Q&A: Katrina Nokleby talks losing her cabinet roles, responds to criticisms and looks at future as regular MLA; Part 1

'I think the territory is not cut out for a politician like me,' says the Great Slave MLA.


Katrina Nokleby at the Legislative Assembly. (File photo/CKLB)

Katrina Nokleby says she needed some time away after having her ministerial portfolios and her cabinet seat publicly stripped. The Great Slave MLA travelled to British Columbia for about a month before returning and self-isolating for two weeks.

Now out of isolation, she sat down with CKLB to address some of the criticisms levelled at her before the next session of the Legislative Assembly starts on Thursday, Oct. 15.

Q: I don’t think there’s anywhere else to start, other than to ask why did you lose your job as a minister and your cabinet seat?

A: In my opinion, I lost my job because, oftentimes, I think people don’t want to hear the truth. And I think that people don’t want to hear the truth from women, if it’s not couched in a certain manner. Also, there are times where tough decisions have to be made and people don’t like others that remind them that they need to make those decisions.

We currently have a woman as premier, the majority of cabinet are women and a large portion of our MLAs are women. Why do you feel that’s still an issue in this assembly? 

Just because you happen to be a woman doesn’t mean that you are a feminist. There’s a lot of hangovers and legacy leftover in this assembly from the last. I felt that as soon as I was in cabinet, that — I don’t wanna use the word indoctrinated — but, it was very much hammered on me to be divisive and to not work together with the regular MLAs. I am a woman who comes from a worksite-type environment. I had to be a certain way to survive in that environment. It’s often been explored and studied how women are attacked for how they say things rather than what they’re saying. I believe that’s what’s happened here.

This process almost happened in May but was avoided. The premier and yourself said there were commitments made to improve, can you speak now as to what those were?

I think a lot of that was messaging put out for the public. I never heard from the premier much again after May. There were no offers of help to improve on anything. I asked for more resources for my office early on, probably back in January, and I received none of that. They sat back for a while and made a list of things that were wrong, and then presented them to me with no opportunity to refute them or to explain anything.

The premier’s office disputes this. Trista Haugland, cabinet press secretary, told CKLB in an email that Premier Cochrane meets with ministers regularly to discuss issues and performance but would not be giving details or “publicly disclosing human resources steps related to performance”. 

Did you try to have any conversations with the premier or anyone else in cabinet? 

I was extremely busy coming into the construction season with the portfolios I had, and the focus around the economic recovery with (Industry, Tourism and Investment). I was burnt out before COVID. There were a couple of regular MLAs where we still had some butting of heads and some of that was around personal character attacks on myself. The premier never came to me to discuss any of that, except in passing at one point where she stood in my office while we were in the middle of a meeting and said something to me. There were offhand comments made in the middle of a cabinet meeting maybe once or twice. That was the extent of the conversation we had around it.

I sat through part of a meeting and listened to lies about myself, and I’m not gonna lie, I got up and walked out. At that point, with the state of exhaustion I was in, and everything I had been through in the last year, I had no interest in sitting there any longer and defending my character.

Did those offhand comments ever raise a red flag to you where you should have taken the first step instead?

One hundred per cent. I’m not gonna sit here and say I’ve done everything perfectly. If I look back, I wish I’d been more proactive. I wish I’d reached out more often. But honestly, through the last year my priority has been the people of this territory and my departments.

When I had to make decisions throughout this last year about where my priorities lie, they lay in doing the right thing for the people, not stroking egos, not kissing a**, and not responding to lies, rumors and misinformation. I didn’t have time. And yeah, in retrospect, I wish I’d gone back and done things differently. But I believe the premier handed me as a gift to the MLAs, to save herself.

Basically, everyone in August said that you were unresponsive and unwilling to work with committee members.

I would disagree with that characterization. Again, it was a COVID situation; it was unprecedented. The priorities in the departments were taking care of our people, ensuring our supply chain, ensuring food, personal protective equipment, all of that. If the administration wasn’t being handled properly by my department, why was there not extra support offered? There are many ways that the premier’s office could have addressed that and given me extra support, considering the amount that my departments were involved with COVID.

