Frontlines

A toned-down radical aims for Parliament

Susan Rogers May 21 1979
Frontlines

A toned-down radical aims for Parliament

Susan Rogers May 21 1979

A toned-down radical aims for Parliament

Frontlines

ELECTION '79

Raven curls framing his freckled face, a positively cherubic Georges Erasmus tells his Yellowknife audience that if elected, he will work hard to achieve the kind of society in which a Dene can look a non-Dene in the eye without the non-Dene feeling threatened. “I would work with everyone up here,” he tries to assure his predominantly non-native audience, a group he knows mistrusts and fears him.

But the 30-year-old Erasmus, the New Democratic Party’s candidate in the Western Arctic for the May 22 election, is preceded by his reputation. Here he stands, well groomed in a brown turtleneck and plaid trousers, hair stylishly cut, conciliatory ... and what most of the audience sees is the ponytailed, buckskin-fringed radical who only a few weeks ago was touring the south rounding up support for the “Dene nation.” Erasmus is the personification of his people’s demands for self-determination. “Our right to exist and develop under our own institutions has been violated,” declares the discussion paper on Dene government which is firmly identified with Erasmus. “In the future, to live in the land of the Dene, the nonDene must live according to the laws

and within the system of government set up by the Dene.”

Indian Affairs Minister Hugh Faulkner has said the proposal amounts to “sovereignty-association” for 450,000 square miles in the Northwest Territories, while resident non-natives de-

The old Erasmus (above) confronts a stonewall of politicians; the new NDP version (below) with a conciliatory eye on Ottawa: ‘I’d work with everyone’

nounce it as a racist concept which would set up a nation within a nation. So the candidate’s promises to initiate a “dialogue” with everyone on how self-government should work in the North do not carry much weight with this nonDene audience.

Nevertheless, Erasmus stands a very good chance of going to the House of Commons. He is the only native candidate, running against a Liberal, a Conservative and a union man who lost the NDP nomination to Erasmus and is standing as an independent. Both the Liberal, lawyer David Searle, and the Tory, free-enterpriser David Nickerson, are territorial councillors, vehemently opposed to the Dene government proposal which would eliminate the council. They hold basically the same political views: settle land claims but get on with development of the North in the meantime; and immediate responsible government for the N.W.T. with provincehood in 10 years. The similarity of their positions could create a split in the non-native vote, leading Erasmus to victory. (The population is split about 50-50 between Dene and non-Dene.)

The independent, Ed McRae, feels Erasmus is “just using the federal election to expound the propaganda of the Dene nation.” Capitalizing on sharing NDP leader Broadbent’s first name, McRae unabashedly sports the party’s “Ed Instead” buttons and espouses NDP policy. While he may siphon off a few labor votes, McRae is not considered a serious contender.

Erasmus went as far as Grade 12 in the Yellowknife Catholic high school. He is divorced and has two sons. In his campaigning he claims to represent the “dispossessed,” whether they are natives, women or the poor. “I can give the NDP an image across this country,” he says. After asking people door-to-door what they think of him, he has come up with a much more palatable platform than the almost entirely pro-Dene position that earned him the nomination. A vote for the NDP is not necessarily a vote for the Dene nation, he now assures people. Neither Broadbent nor the party has made a stand yet on how aboriginal rights should be settled, he says. He claims not to be a “closed person” hut to believe firmly in trying to hear everyone’s ideas on political self-determination.

Erasmus talks of a “province-like government,” not a Dene nation. However, few forget his proposals to set up a government that would have jurisdiction over everything from natural resources to immigration and external affairs, with the power to license local media and a special veto over any projects “that would threaten the very cultural existence of the Dene Nation.”

No doubt Erasmus would have a profound effect in Parliament. He’s a powerful and persuasive speaker and his audiences can’t help being moved by his reminder that 20 years ago, he and his brothers couldn’t vote in federal elections, let alone run in one. He confronts mistrust with the statement that he hopes one day a Dene will be able to run as a political candidate and not be viewed as a racist.

There’s no sign of that kind of apprehension among the three Inuits vying for the federal seat in the N.W.T.’s new second riding, Nunatsiaq (basically, the central and eastern Arctic and everything above the tree line), even though two of them have been active with the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), a native group attempting to negotiate land claims. The NDP’s Peter Ittinuar and Liberal Tagak Curley are both former executive directors and Curley was instrumental in the iTC’s formation in 1971. Along with Conservative Abe Okpik, who has worked mainly for government, they want the same things: a voice for the Inuit in Parliament and a just settlement of land claims. According to Curley, the strongest candidate of the three, party lines mean little in Nunatsiaq, where the reputation of the man and his family will determine who gets in.

The outcome of Erasmus’ campaign will hinge on whether he has the support in the Mackenzie Valley communities he claims to have. (Wally Firth was elected for the NDP in 1974, when the N.W.T. only had one riding, even though the Conservative candidate beat him in Yellowknife.) It appears to be a toss-up between Erasmus and Nickerson, a conscientious hard-worker who has haunted coffee shops and bars for the past year, quietly gaining support. The fact that Nickerson has a native wife is a definite plus for him.

If the polls go against Erasmus in the Dene communities, he will lose face as leader of his people. If he does get that support and the non-natives split their votes between the two Davids, Erasmus will be in and, conciliatory campaign speeches behind him, can insist he has a mandate to attain a Dene government.

Susan Rogers