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N.W.T.'s education minister changes his story about Aurora College president's dismissal

N.W.T. Education Minister R.J. Simpson is, once again, clarifying his version of the events that led to the dismissal of Tom Weegar, telling MLAs on Friday that he approached Premier Caroline Cochrane about making a change at the top of Aurora College's leadership.

R.J. Simpson says he approached Premier Caroline Cochrane about changes at the top of Aurora College

N.W.T. Education Minister R.J. Simpson has spoken about the decision to terminate Tom Weegar three days this week, and he's added new details each time, creating confusion about who knew what and when. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

N.W.T. Education Minister R.J. Simpson is, once again, changing his version of the events that led to the dismissal of one of the territory's top employees in the education system.

Tom Weegar, until Tuesday, was the president of Aurora College and associate deputy minister responsible for post-secondary renewal in the Northwest Territories. He was hired in February 2019 after nationwide search tapped him to lead the college's transformation into a polytechnic university. The premier's office announced Weegar's termination Tuesday

Simpson has spoken about this decision three days this week, and he's added new details each time, creating confusion about who knew what and when. 

Two weeks ago I approached the premier and expressed my belief that a change needed to happen.- R. J. Simpson, N.W.T. education minister

On Wednesday, Minister Simpson told Cabin Radio that his understanding was Weegar left to "pursue other opportunities." The same day, Weegar offered his own version of events, saying he'd been terminated "out of the blue." 

On Thursday, Simpson explained in the Legislative Assembly the two different versions of events, saying he'd made his statements based on the exit email that came from Weegar's email account. 

He then later told reporters at a scrum that he had had conversations with the premier, but said it was Premier Caroline Cochrane's decision. When pressed for answers, Simpson did not tell reporters about his concerns, or elaborate into meetings he'd had about leadership at Aurora College or fully explain his role in Weegar's dismissal.

At the scrum on Thursday, Simpson said he "was made aware [of Weegar's termination] after the decision was made." That scrum was cut short by a cabinet communications worker. 

His latest version of events 

In the latest version of Simpson's recollection of events, Simpson told MLAs in the Legislative Assembly Friday that he approached Cochrane and advised her to terminate Weegar.

He said over the past few months, he'd had "a number of discussions with the premier's office regarding the management of Aurora College and the Aurora College transformation team." 

"Two weeks ago I approached the premier and expressed my belief that a change needed to happen and it needed to happen sooner than later," Simpson said. 

I will not be commenting further on this matter in public.- R.J. Simpson, N.W.T. education minister

"While I was not personally involved in the negotiations that took place following that discussion, nor was I aware of the final details of the arrangements, I was certainly aware of the outcome and support the premier in her decision," Simpson said Friday. 

WATCH: What R.J. Simpson's said at a scrum with reporters Thursday

In a scrum with reporters outside the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly, Education Minister R.J. Simpson took questions on why he told Cabin Radio on Wednesday that Aurora College President Tom Weegar wanted to leave his post. Today in the Legislature he acknowledged Weegar had been fired. 4:57
 

The Aurora College Act, which governs the college, states that only the education minister, in consultation with the college's board, has the legal authority to appoint the president. Weegar held that position and the role of associate deputy minister — a position which serves at the pleasure of the premier. 

A copy of the termination letter, obtained by CBC News, is signed by Cochrane and says Weegar's employment as associate deputy minister "and as President of Aurora College will terminate effective immediately." Weegar was given one day to clear out his personal belongings.

While Martin Goldney, Cochrane's deputy minister for executive and Indigenous affairs and secretary to cabinet, was copied on the letter, Simpson was not.

Media mischaracterized statements, claims Simpson

Simpson said Friday that media reports from Thursday's scrum mischaracterized his statements.

In the Legislative Assembly Friday, Simpson said this was his last public statement on the matter.  

"We cannot and should not be discussing individual public servants in the Legislative Assembly or in the media," he said. "And I will not be commenting further on this matter in public." 

CBC News has obtained an email sent on Monday between Weegar and Goldney, secretary to cabinet, and shows the text of the email Weegar put out to staff. 

According to the email exchange, Weegar writes that Goldney, one of the top bureaucrats in the territory, had asked him to write a departure email to all faculty and staff at Aurora College. 

The email suggests Weegar stepped away from the position, matching Simpson's comments Wednesday.

That exit message reads, in part: 

"Well, after much contemplation and soul-searching, I've decided to step away from post-secondary educational leadership for the time being. This will be effective immediately and will allow me to better focus on my health and my family. It's been a privilege working at Aurora College and I continue to be excited by the journey you are undertaking. I wish you all success as you proceed to become a polytechnic university." 

Premier declines interview, issues statement

CBC News has requested interviews with Premier Cochrane several times this week, but she declined to be interviewed.

"I have an obligation to ensure that we have assembled a team I have confidence in to support all of cabinet," the premier said in a statement Friday afternoon.

"I believe in being accountable to the public for our government's decisions, but we must ensure that we are very careful to respect the dignity and privacy of our public servants."

Cochrane said in the email her government will no longer comment on this issue, as it's a "human resources matter."

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