Election after conviction: interpreting MLA Michael Nadli’s win in the Northwest Territories

Returning Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli was released from jail eight days into serving a 45-day sentence for assault – just in time to file his papers to run in the territorial election.

Nadli pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm in June, following an April incident that left his spouse with a broken wrist. This was the second assault conviction for Nadli, who served six months probation in 2004 for an incident also involving his spouse.

But, perhaps voters can set aside a person’s private life and past indiscretions if they support their politics and ability to represent the region. As an MLA in the 17th Legislative Assembly, Nadli was vocal about the government’s “bullying tactics” in sorting out land claims through the Deh Cho Process – arguably one of the main areas of concern for the region – and garnered support as the lone MLA to vote against devolution.

Nadli’s win on Monday suggests a certain amount of forgiveness on behalf of his constituents that could either be a mark of desensitization to an issue that is endemic in the North – the NWT had the second highest rate of domestic violence in the country, next to Nunavut in 2013, according to Statistics Canada – or perhaps the election is proof that past wrongs don’t determine future opportunities.

Criminal records can lead to significant barriers, particularly in accessing employment – a point echoed by a dry-community chief who argued that alcohol-related convictions were keeping residents from being hired and aggravating an already challenging situation, and from a band member who pointed out that the up-to-10-year-wait necessary for a criminal record suspension renders many people in her community ineligible to work for the nearby mine that will likely be shuttered by the time their records are cleared.

Reintegration into society is an important piece of rehabilitation, and recognizing that it’s possible is a strong message to send many struggling with their pasts in the North.

“Once a person has done their sentence, we do not need to continue punishing them,” said Lydia Bardak, executive director of the John Howard Society of the NWT.

“I think it’s really important that we recognize that when anybody is convicted of any offence, the courts do pronounce a sentence that includes denunciation and deterrence; part of the sentence is to hopefully get the message through to the person that’s convicted that this is not acceptable behaviour, so you will be punished for it. We also want to get the message out to other people that this is not acceptable behaviour.”

The question is whether that message is coming across in Nadli’s case.

Several people, particularly women’s advocates, voiced concern over Nadli’s early release and intention to run again. What this says to victims of violence and other perpetrators was questioned. Following his election, the doubts continued over whether domestic violence is being taken as seriously in the territory as the statistics would dictate.

Nadli’s release was not a special circumstance. Any person serving jail time, Bardak pointed out, can apply for early release after serving 1/6 of their sentence. Soon after his release, Nadli announced his intention to run for re-election, claiming to have taken full responsibility for his actions.

“I am deeply sorry and I truly wish the incident never happen (sic),” Nadli said. “I won’t hesitate to take my actions back in an instant. However with the support of the community, I have been able to put this matter behind me and continue the focus on helping the people and the communities of the Deh Cho.”

Nadli’s service as an MLA will certainly be closely scrutinized, but the fact that he was given this second chance, and how he uses it, could draw even more attention and have a far greater impact.◉

Editor’s note: Michael Nadli served on the Advisory Board of Northern Public Affairs in 2013-2014.

Photo credit: Hideyuki Kamon (cc) 

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