Haugland said Nokleby had not received additional staff support because “Other cabinet ministers have been able to meet their duties and fulfill their expectations with existing resources”. 

What resources did you feel like you needed to be more responsive?

I would have liked a third staff member. My MSA (ministerial special advisor) was involved with numerous meetings constantly with me between the mines, industry, business, tourism. So it was busy. What I come back to always is rather than trying to help me to address issues, everyone just sat back and just pointed them out. I think that’s a huge issue in the government. I think it was very easy for cabinet to sit and let me take all of the hits and all of the responsibilities for things such as checkpoints at the borders where that was the chief public health officer’s decision. They were very content to leave me to be the one to deal with all of the publicity going badly.

You really feel like most of that was actually directed at you? 

It was from the MLAs… And the premier did not do anything to message out that her ministers were doing good jobs. If anything, it was always ‘Bear with my inexperienced ministers, they don’t know what they’re doing’. Yet behind the scenes she would tell me, ‘All you have to do is give you a crisis and you rock it’. Funny we go from that in April, to this now.

Why?

Because I challenged her. This is about egos.

What did you challenge her on?

I can’t speak to that.

The premier characterized your outbursts as tantrums. (Nokleby interjected: Clearly gendered, misogynistic wording.) She said that you had sworn at colleagues. 

I do swear. I’ve sworn once at one colleague. I did call MLA Norn a POS (piece of s***), I did not have anything to do with racial comments around that. And that had to do with us holding a third party responsible for what was being said about them in the rumor mill. Very ironic given everything going on.

Is it unfair then to characterize it as unprofessional behaviour?

It is unprofessional behaviour. I acknowledged that and immediately apologized to MLA Norn, which he also acknowledged that I did. It was in the heat of the moment. It was the first day of session in May. I did not say it in defense of myself, I said it in defense of someone else, despite whatever has been put out there. That being said, I’ve already acknowledged several times with my colleagues that I am working on trying not to swear. But again, having been a woman in a non-traditional role, if I had been on a job site every single day calling all these men on their swearing, would I’ve had a job for very long? No. If anything, I did start picking up a bad habit as a result to try and be better at doing my job. And I have to say, I am proud that I am cleaning up my language a little bit.

You said that was one instance. Many other people said these outbursts happened more frequently. 

What do you characterize as an outburst? Anybody that knows me, knows I’m passionate about what I’m doing. Oftentimes, people will say, ‘Oh, you’re yelling at me’. I say, ‘No, I’m just speaking strongly and saying something that you don’t want to hear’.

The premier also said you had meetings off the books. Can you address that? 

I had dinner meetings. Going back to my EAC (executive assistant), I assumed she was updating the public registry. All of the meetings that I had were in my personal Outlook calendar, and it was her job to report those. If she wasn’t doing that, then I failed in ensuring she was doing her job. But it wasn’t nefarious. And if anything, I was advised by my deputy minister that, at times, I did not need to have departmental staff there.

Is there a line as to where that was drawn?

No. And if they want to know about meeting minutes, which did also come up, I don’t sit through a dinner meeting and take notes. Many of my meetings are about me becoming better informed and gathering knowledge, it’s not about a specific issue to do with this company wanting ‘X’ contract from this job. They just want to speak to me about their concerns. When you look at the reason I was elected, it was the business community saying that the GNWT has no idea how business operates. That’s why I ran for cabinet, I had an immense amount of pressure from mining, and other industries, to run because they were worried about the future of our resource extraction sector. This is not about my ego. If this was about my ego, I would have blown it all up; I would have walked away and gone back to my better-paying job with less stress.

Haugland said all ministers and their staff were given guidelines and training on reporting meetings. 

You’ve told me before that you are an engineer before a politician. Is that what happened here, you just weren’t cut out for this job?

