While we southern Canadians meet in dominion-provincial conferences to talk of repatriating our constitution, of writing the last chapter in the story of Canada’s evolution from British colony to sovereign nation, the 33,000 Canadians north of the 60th parallel in the Northwest Territories remain, after a century, a colonial people governed, not from Whitehall, but from Ottawa.
But around the campfire at Trout Lake (above) and in communities throughout the North the people are now learning to govern themselves. On the following pages, Maclean’s takes you to the Northwest Territories where Pat Carney reports their successes and failures, their problems and promise — and then back to Ottawa where Walter Stewart asks Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Jean Chrétien about the future of this quiet evolution north of 60.
THE ESKIMOS CALL him Omingmak, big bull muskox. My five-year-old son calls him the Polar Bear Man. I prefer to think of him as the Czar of Rupert’s Land, chief executive officer of an area six times the size of France, a man who holds the combined powers of a premier, a cabinet and a lieutenantgovernor.
Officially, Stuart M. Hodgson is Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. His boss, Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Jean Chrétien, has given him the task of developing self-government in the Territories, remnants of former fur-trade country that remained after the creation of the Yukon and the Prairie provinces.
You’re likely to find him in some Eskimo community hall, filled with smoke and the stench of seal, explaining local government while the natives record his remarks in syllables, the Eskimo shorthand. “Government is like a Ski-Doo,” he says, pausing for the translator. “Sometimes you pull it and it doesn’t start. But you can’t fix it until you understand how it works.” Or you’ll see him in some eastern Arctic schoolroom, adorned with a print of the Fathers of Confederation, telling people about Canada. “This land belongs to all of us, as Canadians, and we must help each other. The people of the south paid for this school, these houses. They know this is a hard country, and they are very proud of you. But you must do more for yourself. That is called local government.”
A 46-year-old former BC labor leader, Hodgson is the first Northwest Territories commissioner who has made his home in the North and the first non-civil servant ever to hold the position. Until 1918, the Territories were run by the head of the North-West Mounted Police, and since then the job has normally been assigned to an Ottawa bureaucrat.
With his deputy commissioner, John Parker, and his assistant commissioner, Clarence Gilchrist, Hodgson — a federal civil servant with the rank of deputy minister — is the government of the Northwest Territories. In practice, however, he seeks the advice of the 14-man Territorial Council (10 of whom are elected, four appointed, for four-year terms), and he cannot spend Territorial funds without their approval. Since 1967 Ottawa has systematically transferred administrative authority to the Territorial government, whose staff has grown from eight in 1964 to 1,200 this fall. But its powers are nevertheless limited. It maintains the roads, but Ottawa builds them, and it cannot control its own parks, because Ottawa owns the land.
Many northerners are dissatisfied. “Ottawa has transferred all the expenditure areas, such as education, to us and retained all the revenue areas, such as resources,” says council member David Searle, a 33-year-old lawyer who was raised in the Territories. “Then Ottawa complains that we can’t pay our way.” Searle reflects the impatience of white northerners for self-government. They point out that the population of Manitoba was only 25,000 when it became a province in 1870 and that today there are 33,000 people living in the Territories. “Ottawa says we don’t have enough people,” Searle complains. “Well, we’re not keeping people out! We’re here. And we can’t go dragging people up by the hair.”
This kind of talk makes the role of commissioner an exercise in diplomacy, which is Hodgson’s favorite sport. “I’m a people person,” he says exuberantly. “I know how to communicate, how to run something, how to negotiate.”
It was former Northern Affairs Minister Arthur Laing who, in 1964, asked Hodgson to serve on the Territorial Council as an unofficial representative for labor (for years, Vancouver-born Hodgson had been financial secretary of the International Woodworkers of America’s 7,000-member Local 1-217, largest Canadian local in the union). He was named deputy commissioner in 1965 and commissioner in 1967. “I picked him because I like him,” says Laing gruffly. “You’ve got to have a man who stands like a rock.”
The job demands great physical stamina and no less a passion for detail, be it an Eskimo settlement’s decision to buy a communal fishnet or the arrangements for last summer’s Royal tour. But Hodgson’s greatest gift is his ability to talk simply to the people.
He walks in from the seaice airstrip, ice crystals frosting his moustache, while Eskimo kids ride their bikes through the spiny ice ridges. “Bring your ideas to your council so that you can speak together,” he tells their parents, crowded into the community hall. “Musk-ox by themselves can be killed by wolves. If musk-ox are all together, wolf can’t kill them. Do you understand?” Aiyee, nod his listeners. Yes.
He has his critics. The gold-mining centre of Yellowknife is still suspicious of civil servants fresh from Smiths Falls, Regina and Vancouver, who sit around the Yellowknife café in their new parkas discussing the Problems of the North. Some say Hodgson is a showboater, more interested in shallow symbols than in development projects. Yet behind the trinkets showered on visiting dignitaries — the Northwest Territories Centennial flags, the blue polarbear licenses — there is Hodgson’s awareness that symbols are important in uniting the people of the farflung Territories and in selling the North to the southerners who must finance its development.
The temptation, says Hodgson, is to move too quickly in the development of selfgovernment before northerners are ready for it. He believes the Territories will be ready for provincial status within 15 years. “Growth feeds on itself. I believe we must know where we are going in 20 years, so we can build on it.” By that time, he adds frankly, “the North may not need people like me.”
The Commissioner lives quietly but not luxuriously in a comfortable house in Yellowknife with his wife Pearl, 15-year-old son Eugene, 10-year-old daughter Lynne and two dogs. He loves the North. “It’s a simple life. It’s a place where you can play a meaningful role in the community and be recognized for your talents and abilities.”
“What do you hope to accomplish?” I asked, shivering in a twin Otter one day as he swept out the orange peels and cigarette butts (the Commissioner likes to keep things moving). “If I only fix the plumbing I’ll be happy,” he said, leaning on his broom. “If we can give the Indian or Eskimo a roof over his head, education and medical services until we can find him wage employment, it’s a start.”
Northerners apparently accept his approach. In the Eskimo culture, names are family possessions, never to be used outside the family unit without permission. When Hodgson was on tour in the Keewatin this spring, an Eskimo woman shyly asked him if she could name her baby Omingmak, too. The Commissioner thought that was “first class.” □
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