When Charlie Crow, Member of the
Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly for Hudson Bay, travels to
Yellowknife for sessions or meetings, his route takes him from his home
community of Sanikiluaq to Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and, finally,
Yellowknife with a change of planes at each stop. The journey Mr. Crow makes
regularly would be arduous for any legislator but Charlie Crow is blind, one of
only two blind MLAs to have been elected to Canadian legislatures. The
following interview with Mr. Crow was conducted in July 1988 by Craig James and
Gary Levy and supplemented by additional information provided by Ann Taylor.
You were first elected to the
NWT Legislative Assembly in 1987 but you were active before that in politics.
Could you tell us about your early life?
I was born in the Richmond Gulf
area on the Quebec side of the Hudson Bay coast. My dad worked for the Hudson's
Bay Company and was asked if he wanted to be transferred to the Belcher Islands
trading post. He agreed and we moved to the Belcher Islands in 1954 but I was
beginning to have problems with my eyes, even though I still had some sight. I
spent a year in hospital in Moose Factory, Ontario and then went back home for
a year but I was suffering from glaucoma complicated by tuberculosis and I lost
my sight when I was about thirteen years old in 1956.
In 1958 I was sent to the Ontario
School for the Blind at Brantford, Ontario, to get an education. That was the
very first time I went to school because there were none where I was born.
It was very difficult to go home
for summer holidays because there was no transportation. The only way to get to
the Belcher Islands is to fly or by boat. I remember one summer -- my dad had
to charter a whale boat to get me home for the summer vacation. That was in
1959 and I only spent about three weeks at home before the government decided
to charter a boat from a nearby community so that I could go back to school
again. Despite the difficulties I learned English. I had picked up some in the
hospital, listening to the nurses but to learn to speak I had to go to school.
I also learned to read braille at the school.
In 1963 I decided I did not want to
go back to school. I was twenty years old then. It was difficult for me to
adjust to the life we had on the Belcher Islands after spending five years in a
The first year I had nothing at all
to do but in 1964 I met one of the Anglican ministers who used to come around
to our community two or three times a year. He got me involved in interpreting
because I was capable of speaking both English and Inuktitut.
The doctors or nurses or the RCMP
came over if they neede someone to help them speak to the people.
When did you first get
interested in politics?
In those days the people on the Belcher
Islands lived in two camps. One was at the northern end of the Island and the
other was at the southern end. The Hudson Bay store where my Dad was manager
was in the northern camp. It was a trading post where people could sell
soapstone carvings or the fox hides they trapped during the winter.
I lived on the northern end of the
Island because that is where The Bay was and the majority of the people lived
there -- about 160 in all. I also travelled to the southern part of the island
when there was interpreting to be done. The federal government built a
one-classroom school, at the southern end and, of course, people from the north
end wanted their children to go to school but did not want to send them to the
south end of the Island.
Instead they send them to Great
Whale River on the Quebec side on the mainland. Their children used to go to
school in Great Whale nine months of the year and if the kids wanted a higher
education, they had to be sent to Churchill, Manitoba, where the government had
a vocational centre.
In 1968 we had a teacher who
decided to hold an adult education class and he asked me if I was interested in
interpreting for him. During those classes the teacher would explain about
government, how the government works, and tried to get people interested in
forming a council.
He and I used to travel, as he had
an adult education class at the southern end, where the school was, for one
week and then came up for the weekend to the northern end for these same
classes. We did that until, I think, the end of April. By then the people
decided that it would be a good idea to organize and start a community council.
We not only learned how government works but also about co-operative movements
and how people could organize themselves and start small businesses of their
People wanted to do two things at
the same time. They wanted to form a council and also form a co-operative
movement on the Island. Of course, the teacher had to transmit everything he
was doing to Ottawa and he asked for some government officials to come to the
Belcher Islands to see and talk to the people The first community council was
elected in June 1968 as a result of those adult education classes.
