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.
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
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
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
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
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,
David Hamilton. A New Legislative Building for the NWT, vol. 15 (2):
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,
Tony Penikett. The Future of the Northern Territories, vol. 11 (1):
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.