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The Development of Responsible Government in the Northwest Territories 1976 - 1998
Brian Lewis

Brian Lewis and his family have lived in the North since 1963. After more than 20 years as a public servant, Mr. Lewis was elected as the MLA for Yellowknife Centre and served from 1987 to 1995.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Responsible Government in Canada but in the Northwest Territories this status was achieved much later. This article looks at the struggle of Northerners to attain Responsible Government and develop parliamentary institutions that reflect their history and traditions.

The history of the Northwest Territories for more than a hundred years has been dominated by the struggle for responsible government.  The huge land mass, the sparse population, the promise of rich resources and its importance for national strategic purposes kept the Territories under direct Federal control, in the national interest, for most of that time. It was not until 1975 that the Territories had its first fully elected Territorial Council of fifteen members.   Until that time a mixture of elected people and distinguished Canadians appointed by the Federal Government provided governance over one third of the land mass of Canada.

Until 1975 the federally appointed Commissioner of the NWT was the Speaker, Premier and Lieutenant Governor all rolled into one.  The fully elected 8th Assembly began assuming his powers by electing the first elected Speaker. He was David Searle, a Yellowknife lawyer.  Executive power still lay with the Commissioner assisted by a Deputy and an Assistant Commissioner. In 1975 two elected members joined the three appointed commissioners on the Executive Committee.  They were Arnold McCallum, a former high school principal in Fort Smith and Peter Ernerk, an able interpreter/ translator from Rankin Inlet.  It would be wrong to claim this as a bold initiative by the elected members despite their demands for more control. The evolution of responsible government still depended largely on instructions to the Commissioner from the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

Of course, within that department the Commissioner also served in a similar capacity to a deputy minister, advising the minister on what should happen next in the north.   It was just as well, too!  Ministers of DIAND did not last long in those days and clear direction from the north had seldom been more critical.

The year after then DIAND Minister Judd Buchanan told the Commissioner he could appoint two elected members to the Executive Committee a request was made to his successor Warren Allmand to add one more. This would provide balance of elected and appointed members – three each.   The third elected member chosen by the Caucus was a Yellowknife mining engineer, Dave Nickerson.  He soon provoked the next constitutional wrangle.  The Commissioner allocated portfolios to the elected members in the same way a provincial premier does.  He also appointed the heads of departments.  Nickerson wanted to establish that ministers could choose their own people. Although constitutional precedent was not on his side on this issue he resigned on principle. At the request of Caucus he was replaced by Tom Butters, a newspaper publisher from Inuvik, who continued to serve that constituency until he retired in 1991.

Although the Territorial Council consisted of fifteen members and elected people were now involved in Executive decisions many northern leaders continued to question the legitimacy of the Territorial government as their government.  Despite the fact that nine of the elected members were aboriginal people, many Dene, Metis, and Inuit felt the form and operation of the government had been imposed and in many instances was alien to their traditions.

There was widespread consternation when, by motion, the Council decided to call itself the Legislative Assembly and to name the elected members on the Executive Committee “ ministers.”  The aboriginal organizations strongly opposed the change of name and both CBC and the print media refused to use the new titles.  The major constitutional instrument for the Northwest Territories is the NWT Act that clearly states the legislative body is called a Council and executive power is in the hands of the Commissioner.  As with many constitutional matters the passage of time took much of the heat from the debate and usage gave legitimacy to the new designations.  Despite eventual adoption of the new names by the media and acceptance by the general public many northern aboriginal leaders warned the rapid movement towards a provincial form of government was inimical to negotiations of their own aboriginal claims. Their appeals to Warren Allmand quickly prompted a letter to the Commissioner to halt the use of the offensive names since they were not constitutional.  Of course, Commissioner Stuart Hodgson and his deputy John Parker complied immediately but there was little they could do.  Usage had been established.  When it was safe to do so they recommended to the Minister that he accept the changes.

