Under the unique nonpartisan political system of the Northwest Territories, members of the legislative assembly meet after each election to choose their government leader. That process often means fierce factional battles—and last week’s vote was no exception. Meeting in a caucus room of the legislature in Yellowknife, 24 MLAs argued for six days about who should hold the post—the Territories’ equivalent of provincial premier. Finally, after holding a secret ballot on the afternoon of Nov. 11, the MLAS announced that they had elected Dennis Patterson, member for Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) and education minister in the previous territorial government, to lead the Territories for the next four years. Patterson replaces former government leader
Nick Sibbeston, who had unsuccessfully sought a second term.
Part of the debate centred on race. Sixty per cent of the Territories’ 52,500 residents are of native origin, and 15 MLAS are Inuit, Dene or Métis. As a result, some had argued that only a native should hold the Territories’ top political job. But after his victory, Patterson, 38, played down the racial factor. “Obviously, it wasn’t a preoccupation of the caucus, or I wouldn’t have been elected,” he said. Five of the eight members of Patterson’s new executive council are either Dene, Métis or Inuit.
A Vancouver-born lawyer who moved to Iqaluit 12 years ago, Patterson can claim to have a thorough understanding of native concerns. With the help of his wife, Marie Uviluq, an Inuktitut language instruc-
tor, he has gained conversational command of the Eastern Arctic Inuit language, enabling him to deliver part of his acceptance speech in that tongue. Before becoming an MLA in 1979, he worked as a legal aid lawyer among native people in the Baffin region.
Among the issues Patterson must confront is the controversial question of territorial division. A plebiscite is to be held some time during the next four years on separating the Territories into eastern and western regions. Another priority will be fighting for changes to the Meech Lake accord on the Constitution, which would make it more difficult for the Territories to achieve provincial status. Patterson said that he would seek a meeting with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on that subject—and soon.
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