Simmering tension between Premier Caroline Cochrane and Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty boiled over Thursday as both political rivals argued the other had overstepped their bounds.
Lafferty again alleged in the legislative assembly that the premier broke the law when she fired Tom Weegar as president of Aurora College earlier this month — a power he argues rests only with Education, Culture and Employment Minister RJ Simpson.
Without an apology forthcoming, he urged Cochrane face sanctions.
Cabinet ministers, meanwhile, called on Lafferty to withdraw and apologize for his allegations.
“I continue to disagree that anything done in relation to this matter lacked the proper authority, did not follow any of the required steps, or broke the law,” Premier Caroline Cochrane told MLAs.
Simpson questioned Lafferty’s motives and demanded he withdraw his statement Wednesday and apologize. Simpson called Lafferty’s statements a “serious violation” of assembly rules that were an attempt to “discredit” the premier in public and accuse her of misleading MLAs.
“(Lafferty) went well beyond trying merely holding the premier to account,” Simpson said.
Other regular MLAs interjected briefly, with Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly noting a lack of notice of the debate, Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson defending Lafferty, and Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn preaching the need to be objective.
‘A legal opinion is just that, an opinion’
Weegar served in two roles: one as Aurora College president, and another as associate deputy minister of post-secondary education renewal.
Lafferty, citing a non-binding legal opinion from Yellowknife firm Lawson Lundell, alleged that Cochrane could only fire Weegar as an associate deputy minister. That opinion also argues that only Simpson could fire the college president, meaning Cochrane went over his head in dismissing him.
Justice Minister Caroline Wawzonek, however, noted on Thursday that “a legal opinion is just that, an opinion” and not a binding judicial decision.
Deputy ministers are exclusively appointed by the premier, she said, while the Aurora College president is appointed under the Aurora College Act.
“The president (is) a member of the public service, but not every public servant is a deputy minister. And certainly not every deputy minister becomes a president of Aurora College,” she said.
Cochrane maintained that she has the power to hire and fire Weegar, while Simpson may make statutory appointments. She said she consulted with Simpson prior to the dismissal, and added he had taken action to dismiss Weegar’s appointment.
Cabinet’s account of the departure has changed before. First, on Feb. 5, Simpson said Weegar “had stepped away to pursue other opportunities.” The day after, he acknowledged that “stories change and it came out that it was termination.”
On Feb. 7, he then told reporters that he approached the premier two weeks prior, telling her there had to be a change at the college sooner rather than later.
‘No, I will not apologize’
Lafferty and Cochrane were political rivals for the territory’s top job last fall, when she pulled ahead to become Canada’s only female premier.
Following this month’s Weegar firing, the two have been in an ongoing war of words, which Lafferty carried on after other MLAs turned their attention elsewhere.
In an exchange on Feb. 10, Cochrane staked her side on the matter: “At no time have I broken the law.” Cabinet ministers have also repeatedly stated the firing was a human resources matter, and that the government would not make any further statements on the issue.
In another heated discussion Wednesday, Cochrane flat-out refused to apologize for the firing, which Lafferty characterized as overstepping her authority.
“No, I will not apologize,” Cochrane said, as she offered up the whole staff of the Department of Justice to brief Lafferty if he was still “confused.”
In an interview Wednesday evening, Lafferty refused to back down.
“The legal opinion clearly lays out that she did indeed overstep her authority as a premier, and went over the minister of education’s (head) to make that decision,” he said.