MLA showed ‘poor judgment’ and should be fined for returning to wildfire-evacuated Yellowknife: report

Katrina Nokleby breached the N.W.T. MLA code of conduct and showed poor judgment by returning to Yellowknife during a wildfire evacuation order and should therefore be fined and reprimanded, the integrity commissioner has found. 

In a report issued on Tuesday, Integrity Commissioner David Phillip Jones wrote that he may have also recommended the Nokleby be suspended, if not for the upcoming election.

“Given that the Assembly is just about to be dissolved, a suspension now would be meaningless,” he wrote. 

Jones’s investigation was launched following two complaints he received in late August, just after Nokleby had returned to the capital, and about a week after an evacuation order came into effect for the city.

Nokleby, the MLA for Great Slave, returned to Yellowknife on Aug. 25, claiming to have been designated an “essential” worker by Ernest Betsina, at the time incoming Yellowknives Dene First Nation chief for Dettah.

According to Jones’s report, Nokleby had first tried to ask the minister of Community and Municipal Affairs how she could be added to a list of people allowed to get through a roadblock that was controlling access to the city.

“I want to volunteer but I also want to return to look in on the animals and houses of my constituents, many of whom are reaching out to me. Being in Yellowknife, in my own home, will enable me to better support them and others as they return home,” Nokleby wrote to Minister Shane Thompson on Aug. 20.

Thompson rebuffed the request, telling her that it was up to individual contractors and agencies involved in the emergency response to determine which of their volunteers or workers are considered essential, to then be designated as such by the territorial government’s emergency management organization.

Nokleby then contacted Betsina to “discuss her skills and volunteer as part of his team,” Jones wrote.   

The chief-elect then called Nokleby on Aug. 23 to tell her she was “on the list” — which the MLA understood to mean that she could legitimately return to the city.

She returned to Yellowknife that evening and spent the next day “at home organizing her affairs,” Jones wrote. 

By Aug. 25, Nokleby’s return had captured media attention and the MLA asserted that she had not broken any rules, and was in Yellowknife to support Betsina’s team. Thompson, the premier, and the mayor of Yellowknife all publicly criticized her decision.  

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation later issued a news release disputing that Nokleby had entered Yellowknife legally as an advisor, the integrity commissioner’s report states.

Yellowknife residents leaving the city on Aug. 16 after an evacuation order was given due to the proximity of a wildfire. (Pat Kane/Reuters)

Still, Nokleby stayed on in the city until the evacuation order was lifted on Sept. 6, Jones wrote.

According to Jones, the MLA “accepts that by not leaving Yellowknife, she was not in compliance with the evacuation order.” The commissioner said, as a result, Nokleby last month donated $3,500 to a Yellowknife charity that works with vulnerable people, “in recognition that this has a real impact on first responders.”

‘Ill-advised and showed poor judgment’

Jones’s report finds that Nokleby’s stated rationale for returning to Yellowknife rings hollow. 

“Ms. Nokleby may have been well-intentioned in genuinely wanting to assist in some way in Yellowknife. However, it strains credibility to assert that a Professional Geological Engineer was essential in dealing with the wildfire situation,” Jones wrote.

“I am prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt on whether her return was lawful. But it was ill-advised, and showed poor judgment when all the other MLAs in Yellowknife and staff at the Legislative Assembly had evacuated, not to mention the thousands of residents who obeyed the order, left and did not try to come back.”

The commissioner also took issue with Nokleby’s “inappropriate” comments to some media at the time, which seemed to encourage residents to try to get on the essential worker list so they too could return to the city. 

Jones also rejected Nokleby’s assertion at the time that she was in the city to see for herself what was going on in order to better serve her constituents and to help hold the government accountable for its wildfire response.

“In my view, this shows a significant lack of judgment about the time and place for accountability, which comes after an emergency, not during it,” Jones wrote.

He recommended that Nokleby be fined $7,500, minus the $3,500 charity donation she made earlier. 

He also recommended a reprimand, but acknowledged that the Legislative Assembly may not have time to deal with the issue before it’s dissolved. If Nokleby is not elected to another term as MLA, she may avoid a reprimand, but should still be fined, Jones says. 

The current assembly is only scheduled to sit for three more days, although they have until Oct. 16 when the nomination period begins for the 2023 territorial election.

Nokleby said in an email to CBC News she needed time to “digest” the integrity commissioner’s report before speaking with the media.

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