I think the territory is not cut out for a politician like me, if I’m going to call myself a politician. Yes, I’m an engineer first and I think that the territory could benefit from more engineering-type analysis. I’d like to see lessons learned, I’d like to see critical thought and decision making based on data because after a year in the position I’ve been in, I don’t see that.

Where do you take responsibility as to how this happened?

I take a 100 per cent responsibility. But again, I think this comes back to being a brand new minister. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know I needed to do. Now as a regular MLA, I have more support in the last two weeks than I ever had as a minister in how the procedures and operations of the government run. And, if I had known that this list of my transgressions was being put together by the premier’s office, I would have asked that any employer sit down with me to have worked through it and come up with a solution.

Again, this is about egos. Yes, I’ve made mistakes. Yes, I didn’t make sure that my assistant or my ministerial special advisor were doing things that they needed to do. Did I think that making sure that somebody’s disgruntled email got responded to when they were being rude? No. And would I make that decision again? Yes. Because I can honestly look back at the last six months and know that my project management, my health and safety experience, my engineering experience, my procurement experience, all of that played into protecting people in this territory through COVID. And if that’s all I ever did, I’m okay with that, because I was the right person to be in those seats at the time. And I don’t think there was anybody else in that room that would have done as well as I did. And I stand behind that.

But that wasn’t enough for you to keep your job.

I didn’t go out and try to keep my job.

Why not?

I was done. I could not, in good conscience, go in there and compromise what I felt was right. I will not compromise my ethics for anyone. I don’t agree with what I see is going on. I do not think we have good leadership and I’m actually glad to now sit on the other side, because I can speak my mind. And I can hold these people to account.

What was happening at the time, where you feel like you would have had to compromise your ethics?

I can’t speak to that.

When you first heard of the issues, why not go public and say what happened? 

Because I don’t know what I can be held accountable for and what they can do to me. Every day I wait for an email from the integrity commissioner. So I am living in a state of not being aware of what my options are.

During the debate in August, you didn’t speak very long but you said cabinet operated in secrecy and that was a ‘hallmark of corruption’. What did you mean by that? 

This is one area I will wait till I have more advice about what I can speak to.

Is that still how you feel?

Yes.

At the time, I asked the premier about your comments. She said that anyone who really felt that way could go to RCMP for an investigation. Is that something you considered?

It was and then I had an employee of the GNWT who called me to file a complaint against me, saying that if I went to the RCMP, it was threatening his employment. So I felt my hands were tied.

I was often very forthcoming about concerns I had around contracting, procurement, etc. in the cabinet meetings.

I was contemplating my options about going to the RCMP about the online harassment and bullying I was receiving about my personal life as well. I wanted to know when does it start to cross the line into interfering with a minister who has control over contracts and lending. So I have talked to a lawyer about my options as to whether or not I should go seek legal representation because the comments made about me in the House actually affect my professional reputation. Often, an engineer’s earning potential is based on their professional reputation.

I’m now just coming back to figure out how I go about dealing with everything that’s gone on. I’m going to continue to try and pick away at what I see as being the corruption I’ve alluded to. I think a lot of it even just comes down to cronyism and people protecting their cushy jobs. It’s not even a matter of contract corruption. People don’t want to hold other people in the government accountable.

When asked whether Nokleby had brought up the issue of threats, Haugland said the premier’s office would not reveal cabinet conversations. She added, “In the event of serious matters involving threats and personal safety, these would be handled appropriately.” 

I want to parse through that. It sounded like you were getting threatening messages. Was that something…

At this point, Katrina Nokleby dropped her head in her hands and started to cry. 

I think I need to stop for today… My life has been hell.

She agreed to return the next day to finish the interview. 

Read the second part of the interview here.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

About the Author

Francis Tessier-Burns
Francis has been a general news reporter with CKLB since January 2019. Originally from rural Ontario, he first came to the NWT in 2016 as an intern with Up Here magazine and fell in love with the North. In his time with CKLB, he's had the immense pleasure and honour of learning about northern Indigenous cultures. Otherwise, you can find him hanging around the Legislative Assembly. If you have a story or want to chat, reach out to francis@cklbradio.com