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NWT Boots Out Most Politicians in Election, But Brings Back Convicted Spouse Abuser

Activists says the re-election of Michael Nadli sends the wrong message to a territory struggling with violence against women.
November 24, 2015, 9:41pm

Michael Nadli was convicted of spousal abuse, served just eight days of his 45-day sentence, and was re-elected in the Northwest Territories' recent election. Photo via Facebook/Michael Nadli

It was a night of upheaval in Canada's great white north as voters across the Northwest Territories rejected the status quo by turfing an unprecedented number of incumbents in the 2015 territorial election.

Pundits who were betting heavily on the reelection of members who had served up to five terms were shocked after the final polls revealed that just seven out of a possible 19 MLAs will be returning to Yellowknife's legislative assembly.

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At a time when the territory's economy is struggling and the prohibitively high cost of living is driving residents to move south, the list of casualties included the territory's finance minister, Michael Miltenberger, who had served five consecutive terms as an MLA, as well as its Industry, Tourism, and Investment Minister David Ramsay, who also served as justice minister.

Voters also chose not to reelect the speaker of the house, who was recently outed by a local media outlet for having his government credit card revoked after he racked up thousands of dollars' worth of unauthorized personal expenses.

Also booted out were two Yellowknife MLAs who pushed the boundaries of the Elections Act in an attempt to secure reelection.

But in an election which seemed to ride the crest of Justin Trudeau's wave of change at the federal level, the territory's smallest riding ended up maintaining the status quo by turning a blind eye to the glaring problem of domestic violence in Canada's north. The Deh Cho, a region with a population of about 1,300 people in the southwest of the territory, voted for an incumbent that was in jail for assaulting his wife less than a month before polls opened.

"That's the one that's pissing everyone off," Nancy MacNeil, a youth and women's outreach worker who works extensively with victim services and foster families, told VICE. "I wish I was shocked but I think that's very representative of the attitude that the Northwest Territories has towards domestic violence and inter-partner violence."

Read more: Inside Canada's Arctic Prison

Michael Nadli was re-elected to his Deh Cho riding after pleading guilty to breaking his wife's arm during a dispute in his hometown of Fort Providence last April. Nadli ended up being sentenced to 45 days on October 15 and was subsequently suspended from the legislative assembly. He should have been ineligible to run in the election, but he only ended up serving eight days of his sentence after he requested an early release.

"For corrections to let him go like that, that's just wrong," Alisa Praamsma, executive director of the Native Women's Association of the NWT, said. She pointed out that the NWT currently has rates of domestic violence in that are nine times higher than the rest of Canada.

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"How on earth with that kind of charge can somebody run? What message does that send to victims of violence?"

Nadli did not respond to requests for comment.

When asked why Nadli was released early, Sue Glowach, senior communications advisor for the department of justice, said she was prohibited from speaking to specific cases for individuals.

However, she explained that under the NWT's corrections service regulations a person is eligible for a temporary absence/early release program after serving 1/6 of their sentence.

"Through the program the sentence doesn't end. Instead it is served in the community instead of a facility," she wrote in an email to VICE, adding that there are always conditions attached to early releases.

This was the second time Nadli was convicted of domestic abuse having been sentenced to six months probation for assaulting his wife in 2004, seven years before he first took office. While Deh Cho's 60 percent turnout was higher than the 44 percent average for the territory, and the race was tight—Nadli won by just 18 votes in a field of four candidates—MacNeil still said the fact he won sends a disparaging message to the territory.

"There's a hell of a lot talk about how we need to support victims of violence or people who are in violent relationships and want to change but when it comes right down to it, we don't seem to be willing to do anything to actually enforce that change," she told VICE.

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"It's embarrassing but it's not only embarrassing, it's reinforcing."

An ice highway in NWT. Photo via Flickr user Ian Mackenzie

The fact that Nadli was re-elected points not just to the territory's complacency toward domestic violence, but also to the strange ways in which consensus government works, especially in a territory that only has a population of just over 40,000 people.

Unlike elected members of Canada's ten provincial governments and the Yukon, MLAs in the NWT and Nunavut and are voted in as independent candidates with no affiliation to a political party. As the federal election showed, parties were dropping candidates for anything from making prank calls to peeing in a cup.

If he had to plead his case with party apparatchiks, Nadli would have almost certainly been given his marching orders before he was able to submit his papers. Without that filter and with ridings having as few as 777 registered voters and no more than 2,492, candidates are often voted in on the basis of name recognition and family ties as much as their platforms.

"A lot of it has to do with families and traditional historical supporters," explained former premier Joe Handley during a CBC panel. "In Fort Providence a lot of people know Michael Nadli and they say let's give him another chance."

Trying to decipher the new government's stance on family violence could take a while. One of the more bizarre features of consensus government in the NWT is the fact that even though the last ballot has been counted, it will still be a few more weeks until a premier is chosen. That is because instead of being elected by the people, the premier is chosen in a unique process in which MLAs who are interested in the job put their name forward. Members then discuss the merits of each candidate before agreeing on a premier, who then chooses a cabinet of six ministers.

A waterfall near Fort Simpson, NWT. Photo via Flickr user Fort Simpson Chamber of Commerce

Dismay over the fact that the public has no say in who gets to be premier generated a lot of discussion in the lead up to the election with some people floating the idea that the position should be voted on independently by the public. While he admits the system isn't perfect, Handley said the government should focus on cost of living and the lagging economy.

"Really what we're doing is talking about moving deck chairs around while the ship is sinking," said Handley.

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With so many fresh faces in the assembly and lots of experience out the door it will be curious to see who will take the lead in tackling the government's struggling economy. Even more intriguing will be who gets appointed to be the Status of Women Minister.

The last legislative assembly didn't have a single female member of cabinet, despite two female MLAs being elected. This time around there are two new women in office – Julie Green, who is a prominent LGBTQ activist and Caroline Cochrane-Johnson, who formerly served as the chief executive for the Centre for Northern Families. Without a premier having been selected, either Green or Cochrane-Johnson could send a message to the old boy's club by putting their names forward to run the government. Barring that, Praamsma suggested the next premier would be wise to choose either candidate as the Status of Women Minister.

"That would be a very good thing for women, victims of crime and native women in particular," said Praamsma.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on Nadli, waiting to see if he tries to sweep his past under the rug or uses it to being a much needed process of healing for himself and the territory.

"People clearly believe him and we have to trust that there is a reason for that," MacNeil said. "He has a huge opportunity to become a leader and to become a role model and if he chooses to do so it will be a really impressive statement on a political level, on a personal level, and a human level."

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