There was some unfortunate fall-out from the aggressive pursuit of responsible government by the fifteen elected members.  Two Dene members, George Barnaby and James Wha-Shee felt the investment of too much power in the Territorial government tended to give it a legitimacy it did not deserve since it was not their government. They both resigned. These were the days of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. The extensive hearings by Justice Thomas Berger and the national preoccupation with the energy crisis led to heightened debate about land, resources and aboriginal rights.  As a result attention was being focussed more and more on what form of responsible government in the Northwest Territories would best advance aboriginal interests.  DIAND Minister Jean Chrétien had made it clear when he announced the formation of the pipeline inquiry in 1974 that it was being done in the national interest.  Little did he realize at the time how much this Federal initiative would deepen the debate about how the north would develop, who would be in charge, and for whose benefit.

When Commissioner Hodgson resigned in 1979 he was replaced by his deputy John Parker, a mining man, a former mayor of Yellowknife, and well acquainted with constitutional evolution in the NWT because he had been a member of the Carrothers Commission which recommended the headquarters of the territorial government be moved from Ottawa to a new northern capital city, Yellowknife, in 1967.  Before he left the north Hodgson convinced Trudeau that a follow-up on the Carrothers Commission effort of the sixties was needed.  As a result Mr. Trudeau appointed Bud Drury, a former high profile Liberal cabinet minister as a special representative to advise on further constitutional developments in the north.  Unfortunately Drury was not in the best of health.  His hearings, unlike those of Berger, were very low key and there was little media interest.  Events had somehow passed him by and his vision of what aboriginal leaders called the status quo was no longer acceptable. The Inuit wanted their own territory and the Dene wanted to settle their aboriginal claims.  In March, 1979, Drury’s report The Position Paper on Constitutional Development in the NWT was tabled for the last major debate in the 8th Assembly.   Many of the changes recommended by Drury were eventually adopted especially as they related to the devolution of Federal powers to the Territorial government.  The recommendation that the NWT continue as a unified territory however increased the Inuit resolve to fight even harder for Nunavut, their own homeland. During this time too, the Dene Nation was flourishing under the powerful leadership of Georges Erasmus.  To him and to other aboriginal leaders the Drury paper did little more than broaden the road towards provincial status with little room for competing visions or varieties of responsible government.

While Commissioner Hodgson had been known as a flamboyant take-charge individual hardened by years of leadership in the Trade Union movement, Parker had spent most of his working life in the Northwest Territories. A hard-working, unassuming man with a wry sense of humour, he was well known for his prudence, his sense of duty and his close attention to details. It would be hard to imagine two people more unlike each other yet they shared the same vision. It is likely, had Mr. Hodgson continued, he would have found it increasingly difficult to be effective, but most observers felt he had been the right person for his time.  He was essentially a builder and promoter and DIAND ministers often jokingly referred to him as “Emperor of the North.” Several aboriginal leaders felt he had not been sufficiently sympathetic to their aspirations.  Despite the criticism Mr. Hodgson had tremendous grass-roots support.  He traveled throughout the north in tireless fashion and his community meetings were of marathon proportion and endurance.  He never seemed to get sick and in twelve years rarely took a day off.

With Mr. Parker’s appointment the end of the executive commissioner and the evolution towards the ceremonial role of a Lieutenant-Governor seemed in sight. Further changes to the NWT Act helped to enhance the power of the Legislative Assembly.  The election of 1979 saw the Assembly expand from 15 to 22 members.  The minister of DIAND authorized the Assembly to set its own numbers within the 25 allowed in the legislation.  Despite the continuing criticism of it by aboriginal leaders the expansion of the Legislature encouraged many of them to seek election.  Included among them were Tagak Curley, formerly president of Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, Richard Nerysoo, once vice-president of the Dene Nation, Nick Sibbeston, a former member, now a lawyer and vocal activist for aboriginal rights, James Wha-Shee, former president of the Indian Brotherhood of the NWT, and Nellie Cournoyea, a founding member of the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement, another fiery critic of the Territorial government.  This was an aboriginal powerhouse that few had anticipated.  The new Federal Minister of DIAND Jake Epp saw this participation as a clear indication the Legislative Assembly was gaining legitimacy among all northern people. As a result he authorized Commissioner Parker to tell the new Assembly they could expand the membership on the Executive Committee anywhere between five and seven.   Not surprisingly there were soon seven ministers on the Executive Committee.  Only two people on the Executive were not elected: Parker and Deputy Commissioner Bob Pilot.

In 1979 a new system began for choosing ministers.  In the absence of political parties the only mandate to choose the government lay in the hands of the 22 members of Caucus.

