The division of the Northwest
Territories scheduled to take place in 1999 will create a new Territory of Nunavut
in the Eastern Arctic. As a result residents and legislators of the Western
Arctic are presently engaged in a process that will lead ultimately to a new
constitutional order. In this interview a present member of the NWT Legislative
Assembly discusses some of the issues under consideration. The interview was
conducted by Gary Levy in October 1996.
What is your background in the
politics of the NWT?
My involvement with the north goes
back many years. In 1964 I worked as editor of Hansard for the Council of the
Northwest Territories which was then located in Ottawa. Later I went to work as
press secretary to Stuart Hodgson the Commissioner of the NWT. In 1967 the
Council was moved to Yellowknife and Mr. Hodgson asked me to stay on as his
Executive Assistant. I subsequently headed the Information Service for the NWT
Government and helped to establish the Interpreters Corps.
I left government in 1975 to buy a
newspaper in Alberta and later added two other newspapers. My publishing
interests took me back to the North in 1982 when I established a magazine Above
and Beyond for First Air. Later I sold my interest and decided to try
politics. I was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1995.
What is the political context in
which constitutional discussions are taking place?
We have a unique style of
government in the North. There are 24 members elected to the legislature but
there are no political parties. Everyone sits as an independent. At the first
session we elect a Speaker, a Premier and then six individuals who sit in
cabinet. The other sixteen members sit as a caucus of independent members. I
was elected as Chair of this caucus. Since the ordinary members can outvote the
cabinet we have a certain amount of influence and the cabinet is usually very
responsive to the position of ordinary members.
Where are we now in the process
that will lead to division of the North?
For many years the people of
Nunavut were working toward a land claim settlement and control of their own
territory in the Eastern Arctic. This was finally achieved with the passage of
the Nunavut Act which gives them the right to their own territory and to
design the make-up of the new territorial assembly.
What does this mean for the
Of the 24 members of the present
assembly 10 are from the East so after division we will be left with 14 members
in the West.
According to the federal
legislation the NWT Assembly must have at least 15 members. Therefore, at the
very least, we will require an amendment to this act to reconstitute the
Assembly after division. This situation provided the impetus for some serious
reflection about our political and constitutional situation in the west.
A Constitutional Development
Steering Committee (CDSC) was established consisting of all members of the
western caucus (14 members); plus representatives from 7 aboriginal groups,
women’s organisations and the mayors of tax based municipalities in the area.
A working group , co-chaired by Jim
Antoine and George Kurszewski, was set up to develop a Draft Constitutional
Package. It included options and recommendations on political and
constitutional development of the western territory. Their report, Partners
in A New Beginning, was tabled in the Assembly on October 16, 1996.
What is the objective of the
For one thing the report recognizes
the inherent right of aboriginal groups that is entrenched in the constitution
and land claims settlements that have been negotiated. Aboriginals in the West
could set up their own government for their land but I think the report
recognizes that it is preferable to try, if at all possible, to incorporate
aboriginal government and territorial government.
How would this be done?
The report proposes a new Assembly
consisting of 22 seats. Of these 8 would be guaranteed for aboriginals. The
groups who would be entitled to a seat would be the Inuvialiut, the Gwich’in,
the Sahtu, the Dogribs, Treaty 8, the Deh Cho, the South Slave Métis and the
North Slave Métis Alliance.
Elected representatives would meet
both separately in a General Assembly (14 members) and an Aboriginal Assembly 8
members). They would also sit together as a Legislative Assembly. Bills would
require a majority of both Assemblies in order to become law. If they failed to
obtain this double majority they could also become law with support of
three-quarters of all members.
What are the next steps in the
The discussion paper will be
distributed throughout the Western Arctic and consultations will be undertaken.
The feedback will be completed by March 1997 after which there may be some
redrafting in line with comments received. The revised proposal will be put to
the public in the fall of 1997 for ratification. It would then go to the
federal government and into the parliamentary process. We are assuming it would
take two years to get through parliament and lead to a new constitution for the
Was there not also a proposal
for dual ridings to consist of one man and one woman?
This idea was suggested to the
committee but was not included in the main report. However, this and many other
issues are still open for discussion. The report includes two alternative
models other than the one proposed.
On the whole are you optimistic
or pessimistic about the political situation in the North?
On the issue of division, personally
I think we are going too fast. My experience in establishing government in the
North in 1967 led me to the conclusion that this is not something done
Many things have to be settled
besides the structure of the Assembly. How are the assets of the present NWT
going to be divided? What is the value of the NWT Power Corporation or the
Workman’s Compensation Board? Will there be two parallel government structures
in the future? Will there be a joint structure? Will one government own assets
and lease services to the other? What will happen to individual staff in the
legislature and the government? Will they have to relocate? Will they be given
a choice? These are large questions and need a good deal of thought if we are
to deal with everyone in a fair and equitable manner.
I think citizens of the North, be
they in the East, or the West, be they aboriginal or non aboriginal face common
problems and will work out solutions that are in everyone’s interest. We have a
strong tradition of consensus and if any direction seems absolutely
unacceptable to one group or another I am confident that it will be dropped and
further work will be done until we have something satisfactory to all. In that
sense I am optimistic. As far as completing everything within the present time
frame I suppose I am pessimistic.
Aside from the question of
timing are there other aspects of the proposal for the West that cause you
It is a discussion paper and as
such I think it is good. Personally I believe there is going to be considerable
opposition to giving some citizens, two votes when other citizens have only
I also have doubts as to whether
the proposed model will lend itself very well to Canadian traditions of
government including perhaps one day a political party system. I wonder for
example about the wisdom of having a cabinet of six members with 4 chosen at
large and 2 who will have been elected only by the aboriginal electorate?
We have an opportunity to rethink
our whole system of government and there may well be support for electing the
Premier by a different process such as direct election by the entire
What is the role of the Federal
The Federal Government could make a
minor amendment to the NWT Act to allow the present assembly (minus the Eastern
Members) to continue with 14 members. Then over a period of time the two
assemblies could resolve issues relating to division while the west continues
working on its constitutional options.