Tempers flare over Thebacha election debate: Not all candidates saw questions beforehand

Tempers flare over Thebacha election debate: Not all candidates saw questions beforehand
Thebacha MLA candidates, the Honourable J. Michael Miltenberger, Jeannie Marie-Jewell and Peter Martselos went head to head at the Fort Smith rec centre last week on issues of health care, jobs, environment and the ever-pressing topic of devolution. Over one hundred people attended the event.Photos by Paul Bannister.

Accusations of cheating emerged at the Thebacha Region All Candidates Forum in Fort Smith last Monday after it was realized that one of the three candidates, Peter Martselos, was reading pre-written answers to specific questions from a piece of paper.

During the debate, MLA-incumbent Michael Miltenberger accused Peter Martselos’ staff of having unfairly obtained the questions prior to the event.

“I’d like to congratulate Mr. Martselos’ staff for preparing him so well for these questions,” Miltenberger remarked sarcastically to the audience.

At intermission Miltenberger approached the forum’s organizers, members of the Union of Northern Workers (UNW) Locals 2 and 12, with his concern.

“He’s reading off a paper,” Miltenberger complained.

It later emerged that the two debate questions posed by the Northern Territories Federation of Labour (NTFL) – one of three unions to contribute questions to the debate – had been emailed ahead of time to all three candidates’ official agents by communications staff at the UNW, who organized the event with NTFL and the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Martselos initially denied having been privy to any questions, announcing publicly on CBC Radio that he had not seen any debate questions beforehand and demanding that Miltenberger apologize for making the accusation. It was later admitted by Martselos’ agent, Leon Peterson, that they had in fact received the three questions from UNW, which were directed to all candidates, although nothing in the email indicated they would be asked at the forum.

The email in question contained three labour-oriented questions sent out to all candidates in the territory as part of a UNW initiative to publish candidates’ responses for their union members by September 22. There was no indication in the email that the questions would be used for Monday night’s forum.

Only Martselos came prepared with pre-written, researched answers to the questions. Denise Yuhas, official agent for Miltenberger, said she did not receive the UNW email before the debate, which she allowed could be due to problems she has been experiencing with her email account. She said the message with the questions was re-sent to her the day after the forum and indicated that the email was originally sent to her along with Duncan MacPherson, Jeannie Marie-Jewell’s official agent, the Thursday prior.

But Marie-Jewell said her agent had received nothing.

“Duncan’s been forwarding all his emails to me and I didn’t receive anything whatsoever,” Marie-Jewell told The Journal. “I was not forewarned in any way, shape or form about the questions they were going to ask at the debate.”

The email was obtained by The Journal and does show the questions were sent to all Thebacha candidates.

According to Blaine Dumkee, one of the debate organizers, the questions for Monday night’s debate were chosen by Brad Brake, who is both first VP of NTFL and second VP of UNW. Dumkee said Brake’s office was also responsible for the UNW project emailing territorial candidates with labour questions.

Attempts to reach Brake for a comment were unsuccessful.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” said Chris Westwell, a UNW representative who helped organize the public forum. “We (the organizers) were not aware that any questions had been sent out.”

He said the candidates and the public were informed that no questions would be seen beforehand. Only the debate’s moderator, Hilary LeRoy-Gauthier, was supposed to see the questions chosen by Brake.

Westwell said he hoped it was a miscommunication, noting that there are people “heavily involved” in political campaigns within the union.

Six questions were asked at the debate, with two coming from each of the UNW locals and the NTFL. Additional questions from the floor, drawn randomly from a box, were asked. Candidates were given two minutes to respond to each question.

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