For an appointed commissioner to choose the Executive would have been a backward step in the progress towards responsible government.  Before the opening of the first session of the 9th Assembly  the Caucus met under the chairmanship of the  Clerk of the Legislative Assembly. The Inuit members saw the Drury report as a set back for their dreams of Nunavut.  Although they could see the need to have a balanced representation of eastern and western members in the Executive they did not want to embrace too strongly a government not committed to division and the creation of Nunavut. Consequently only five of the seven seats were filled, all by western members, but all Members of Caucus voted.  Two ministerial spots were left open to be filled later should Inuit decide to join.

It took only a year for Inuit to join.  This decision was taken at the Spring Session of the Assembly in Baker Lake in the Eastern Arctic. The Assembly, despite its enhanced status, still did not have a permanent home. It continued to move around taking the proceedings to the people much as it did in the days when the Territorial headquarters was in Ottawa.

Another innovation was the use of satellite television to demonstrate communication was no longer a barrier to east–west communications.  Nevertheless Nunavut dominated the agenda and on the condition that it remained on the agenda two eastern members became ministers.

At the Baker Lake session members decided they should also choose their own elected leader. They had had a year to get to know each other  and they settled on George Braden, a member from Yellowknife.  With Commissioner Parker and his deputy Bob Pilot still on the Executive Committee the change was mainly symbolic, and members were quite content to wait and see how things would evolve.  The stage had been set, however. He had had no previous elected experience but George Braden was a political science graduate and had worked with Bud Drury on the 1979 constitutional paper. Besides admiring Braden’s personal qualities members believed he possessed insider knowledge that placed him at an advantage over other more experienced members.

In1983 Bob Pilot ceased to be Deputy Commissioner and Mr. Braden replaced him as Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee.  Although Braden was leader of the elected members the Commissioner continued to run the show though it was clear he was gradually relinquishing control.

Commissioner Parker was known for his caution and his commitment to gradual, well-timed change but his next move to further empower the Assembly caused shock waves in Ottawa.  As a Federal appointee the Commissioner’s major trust was overseeing Territorial finances.  Handing over the chairmanship of the Financial Management Board to Tom Butters, an elected member, was a bold step.  He had risked more than a slap on the wrist and for his pains he was quickly told in unequivocal terms he could devolve no further powers without federal approval.

Another milestone in the evolution of responsible government occurred in 1983.  Richard Nerysoo, an articulate leader from the Delta, and a bitter critic of the Territorial government in earlier days was chosen leader by the Caucus.  Braden had risen to a leadership position very quickly to be the first elected leader but he did not seek re-election.  Nerysoo became the first aboriginal person to lead a government in Canada.

During the 10th Assembly further refinements took place in the evolution of the unique system of consensus government. In the absence of party politics there was no majority group that could claim a mandate to govern. Theoretically political power was in the hands of the 22 members. They elected seven of their colleagues to be ministers. Consensus through consultation and discussion was supposed to be the way in which decisions were reached. That was the ideal. Unfortunately once members became ministers some rapidly forgot who had elected them and began to lose favour. The problem was one of accountability. How would the Caucus handle ministers who did not perform? The leader did not have the power to discipline ministers since he did not choose them in the first place, so ministers were not beholden to the leader. The solution was a mid- term review by Caucus. This 1985 review was seen by many members as an opportunity to try again for a ministerial post they had been previously denied.  The two ministers unseated were Richard Nerysoo and Nellie Cournoyea.  Richard was perceived as lacking commitment and Nellie as being more interested in COPE (Committee on Peoples’ Entitlement) which she was helping in the final stages of its negotiations on land claims.  She was also openly critical of Richard, so Caucus removed both of them.

Nick Sibbeston became leader and quickly let it be known he wanted to be leader in more than name. John Parker had a new federal minister to deal with – David Crombie.  As a result of communications with Mr. Crombie, Parker stepped down as chairman of the Executive Council (as the Executive Committee was now called) and Sibbeston took over, assuming powers very close to those of a provincial premier.

