Canada

Northwest Passage

One of Canada’s pre-eminent broadcasters and journalists reflects on the future of the North after Nunavut

Peter Gzowski July 1 1999
Canada

Northwest Passage

One of Canada’s pre-eminent broadcasters and journalists reflects on the future of the North after Nunavut

Peter Gzowski July 1 1999

Northwest Passage

One of Canada’s pre-eminent broadcasters and journalists reflects on the future of the North after Nunavut

Peter Gzowski

With 10 of its members now gone, some, although not all, elected to the new Nunavut legislature in Iqaluit, the airy, glass-domed Northwest Territories parliamentary chamber in Yellowknife looked vastly different than I remembered from previous visits when I returned this spring. The desks that had been occupied by eastern Arctic MLAs before the April 1 creation of Nunavut had already been removed; the remaining 14 were drawn into a tighter circle. Six were for the premier and his cabinet, while on the other side of a polar bear rug were seven for the remaining members who, in the Northwest Territories’ system of consensual, party-less government,

form a kind of official opposition, though they are listened to more respectfully and are more frequently supportive of government programs than opposition parties in the south. (The Speaker, who votes only to break a tie, sits on a throne in front of a zincsheeted wall that carries the engraved outline of a northern landscape.) One of the interpreters’ booths that ring the perimeter—with nine official languages, the Yellowknife legislature has had more simultaneous translation than the United Nations— still bore the label “Inuktitut.” But when the House now sits, that booth is empty.

Inuktitut, one of the three official languages of the new territory to the east (the others being English and French), and perhaps the strongest of all 53 surviving native Canadian tongues, is gone from the western

Canada

government; there are just eight languages there now. Outside the chamber door, a replica of the legislatures beautiful, symbolbedecked mace hung in a glass cabinet (the original, with its carvings made of indigenous metals and ivory from across the North, has been in permanent storage since 1959). Artists are now working on a design that will represent the west alone.

For as long as northerners have known that division has been coming, they’ve been aware that it would have an impact on the western Arctic as well as the east. They are very different societies. Eighty-five per cent of the 25,000 residents of Nunavut are Inuit. In the west, which stills clings to the name Northwest Territories—in spite of suggestions for change that ranged from Denendeh (meaning “Dene land”) to, as one poll indicated, Bob—the 40,000 citizens are almost equally split between whites and aboriginals. The native groups, largely Dene and Métis, are in turn divided into at least as many different bands and alliances as there are languages. Less than 10 years ago, this might have been different. In 1991, even as the Inuit were pursuing their own claim, the leaders of what had become known as the Dene Nation appeared to have reached a land-claim settlement with

At its heart, the fight over redrawing electoral boundaries is a struggle between larger, mostly white towns and outlying aboriginal communities

Ottawa, and that spring there was dancing in the streets of Yellowknife. But the claim—and, virtually, the Dene Nation itself—fell apart when two bands refused to ratify it.

Since then, the various peoples have been negotiating on their own, some, though far from all, successfully. Because the settlement of the Inuit claim in July, 1993, the largest in our history, was an integral part of the evolution of Nunavut, some western peoples have been wondering if they, too, shouldn’t be seeking the kind of self-determination Nunavut represents, bypassing Yellowknife and dealing direcdy with Ottawa—government, as it were, to government. The eight claims have turned the western Arctic into a huge checkerboard. As Mike Ballantyne, a former Northwest Territories cabinet minister and Speaker of the legislature, told me late last year as the dawn of Nunavut approached: “It’s going to be Yugoslavia without guns.”

It hasn’t been, of course, and the televised carnage in Kosovo was a reminder, by contrast, of how peaceably and democratically northern Canadians are proceeding. But there have been tensions in the newly divided North, and even Mike Ballantyne, who chuckled when I reminded him

last month of his Yugoslav analogy—“It’s actually fun, don’t you think?” he said—admits the squabbles are popping up faster than anyone expected.

Those between the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have remained minor: how to divide the treasures in the architecturally imposing Yellowknife museum with its much more modest Nunavut counterpart; where to display the A. Y. Jackson paintings now hanging in the caucus room of the Northwest Territories legislature; and, perhaps the thorniest of all, which territory should have the rights to the North’s distinctive polar bear licence plates.