Around the same time a co-op was
formed. It was really difficult in those first few years because there were two
camps and we had to come up with some sort of system. The community council
decided to have seven members on the council with three to be elected from the
south end of the Island because the camp was smaller there and four from the
north end and for council meetings to travel back and forth. I did the
interpreting for them.
What distances are we talking
It was only about 65 miles but it
was very difficult in those days because snowmobiles just were being introduced.
I remember one winter we were taking a doctor, nurse, and chest x-ray crew to
x-ray all the people to make sure they did not have T.B. We decided to hire
five skidoos at the north end of the Island and we loaded up all the x-ray
machines, plus the doctor, nurse, an Anglican minister from Great Whale, and
myself. The RCMP police came too on that charter.
We were about half way to the south
end of the Island and all the skidoos broke down. In those days people didn't
know much about these new machines or how to repair them. Finally we managed to
get one skidoo going again and that took us almost to the camp at South Belcher
before it broke down again. We had to walk the rest of the way.
Transportation was also a problem
when it came to having council meetings or co-op meetings. During the summer it
was easier. The federal government brought in a long liner -- a large boat and
that was used to transport the councillors or co-op directors to their
meetings. The government considered this a bit of a problem so they finally
asked the people, "Why don't you put your two camps together and make one
community, so you would not have to travel back and forth to meetings?"
Around this same time the federal
government decided to hand over their responsibility for the Belcher Islands to
the Territorial Government In 1970 the Government of the Northwest Territories
met with the people from both camps and told us that it would be much easier to
serve people if we lived together in one community. People thought that was a
good idea but we had to decide which camp was to move. The majority prevailed
and the South Belcher people had to move because they were a minority of only
90 people whereas our camp had about 160. The northern community was then
The Territorial Government took
down all government buildings including the one-classroom school, the teacher's
house and a few other buildings, and transported them to the north end ofthe
island. I think there were about five one-bedroom houses for the elderly people.
In those days people called them "matchbox" houses because they were
so tiny. They were about twenty feet long and maybe twelve feet wide. Also that
year the government brought in fifteen new three-bedroom houses o the community
grew that summer. They managed to put them all up before Christmas of 1970.
We had an election for our council
around June of every year. The first year I did not run for council because I
was involved with interpreting whenever anything had to be done. The second
year, in 1969, I was asked, "Why don't you run for council?". I
thought it might be a good idea so I decided to run in June 1969. I managed to
beat someone and I got onto the council.
We did not have too many problems; we
were concerned mainly with how to keep our community clean and how to get more
houses from the government.
During my second year on council I
was elected Chairman and held that position for two years. I started travelling
to meet with government people. We had to go to Churchill in Manitoba as we
were part of the Keewatin, one of five regions in the Territories.
There we met regularly with members
from different communities, in the rest of Keewatin but it was difficult for us
because the dialect was so different. Although we were all Inuit, their dialect
is much different than ours. We have a northern Quebec dialect.
That created problems in
communication. People in the Keewatin Region, from communities such as Eskimo
Point, Rankin Inlet, Baker Lake, Coral Harbour, Whale Cove, and Chesterfield
Inlet met together and demanded that the Regional Headquarters be moved out of
Manitoba and into the Northwest Territories. The Government agreed and moved
the Headquarters to Rankin Inlet in 1975. The people on the Belcher Islands had
to decide what to do. The government had moved the headquarters but it was
quite a bit further north. Did we want to go to Rankin Inlet to meet with the
government people or did we want to join Quebec as we were very close to the Quebec
border. Or, did we want to be part of the Baffin Region? The decision had to be
made so it was decided that we would become part of the Baffin Region. This was
in 1975. I was quite involved at that time on the council. As part of the
Baffin Region so we had to go to Frobisher Bay (now called Iqaluit) for our
meetings. This meant that every time we met we had to all fly down to Montreal
and spend at least one night there.
