Tensions flared between the premier and regular members of the Legislative Assembly on Thursday regarding the over-representation of Indigenous children in the territory’s Child and Family Services system, and the role that racism may have played in this outcome.
The dispute arose during a meeting of the Committee of the Whole, where members were voting on the recommendations of a recent assembly report on the state of the Child and Family Services system in the NWT. The report, which was presented to the assembly earlier this week, found that 98 per cent of children and youth in the NWT Child and Family Services system are Indigenous, despite only 57 per cent of children and youth in the territory being Indigenous.
The report’s first recommendation is for the GNWT to declare this over-representation of Indigenous children “a crisis” and “develop a whole-of-government response.”
Speaking remotely via video conference, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler supported a motion urging the GNWT to adopt these recommendations, saying “When 98 per cent of the children in Child and Family Services in the Northwest Territories are Indigenous, this is a crisis.
“If this was the other way around, and they were non-Indigenous, this would definitely be a crisis, and the whole of government would be trying to figure out how this happened.”
Her remarks were interrupted when Premier Caroline Cochrane raised a point of order, saying she took offence to Semmler’s comments. She argued that the MLA’s comments violated the rules of the House by assigning negative motives to members of cabinet.
“In fact, it implies that the whole of cabinet would make this a priority (if the vast majority of children in the system were non-Indigenous), and I think that’s disrespectful to all of us,” she said.
Committee chair Rocky Simpson and asked Semmler to apologize and withdraw her comments.
“I recognize the fact that it is a very passionate subject that we’re discussing, but caution and urge careful language be used,” he said.
Semmler apologized and withdraw her comments, saying “If (the premier) would have let me finish my statement, maybe they would have understood what I was leading to, and I was never making a point that it was this government. This is an ongoing historical problem that we need to raise.”
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson supported his colleague from Inuvik, saying, “If all the children were white, there would be a whole-of-government approach. It is absolutely insane to think that is not the case. That is how systemic racism works.”
When the premier also raised a point of order against Johnson, Simpson asked him to apologize and withdraw his comments, but Johnson refused.
The matter was put to Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr. Johnson again refused to withdraw his comments, saying, “We are allowed, and in fact encouraged to say things that will offend people in this House. That is healthy debate… I don’t believe the statement that if the children in care were white and not Indigenous, there would be a whole-of-government approach, imputes any motive.”
He said upholding the point of order would “hamper and censor future debate in this house about a very key subject, and you (have) many people in this House who are then afraid about what they are going to say in the realm of Child and Family Services.”
The premier eventually withdrew her point of order against Semmler and apologized for having raised it. Blake accepted the withdrawal.
The assembly later passed a motion urging the GNWT to adopt the first recommendation in the report.