the Legislative Assembly announced that House Speaker Frederick Blake Jr. "determined that the public interest requires" the assembly gathers at 1:30 p.m. on Monday.

The news release states the sitting is expected to run until Thursday, and will conclude on Sept. 1.

Assembly spokesperson Danielle Mager told CBC in an email on Thursday, that once a minister has their portfolios removed there are a couple of next options.

For one, members could put a motion of revocation forward to have that minister removed from the executive council. Another option would be that Nokleby could choose to resign as a minister on the executive council. 

In a post on Facebook, Yellowknife MLA Julie Green said MLAs are going to remove minister Nokleby and replace her with another MLA.

Effective immediately, Education Minister R.J. Simpson will assume responsibility for Infrastructure, while Environment Minister Shane Thompson will take Industry, Tourism and Investment. 

Simpson told CBC via email that he appreciates the confidence placed in him by the premier to oversee the department.

"Infrastructure plays an important role in the present and long term economic landscape of the territory," said Simpson.

He said advancing mandate commitments and ensuring the department is responsive and accountable to the people of the N.W.T. are his primary goals, and that he would be available to speak further once he had been briefed on the new role.

In an email to CBC, cabinet communications manager Krystal Pidborochynski said Thompson will need an opportunity to be briefed on his new department and would not be available for an interview until then.

Katrina Nokleby in the Legislative Assembly.
Katrina Nokleby is still in cabinet and a consensus government, and the premier cannot remove cabinet members. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The premier declined CBC's request for an interview both Wednesday and Thursday. But on Thursday, CBC received an emailed statement from the premier's office.

"The premier is responsible for managing the performance of cabinet and has the authority to assign and remove ministerial portfolios," reads the statement, adding that she would not be commenting further "out of respect for the minister."

Nokleby is still in cabinet and a consensus government and the premier cannot remove cabinet members. This means she could still attend cabinet meetings, while having no responsibility over any departments.

The public gallery will not be open to public, and will only be open to the media due to COVID-19-related health measures.

The proceedings will be streamed on the Legislative Assembly website, and on its social media accounts. 

With files from Kate Kyle and Avery Zingel