But within the remaining Northwest Territories the debates have been both more rancorous and more intense. The hottest has been the quarrel over electoral boundaries— triggered by division. To condense a complex series of constitutional manoeuvres to their essentials: first, a commission appointed by the legislature suggested adjusting some ridings to allow for the changed pattern of population, principally adding two seats to Yellowknife, whose 17,000 residents make it the largest community. (Yellowknife previously had four

seats, but with the citizens of Nunavut removed from the » equation, it represents, proportionally, much more of the f remaining Northwest Territories’ population.) Then, a group ? of five Yellowknifers, including the mayor, a territorial civil 1 servant who once won $55,000 on Jeopardy, and a man who | used to live on a houseboat on Great $lave Lake, launched a ¡1 court case against the new boundaries, arguing that the larger communities would still be underrepresented.

In a landmark decision released in March, Justice Mark de Weerdt, a deputy judge of the territorial Supreme Court, found for the complainants, citing a rule of thumb that the most populous ridings be no more than 25-per-cent larger than the average (after division, the riding of Yellowknife South, for example, was 152-per-cent larger than the average).

If no changes were made before April 1, Justice de Weerdt ruled, three existing ridings—Yellowknife North, Yellowknife South and Hay River—were unconstitutional.

What followed de Weerdt, as northerners call the decision, has been a dizzying sequence of bitter legislative debates over whether or not to appeal it. When matters were at their most tense, some aboriginal leaders wrote to Jane Stewart, minister of Indian affairs and northern development, pointing out that invalidating the three seats would reduce the legislature to

below the minimum required by the Northwest Territories Act (14), and that she should suspend the House and return, for a while at least, to government by appointed commission, which, some people thought, was stepping back nearly 25 years to when the North began its slow progress to self(and elected) government. Before anything could be simplified, the situation grew even more complicated: the legislature moved to add not two new seats, as the commission had recommended, but five, three in Yellowknife, one in Hay River and one in Inuvik.

On the surface, the argument is between big and small communities, with Yellowknife, in particular, regarded as a kind of Toronto of the North. Don Morin, a Métis MLA from Fort Resolution and a former premier (he stepped

down last year after an inquiry found him in conflict of interest) has been in the forefront of the move to appeal de Weerdt. “The centre already has too much power,” he said over coffee recently. “Even with our budget reduced [there will be a shortfall of $200 million this year], they want to spend $100 million on the Yellowknife highway.”

But at its heart, the struggle is between aboriginals and whites. The three largest towns all have white majorities, while virtually all the oudying communities are predominantly aboriginal, so the proposed redistribution would almost certainly see the legislature’s first white majority in nearly a decade. Many nonaboriginals think that’s fine. As power has moved down to regional native bodies, many whites see the legislature as the last remaining place where they’ll have a voice. The natives, on the other hand, think a non-native majority would want to slow down the process of land claims, many of which are funded by Yellowknife, in favour of the needs of the bigger towns. As Mike Ballantyne says: “It’s all about balance.”

This month, with de Weerdt’s deadline now extended until September, an alliance of native leaders called the Aboriginal Summit launched a formal appeal of the ruling, partly funded, in typical northern fashion, by the legislature which had decided not to appeal on its own. The arguments are far from over, but somehow there’s a sense that, even as Nunavut took generations to evolve, a solution will emerge—including, to take just one example, the suggestion that Yellowknife add a sixth citywide riding in which voters who chose to do so would elect one aboriginal MLA. “Isn’t Canada lucky,” says Ballantyne, “to have a place where 40,000 people can conduct so many experiments in democracy?”

As critics like to point out, of course, that 40,000 is smaller than the population of, say, Chatham, Ont. But unlike many southern Canadian politicians who come to elected office with only the most general ideas of some of the issues they’ll confront, most northern leaders, certainly the aboriginals, have been studying, negotiating over and struggling with these matters all of their adult lives. It’s a long, arduous, painstaking process, but in the vast beautiful laboratory of Canada’s North, it holds much promise for the future of the country—and, perhaps, for an increasingly restive world. Eli]