A “chill” has befallen the various sectors of government bureaucracy in the NWT, preventing employees from signing onto a petition that asks leaders to forward future fracking applications to environmental assessment, says MLA Bob Bromley.
“The word I’m getting through emails is a ‘chill,’” he said. “There’s a chill on employees and people seem quite adamant about it.”
Though he could not speak to specific incidents, Bromley told The Journal last week that he had received word from constituents that government employees were being intimidated into withdrawing their signatures from the online petition, launched Feb. 7, or not signing at all.
“I am still receiving emails of concern and some sharing of experience where they feel they have been unfairly or inappropriately restricted,” Bromley said.
“I’m hearing that from constituents and the public, and it’s been noticed that numbers on the petition go up and down, which is a bit strange,” he said, noting that instructions have gone out in the past for other petitions demanding employees remove their names.
The petition, put forth by the Fracking Action North coalition, asks the Legislative Assembly to trigger a full environmental assessment process, including public hearings, for any upcoming fracking projects.
The MLA could not say if the alleged political interference was in direct relation to the fracking petition, specifically, or on political action in general, but noted the government’s current views on industry.
“We know that this government is obviously very bent on full-speed development,” he said.
Bromley said he was asked by the public to clarify the situation for public servants. He indirectly questioned Premier Bob McLeod about the issue last Monday in the Legislature, asking for reassurances that public employees would not be reprimanded for signing.
The premier denied having knowledge of any petition, but said all GNWT employees sign a code of ethics and have to adhere to certain principles.
“I’m sure the honourable member would be the first to cry out loud and clear if an employee of the government of the Northwest Territories would come out and directly criticize it,” McLeod retorted.
Bromley said the fracking petition is not critical of government policy, but is instead a forward-looking request hoping to shape future decision making.
“This is not criticizing the government; it’s urging the government to take action,” he said.
The code of conduct explicitly allows GNWT employees to freely comment on political issues, without using their position to lend weight to public expression of their personal opinions. They are advised to “exercise caution” when making comments critical of government policies.
Employees are also required to sign oaths pledging loyalty to the GNWT as their employer, as well as agreements binding them to confidentiality and, in cases where conflicts of interest arise, impartiality.
Deputy minister of Human Resources Sheila Bassi-Kellett said ensuring both freedom of speech and loyalty to the GNWT is a delicate balance.
“We don’t want to limit our employees’ freedom of expression just because they’re public servants. That’s completely inappropriate and that’s not in our interest at all. But what we do need to do is set some reasonable restrictions to just avoid either a real or a perceived conflict of interest,” she said. “As public servants we have to be seen to be impartial.”
In the case of the fracking petition, Bassi-Kellett said the situation is complicated by the fact that the GNWT hasn’t specifically come out against or in favour of the controversial oil and gas extraction process.
“Our government right now hasn’t made specific comments on this, so for employees to get out ahead is something to be very mindful of or careful around,” she said. “The point is that the petition itself isn’t critical, but it is taking a stand. That’s an issue where you need to stop and think, as a public servant, as someone who has taken the loyalty provisions in the code of conduct really seriously.”
She said employees are encouraged to talk to their supervisors about whether or not signing a petition would be inappropriate.
The NWT’s first and only fracking operation, currently being carried out in the Sahtu region by ConocoPhillips, bypassed the environmental assessment stage last summer, jumping directly to permitting, raising concerns in the region and across the territory.
More applications for exploratory fracking in the NWT, including one by Husky Oil, are expected in the coming months.