Mr. Sibbeston insisted that Commissioner Parker hand over to him responsibility for the department he believed to be the most important to aboriginal people – the Department of Personnel. He seemed to believe the Territorial government could become acceptable to northern people if staffed by people who were more sensitive to people’s needs and aspirations.  Under Sibbeston, the move towards responsible government became more aggressive than ever.  He was no longer content with what was offered in the way of extra powers.  He identified what he believed would make the government more responsible and responsive and demanded they be handed over.

During the first Caucus meeting following the 1987 election Inuit declared themselves ready to fully participate in the Executive Council. A plebiscite on division of the Territories had been held in 1982 and had passed with 56% of the people in favour. Eastern members were no longer gun shy about taking up residence in Yellowknife.  The people had spoken and it was only a matter of time before Nunavut became a reality.  The two candidates for leadership were Dennis Patterson, a lawyer from Iqaluit and Nick Sibbeston.  The debate in Caucus revolved around two questions.  The three previous leaders had been from the west, was it not the east’s turn?  On the other hand, if the Assembly truly wanted to continue to make the government relevant to aboriginal people, why not let Sibbeston carry on with what he had started?  The argument about fairness and balance eventually won the day and four members from the east and four from the west were elected to the Executive Council with Patterson as leader.

Now that the process of choosing government had been established and some precedents established, much of the work of the 11th Assembly was dominated by attempts by ordinary members to improve accountability within the consensus system.  The work of ordinary members demanded full time commitment to the Legislature.  The days of the part-time politician were over.  The ordinary members organized themselves into an informal Opposition or ordinary member’s caucus (OMC for short). To some Inuit this was also short for Outboard Motor Company and they preferred the word Ajauttit, an Inuktitut word which means" pushing together". It was not, like in other jurisdictions, a government-in-waiting.  Rather it involved co-operation among members on issues of mutual interest. It was of particular value for two members who had limited knowledge of English.

With the ordinary members in a majority they had extraordinary powers compared to provincial government backbenchers or members of opposition parties. Because of their numbers they could hold up anything they were not happy with. They also exercised clout through Standing and Special committees.  There were no ministers on the Standing Committees and Ministers were only on Special Committees when a constitutional matter was involved. The most powerful Committee, Finance, as well as OMC became the means by which ordinary members made their impact on the direction of government.

The OMC elected its own chairperson and the members met daily when the Assembly was in session. They selected the areas in which answers were needed from the government as well as priorities for debate and legislation. The Executive Council selected its own House leader through whom the chairman of OMC passed on the wishes of ordinary members.  Each day the government remained in the dark about the targets for question period. In this sense the OMC behaved like an opposition. It resulted in the Executive Council having to meet every day  in strategy sessions to prepare for question period.

Concerns were raised that the consensus-style government was being lost as ordinary members became more confrontational. Question periods became interminable as the ordinary members continually extended them, often to little effect. In appearance the Executive Council began to look more and more like a minority government struggling to survive- eight ministers with fifteen members making life difficult for them.

In reality, however, the government acted more like a shifting coalition. Although there were no political parties there were other affiliations that bound people together just as strongly as political ties.  In addition to the full Caucus and the OMC there was the Nunavut  caucus, the Western Caucus and another western one composed of only Dene and Métis.  A vulnerable minister could often survive because the fifteen ordinary members sometimes had competing sympathies with a minister under attack. He survived on the principle it was difficult to get all fifteen members upset on one issue all at the same time.  Another factor was the existence of former ministers among the ordinary members who were often disinclined to cause difficulty for former colleagues.

There was endless discussion about consensus government and whether it was workable in a modern state. For aboriginal members, however, the main hope for the survival of the Legislative Assembly was the survival of the principle of consensus in political decision-making.  It was considered the main principle in the aboriginal way of governing.

Both the 11th and 12th Assemblies continued to be dominated by constitutional matters and Special Committees were set up to participate in the work of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. Once again awareness was heightened about the unfinished agenda of constitutional progress at home  – division of the territories. Following the 1982 plebiscite the Federal government was prepared to move on division as early as 1986.  In the north there was still some sentiment that support for it had been weak. because of the low turn out at the polls, just 52%. Some no doubt still hoped division would be put off indefinitely. This was a source of frustration for the Inuit who had worked to get their own territory since the early sixties.

