Nunavut Premier has been removed from Office – What happens next?

It is not often that Canadians think of politics in Northern Canada, particularly at a time when most political bandwidth is focused on our southern neighbours. However, despite their small population, every once in awhile, the territories give our national political scene a moment of pause.

That moment occurred this week when the Nunavut Legislative Assembly voted 16-3 to remove Premier Paul Quassa from office in a non-confidence motion. Quassa had only been Premier since November 2017.

It is the first time that a sitting premier has been removed from office in Canada – and Premier Quassa’s loss of confidence could have significant ramifications for the direction and leadership of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, for the Government of Nunavut, and to an extent, for interprovincial relations.

So, what is actually happening?

Unlike most provincial legislatures, Nunavut or the Northwest Territories do not have political parties. All members run as independents and upon election, may put forward their names to stand as Premier or members of Cabinet. The entire legislative assembly then votes on who should be Premier and who should be in Cabinet.

The Premier then appoints ministers to portfolios but does not have the authority to remove them from Cabinet. Ministers are also required to undergo a mandatory mid-term performance review to determine whether they should remain in Cabinet.

In addition, while Ministers in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have faced a loss of confidence before, it’s rare for a motion to actually go to a vote:

    • In 2017, NWT Justice minister Louis Sebert narrowly won a vote to oust him from Cabinet;
    • In 2015, Nunavut Minister Jeannie Ugyuk resigned as both Minister of Family Services and as MLA when a motion of non-confidence was tabled against her owing to poor performance, and;
    • Former Nunavut Premier, Paul Okalik, faced a motion of censure in 2007 about inappropriate language. The motion passed unanimously and Mr. Okalik was forced to apologize in public.

Why is the Premier under fire?

MLA John Main brought forward the motion against Premier Quassa. As debate over the motion revealed, many members have been frustrated with the Government’s leadership style and handling of key files, including its lack of support for major infrastructure projects and inaction on addressing domestic violence and child sexual abuse.

In addition, the Premier came under fire for authorizing $570,000 in spending to send a delegation to Ottawa to participate in a trade show and conference, including $7,200 in personal car services to travel less than 500 metres.

What happens next?

Now that Quassa has lost the confidence of the assembly, he will be formally stripped of his premiership and status as a Cabinet member. Deputy Premier Joe Savikataaq would temporarily assume the duties of premier until the assembly can hold a leadership forum, in which members of the assembly may put forth their name to stand as premier. Quassa, unless he resigns as MLA, will sit as a regular MLA and can participate in the vote for his successor.

It is yet unclear whether Cabinet will decide to choose a new mandate for the remainder of the term under the new premier, but business in the will continue as usual for the time being – at least until a summer recess.

For Nunavummiut, the biggest impact could very well be felt within the education system. Quassa, a former Minister of Education, was a strong advocate for revisiting the Nunavut Education Act, a landmark piece of legislation that drew fire from the federal Auditor General in 2013 due to its inability to address systemic failures related to graduation rates, school attendance, and Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun bilingualism in schools.

Quassa’s reforms to address the Auditor General’s concerns had met narrow defeat in the last legislature and it was expected he would attempt to push them through in the new legislature. These reforms are unlikely to occur now.

What does this mean for Canada?

Though Nunavut is small, it is nonetheless a member of the Council of the Federation and has a voice at the table with the other 12 premiers and the prime minister.

Quassa had been able to form a strong working relationship with his Yukon counterpart, Sandy Silver, and his counterpart in the Northwest Territories, Bob McLeod. Though his potential successor is likely to continue this relationship, the true test will be the implications at the federal level.

Since his election in November, Quassa was fairly quiet on the national stage. His counterpart, Premier McLeod, however, has been very critical of some decisions taken by Prime Minister Trudeau – particularly in relation to banning Arctic offshore drilling without consulting the Northwest Territories.

If Premier Quassa’s successor adopts a similar approach to his western neighbour – or other premiers to the south – it could prove another headache for the federal government. The last thing the Prime Minister needs right now at the Council of the Federation is another premier critical of his political and policy agenda.

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