In a blatant over reach of power, Caroline Cochrane cut off the microphone of Lisa Semmler, MLA from Twin Lakes, last week when she was midway through a motion dealing with the crisis dealing with so many indigenous children in the child welfare system in the territories. Almost 98 per cent in a system of which intergenerational systematic racism has no doubt played a part.

In her lead, Semmler, who was participating remotely, was saying that if it was Caucasian children were in the system in such high numbers, the government would look for a quicker fix. No doubt systematic racism could play a part in this as it does in so many other institutions and services across this country. She was not able to finish her explanation though as Cochrane had taken offence and turned off Semmler’s microphone. She said the suggestion was unfair and contained “false or hidden motives” against her cabinet.

She demanded an apology.

It was the first of several points of order to come against Semmler and MLA Rylund Johnson from Cochrane and MLA Rocky Simpson, who, along with other MLAs, rose to Semmler’s defense. To his credit, Johnson refused to apologize saying the test is not about someone being offended, but whether healthy debate allowing for healthy change is allowed and taking place.

“We need to be able to talk about systematic racism and make statements (such as those put forward by Semmler). We need to build a frank debate in this house. It is not a matter of offending anyone on either side of the aisle,” said Johnson.

In the end, it was Caitlin Cleveland’s contribution that brought applause from the house and forced Cochrane to apologize – kind of. Cleveland said, “I’m shaking right now, in the sense that I’m very passionate about this, and I have a lot of sadness right now because I can see that my colleague from Inuvik Twin Lakes is hurt. So, I believe the only apology that is holding up in this house is the one from the premier to this side.”

This exchange is important on so many levels. To start, it was voters from Twin Lakes who contacted me asking if I would write about what happened since it was their elected representative whose voice was stilled — and thus theirs.

This is not democracy; this is an abuse of power.

Further, for anyone who doubted that consensus government is not working, this is the proof in the pudding. Cochrane made it clear that she took umbrage to what she perceived as an attack on “her” cabinet and was willing to shut down any perceived criticisms which was not Semmler’s intention. This would have become clear if she had been allowed to complete her statement. In addition, it was Cochrane herself who had said a year earlier that “we continue to see examples of people facing discrimination based on their national origin, race, religion, ethnicity and culture. It is an uncomfortable truth but one that we must fearlessly acknowledge and confront if we want to change.”

It appears that Cochrane did not really want to fearlessly confront the issue in the territories where 98 per cent of the children in care are indigenous and which suffered the highest per capita rate in Canada of children forced to attend residential schools.

Interesting that this incident took place at the very time the Pope was issuing an apology to indigenous people vising from Canada, some who traveled from the NWT. That the statement was taken personally suggests too much ego and not enough focus on the work that needs to be done.

It is foolishness to not admit the presence of systematic racism in any institution anywhere in this country and we are all being called to acts of reconciliation and healing.

Further, it is not only consensus government that was called into question from this exchange, but the well-being of democracy itself. Any time the voice of an elected representative is stilled almost indiscriminately suggests that democracy is threatened here as it is all over the world.

Good governance is not about someone’s ego or cabinet being attacked, it is about allowing the voices of all elected members to be heard in a respectful and thoughtful manner.

This did not happen.

What did happen was unprofessional and small.

Hopefully, because opposition MLAs stood their ground, we will not have to witness overreaches like this again and let’s hope that northerners will see this as another indicator that consensus government needs to go.

Too much power in the hands of one individual can only cause problems in the end.

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  1. This isn’t the first time the Premier has taken offense to something MLAs have said. Just the small fact that she was offended, how does she think these children feel? Was that not the issue children in care or the Premiers feelings? Can’t stand the heat get out Premier! Racism is alive in the NWT and it comes from the top!!

  2. Completely agree and we also watched racism in action as Lisa, who experiences systemic racism was literally silenced while speaking, then forced to apologize.

    Meanwhile two white people’s voices were heard, acknowledged, and even applauded…

    I’m not sure why Caitlin got an applause for centering her own “reaction” and own sadness when speaking of racism against Indigenous people.

    How about us white people start yielding the floor and time, and stop taking the space and speaking for Indigenous people like Lisa.

  3. I always feel (and this is true) that once a person is elected to a high position, they act ‘high & mighty’. I feel bad for Lisa Semmler, MLA from Twin Lakes as she deserves to have finished her explanation regarding indigenous children in care.