The opportunity to revisit the issue of division came in 1989. For some time, Parker had urged members to consider building their own Legislative Assembly. The main resistance had come from the Inuit. They wanted their own territory and their own building. They decided to support a permanent building for the Legislature if members agreed to resolve the division and boundary issues once and for all. They made a similar bargain for a plebiscite on division as the Eastern members had asked for before they agreed to join the Executive Council in 1982. The new agreement was made with Titus Alloolloo, chairman of the Nunavut caucus in the October session of the Legislative Assembly in Norman Wells in 1989.

As promised a plebiscite on division was held and the public once again confirmed its desire to divide. There would be no further delay. The Legislative Assembly also got its first permanent home in 1993 imaginatively financed by government funds, public investment in bonds and secured by a mortgage with a major national bank. Unfortunately the passage of the Nunavut Act with provision for the creation of Nunavut on April I, 1999 was not accompanied by a clear plan for what would happen in the west. The only thing that seemed permanent was the building so recently constructed. The last two years of the 12th Assembly were marked by feverish activity to get agreement among people in the west about what to do after 1999. Unlike the East where there had been a clear vision since the sixties, the western part of the Territories, which had developed separately from the Eastern Arctic until 1967, now found itself almost back where it started from a constitutional point of view. It had a capital city. It had a legislative building. But over a period of thirty years the original concept of one public government for all people had become complicated by demands for aboriginal self-government and demands for the proper recognition of treaty rights.

The current 13th Assembly elected in 1995 has been faced with the onerous task of preparing for the creation of two territories in a climate of fiscal restraint and ever increasing demands for devolution of programs. There are competing visions of responsible government as First Nations conclude self-government agreements with the Federal government. Faced with these tasks, Premier Don Morin took measures to convince members that northerners could no longer afford the route of opposition politics that had been evolving during the two terms he served before he became premier.  One of his first gestures as premier was to remove the alarmed door that divides the offices of ordinary and executive members.  He promised to co-operate and consult fully with ordinary members. As a result the Assembly is more muted and many aboriginal people say that this is how consensus is supposed to work. For others the promises have been nothing more than an attempt to stifle opposition – a step back on the road to responsible government.

Today the Territorial Government operates in much the same way as a province does. This is due largely to the devolution of power from officials of the Federal Government to a fully elected assembly. Until 1979, the powers were in the hands of a Commissioner. Today the Commissioner operates like a Lieutenant Governor and Executive Power is in the hands of elected northerners.


A Selection of Related Articles from Previous Issues of the Canadian Parliamentary Review

Susan Baldwin. A Procedural Clerk Goes North, vol. 6 (3):23-29, 1983.
Charles Caccia. A Parliamentary Perspective on the Arctic Council, vol. 19 (3):7-9, 1996.
Rosemary Cairns. Becoming Master in its Own House, vol. 5 (2): 3-5, 1982.
David Hamilton. A New Legislative Building for the NWT, vol. 15 (2): 12-15, 1992.
David Hamilton. Freedom of Speech and the Office of Speaker, vol. 21 (1): 7-10, 1998.
Members of the NWT Legislature. Creation of a Nunavut Territory, vol. 13 (1): 6-10, 1990.
John Merritt. Nunavut: Canada Turns a New Page in the Arctic, vol. 16 (2): 2-6, 1993.
Richard Nerysoo. Provincehood When?, vol. 12 (4): 7-8, 1989.
Dave Nickerson. Representing the North, vol. 5 (2): 9-10, 1982.
Chris Pearson. Yukon’s Responsible Government, vol. 3 (1): 21-26, 1980.
Tony Penikett. The Future of the Northern Territories, vol. 11 (1): 4-6, 1988.
Tony Penikett. Land Claims and Self-Government Agreements in Yukon, vol. 16 (3): 14-16, 1993.
Gerald Schmitz. Services for Northern Members: The Case of Nunatsiaq, vol. 5 (2):17-19, 1982.
Robert Slaven. A New Standing Committee Structure in the NWT Legislative Assembly, vol. 19 (2): 12-14, 1996.
Donald Taylor. The Yukon Legislative Assembly, vol. 2(2): 5-6, 1979.
Henry Zoe. Scrutiny of Expenditures in the NWT Legislative Assembly, vol. 17 (4): 4-5, 1994.


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Last Updated: 2020-03-03