Territorial elections were held
every four years. Willie Adams, now a Senator, was one of the Inuit members of
the Keewatin district who was elected in 1971. As the MLA for the Region he had
to meet with us regularly. When the 1975 election was called, some people on
the Island asked me to run for the Assembly. I allowed my name to stand and I
remember that, just to file my nomination papers I had to fly to Montreal,
overnight in Winnipeg, and then go from Winnipeg to Churchill to Rankin Inlet.
I managed to reach Rankin Inlet an hour before the nominations closed.
There were three of us running for
that district of eight small communities. There was Gary Smith and Pter Ernerk.
Smith was a businessman who lived in Baker Lake the largest community in that
region with a population of over 900. Eskimo Point was the next largest point
with about 700 people, Rankin Inlet about 500 and my own community had just
under 400 in 1975.
I definitely had to get people in
my community to work for me. When I filed my nomination papers, I decided that
I should visit some of the communities in that region to campaign and I spent a
couple of nights at Rankin Inlet and flew up to Baker Lake for another few
nights and also visited Eskimo Point. I managed to visit the three largest
communities although there were three or four smaller communities which I did not
get to because of transportation problems.
Just before election day, I flew
home via Winnipeg and Montreal. I think election day was March 10, 1975 and
people were really interested in the results. I think most of the 123 eligible
voters in my community voted for me but overall Peter Ernerk defeated me by 57
votes in the whole region.
After that election I became more
involved in local politics. At one time I led some delegations from my
community to Ottawa. On one trip we met with Postmaster General Bryce Mackasey
for about an hour to express our wishes for better mail service. We met with
the Canadian Transport Committee to seek better air service transportation.
In 1979 the Belcher Islands was
given its own seat in the Territorial Assembly but you declined to run again?
I was asked if I wanted to run but
I declined. Again in 1983 people were trying to force me to run and one even
gave me $200.00 to pay for my nomination papers but I decided I was not
interested at that time. I had just got married and I was more interested in
living on the land -- camping -- for those first nine years. My wife would do
some soapstone carvings, we would do some fishing. I was enjoying that life. I
would do some interpreting for the court at times.
In 1973 the co-op decided they
wanted to start a community radio station to have better communication between
the people so they bought radio equipment, turntable, tape recorder, microphone
and transmitter. They asked me to do the announcing and to operate the radio
station. I did that for four years.
In 1977 I decided I had enough of
meetings for a while. I had been involved in council for 8 years and the last
couple were difficult for me because, as the community became larger, more
community organizations were formed such as the education advisory council,
community recreation committee, and housing committee and, of course, I was
appointed to most of them. One year I was involved with six different
committees, along with being deputy mayor of the council.
I remember I had a meeting every
night of the week. I became really tired of that so I decided to end the radio
announcing job and also the community council committees and spend more time on
the land and with my wife.
Again in 1983 I was asked if I
wanted to run for the Legislative Assemly and I declined but in 1985 I decided
I had better start looking for a job because my wife was earning all our money
from soapstone carving but food and everything else was getting expensive.
I decided to again become involved
in Council and went back to the radio station announcing job. They needed
someone they could rely on. The Broadcasting Society had difficulty keeping
their radio announcers because they were hiring young people who did not want
to stay with the job for any length of time.
I was a radio announcer up until I
was elected to the Legislature in October 1987.
How was this election compared
to your earlier experience?
The election was called for October
5, 1987, and the incumbent Moses Appaqaq was interested in running again although
some people were really disgusted with him. In 1979, when we had our first
seat, there were only two candidates; in 1983 there were six candidates and in
1987 there were five -- myself, the incumbent and three other men.
Since we had our own seat of Hudson
Bay there were only 220 eligible voters this time and I won with 96 votes
compared to 46 for Mr. Appaqaq.
How did you find the Legislative
Assembly compared to the local council? Was it much more difficult?
