The ceremonial mace, fashioned from a narwhal tusk, carved whalebone and musk-ox horn, lies on a table that is covered by a polar bear skin. Native and northern designs abound elsewhere in the legislative assembly of the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife. There are similar designs on the pages’ vests. And no fewer than 15 of the assembly’s 24 elected members are
themselves natives, including key cabinet members such as Energy Minister Nellie Cournoyea and Education Minister Stephen Kakfwi. Inside and outside the assembly, a fresh wave of leaders is taking Ottawa’s onetime northern colony rapidly into an era of self-government. “They are young,” said Ethel Blondín, the 38year-old member of Parliament for the western Arctic. “And they know how to deal with highpressure tactics.”
Looming economic developments, such as a proposed gas pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley, have forced northern natives to develop new leaders and new attitudes. Besides Cournoyea, the new generation includes assembly leader Dennis Patterson, 41, a non-native lawyer who practised for four years in Iqaluit on Frobisher Bay; Roger Gruben, 36, chief regional councillor of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. (IRC); and William Erasmus, 34, president of the 15,000-strong Dene Nation. Said Cournoyea, 49, an Inuvialuit and former land claims worker: “Twelve years ago, during the Berger commission days, there was no feeling that the government was on our side. It seemed to be more in bed with industry. People
are not prepared to put up with that anymore.” Among northern leaders, the crucial factor in the building of a Mackenzie Valley pipeline is first to arrive at the final settlement of outstanding land claims by the Dene and the Métis. “It is really a bad time to even talk pipeline with us,” said Erasmus, a University of Alberta-educated anthropologist and former alcohol and drug abuse counsellor. “We know
the disaster it would be without having our institutions in place under a settled claim.”
In the meantime, the 3,500 Inuvialuit have seen their economic power enlarged by the 1984 land claims settlement, under which Ottawa is making a $ 152-million cash payment that is administered by the IRC. Discussing the region’s future, Gruben—who was born into a Tuktoyaktuk fur-trapping family and spent eight years as a CBC broadcaster—says, “It is in our hands; if we don’t get the job done now, something is wrong.”
Still, the prospect of a multibillion-dollar natural-gas project in the region poses a formidable challenge to the new North. Declared Blondin, a Fort Norman Dene who is cochairman of the Liberal party’s October policy convention in Calgary: “It is an alarm bell for northerners to prepare themselves for employment.” It is also a reminder to the rest of the country that the rules have changed in the North—and that the indigenous peoples of the region are increasingly masters in their own house.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.