Of course, the Legislative Assembly
is completely different from the council meetings I was used to back home. You
have to wear a suit during the Assembly sittings and you have to be on time for
the meetings. You are involved with different committees and you meet from
early morning until early evening. It was a bit difficult for me for the first
couple of weeks but I got used to it and the more I got into it, the more I
Shortly after my election the Clerk
of the Legislative Assembly, David Hamilton, was asked by the CBC, "How
are you going to manage Mr. Crow?" Because I was blind they wondered how I
was going to be given some information, written information.
Mr. Hamilton contacted the Canadian
National Institute of the Blind in Edmonton and asked them how they could help
a new MLA who was blind but could read braille. The CNIB in Edmonton gave him
information about braille printers, braille computers, talking computers and
other technology for blind people.
The first and most important thing
at the time was how to get the rules and procedures of the Legislative Assembly
into braille. It took between three to four weeks to do that. The Management
and Services Board of the Legislative Assembly decided to authorize purchase of
a braille printer and computer, and that is how they have been feeding me
I also have an Assistant, Goo
Arlooktoo, who escorts me to my seat in the Chamber daily and makes certain I
receive telephone messages and other information necessary during the daily
sittings of the Assembly. Between sessions, he attends committee and other
meetings with me and ensures I am kept up to date on developments of interest
The NWT area representative of the
CNIB, Anne d Weerdt, was also of great assistance by preparing a
three-dimensional floor plan of the Legislative Assembly Chamber, the Members'
Lounge and the offices to aid in finding my way around the building. The CNIB
has provided a small lap computer to take notes which can then be reproduced in
braille or by voice simulation.
What about representing your
constituents? How often are you able to go back and what types of problems do
I am lucky in that way because I
just have the one community. Some MLAs represent five or six small communities
in their region. I think the largest riding is Yellowknife South which has
about six thousand people. In my riding there is only one community and of
course I know everybody in the community. At times I go on the local radio and
report to them on meetings I have attended.
I am open to them, of course, on
any kind of help they might want from me as an MLA. They keep me really busy.
Elderly people call needing information on how to go about solving their
problems. One of the major problems I have to try to resolve is related to
territorial government versus mainly federal government responsibilities. For
example, I had about five mothers telephone me after I returned from
Yellowknife, telling me that they had children but were not receiving family
allowance cheques and asking, "How can you help me?" I had to tell
them to inform Ottawa in order to receive the family allowance cheques. Some
people come to me for help with their income tax return forms and some come to
me and say, "For some reason I owe some money to the government."
These people, in some years, earn too much so they have to pay tax to Ottawa.
This is difficult for people who do not read English. When I look at the
information they give me, I can see that they have not paid the tax and in some
cases interest has been accumulating. I have had to look into that kind of
problem for people.
Can they not ask the federal
member to look after some of these things?
Well, it's very difficult to
contact your MP from my small community. The fellow who represents us now has
to travel to thirty-odd communities in the federal riding and it is a pretty
Usually, with these kinds of
problems, I talk to the government liaison officer in the community. There are
also the social services people to help. The other main problem we have is a
shortage of housing. That has been a real problem, too.
Does you wife take an active
role in solving some of problems in dealing with the Assembly and with
She is very helpful to me,
especially when travelling. She helps me get to meetings in the community, or
if I have to go to the radio station, she takes me. If I have a problem that I
can't look after on my own, I try to contact appropriate people to solve those
problems and if I can't find anyone in te community then I go to the regional
office in Iqaluit or, if necessary, I have to go to Yellowknife.
I have hired a constituency
assistant to read all my mail onto a tape -- I get a lot of mail from different
organizations in the Baffin Region. She reads it to me then I can get back to
the person who wrote to me. The only problem was I have not been able to get a
special tape recorder. I wanted a tape recorder, that had two speeds, slow and
regular. It is not possible to put everything into braille for me, even though
there is a braille printer in Yellowknife. The most important things are put
into braille; letters from Ministers or some documents dealing with proposed
legislation, but there are some other things that I would like to have read to
me and we could use the tape recorder in those instances.