Campaigning on the northern frontier

MARY NEMETH October 16 1995

Campaigning on the northern frontier

MARY NEMETH October 16 1995

Campaigning on the northern frontier


All day, a thick fog had been hanging low over the northern oil town of Norman Wells, filling the broad expanse of the Mackenzie River Valley. And for a while,

Stephen Kakfwi thought he might get weathered in. But late in the afternoon, the cloud ceiling lifted.

And now the Northwest Territories cabinet minister and candidate for the Sahtu constituency in the Oct.

16 territorial election is flying north above the grand Mackenzie River, past mile after mile of spruce and birch forest, toward the small Dene community of Fort Good Hope, where he was born. There are about 1,400 voters in five communities spread out in the Sahtu, a constituency of some 98,000 square miles. Most are linked by the Mackenzie—by river barge during the brief summer months and by an ice road across the river in winter.

But most travel is done by air. And campaigning, at any time of the year, is an exercise in travel logistics, especially since voters tend to expect personal visits from the candidates. “They want to see me,”

Kakfwi says of the residents of Fort Good Hope, before his plane touches down on the outskirts of town.

“It lets them know I’m interested.”

Kakfwi is one of a record 91 can-

didates running in what will be the last election before the Northwest Territories is divided in two in 1999, with the creation of Nunavut (“our land” in Inuktitut) in the predominantly Inuit eastern Arctic. The new government will face a host of challenges, including the fair distribution of the Northwest Territories’ assets and liabilities. At the same time, the diverse people of the western Arctic are hoping to develop their own constitution and perhaps a new form of government for their unnamed new territory. But those issues must be dealt with against a backdrop of a looming fiscal crisis: the territorial government, which depends on Ottawa for roughly 80 per cent of its operating budget, is projecting a $ 100-million debt by the end of the 1996-1997 fiscal year. A recently passed deficit-elimination law means that the government will either have to raise rev-

enues somehow or implement difficult spending cuts. “There’s a very complex geopolitical mix-up here,” observes Dennis Patterson, a former government leader and MLA for the eastern Arctic riding of Iqaluit, who is retiring after 16 years in the Northwest Territories legislature. “ I think it’s fair to say that the territorial government will never face such tough decisions in such a tough climate.”

Political insiders consider Stephen Kakfwi a potential government leader (also referred to as premier). But there are few guarantees: the Northwest Territories, with just 65,000 inhabitants, operates under a unique consensus style of government, without political parties. After an election, MLAs elect the government leader and cabinet ministers from among themselves. And the leadership this time is sure to be hotly contested

between candidates from east and west. Besides Kakfwi, other leadership contenders could include Keewatin Central MLA John Todd from the eastern Arctic and Don Morin, MLA for the western Arctic riding of Tu Nedhe.

Of course, the leadership question is premature—strong candidates are challenging incumbents throughout the territories. For example, Kakfwi must face off against George Cleary, the president of the Sahtu Secretariat Inc., the organization that administers the land claim for the Sahtu Dene and Métis people. The two candidates, both Dene, have different visions of future constitutional development. But in the absence of political parties or platforms—and therefore the ability to promise legislative change—local issues and individual candidates’ experience tend to dominate the campaign. Part of Kakfwi’s pitch is to tell voters that while he has been serving as a cabinet minister in Yellowknife, in portfolios ranging from justice to aboriginal affairs, he has also worked to improve local water-treatment services and to build health centres and school additions for his constituents.

In this fall’s campaign, residents on both sides of the east-west divide say they will need strong elected officials to protect their interests. David Aglukark, of Arviat, a community of 1,300 located 1,100 km east of Yellowknife, is one of six candidates in the Kivallivik rid-

A consensus style of government shapes N.W.T. politics

ing. The father of Inuit singer Susan Aglukark and a Pentecostal minister, David Aglukark was the land-claim negotiator for the Kivallivik region during the process that led to the Nunavut agreement. And he points out that everything from office space to services and staff positions will have to be established in Nunavut Inevitably, he adds, some of those resources will have to be eliminated in Yellowknife. “Throughout land-claim negotiations, we have been given the feeling that the western side is not going to take this lying down,” says Aglukark. “For the next three years, we’re going to have to have someone who knows how to negotiate.”

Because the Inuit account for about 85 per cent of the voters in the sparsely populated eastern Arctic, the new government of Nunavut will largely reflect Inuit priorities on issues such as language, wildlife management and education. But it may also face fiscal constraints imposed by Ottawa, which is committed to covering the cost associated with the creation of Nunavut. Those costs are considerable: the Nunavut Implementation Commission estimates that it wifi cost some $300 million to set up the new government and to train staff over its first 13 years in operation. But at least eastern com-

munities have managed to articulate a fairly clear vision of their future. In the west, nonaboriginals will continue to make up about half of the population and the various aboriginal groups have divergent interests. The Inuvialuit (the Inuit of the western Arctic) and the Dene and Métis from the northern part of the western Arctic have settled land claims with the federal government. But claims by native groups in the southern part remain unresolved, even as potential diamond developments near Yellowknife are raising the stakes in negotiations.

Going door-to-door in Yellowknife North— one of four ridings in the territorial capital— Roy Erasmus tells constituents that division is one of his main reasons for entering the race. It is the last, grey day in September and Erasmus is campaigning in Old Town, an eclectic neighborhood near the houseboats and float planes that crowd Yellowknife’s Back Bay. One of seven candidates in the riding, Erasmus was born in Ndilo, a Dene community on the northeast tip of Yellowknife. He is a lawyer, a Yellowknives Dene Band councillor and brother of former Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Georges Erasmus. And he is among those who are concerned about what will

happen in the west following division. “I know the leaders up and down the [Mackenzie] valley,” he says. “I believe I can help pull them together. We need to ensure the east doesn’t leave us behind.”

Constituents in Old Town—many of them young professionals or businessmen—ask about division, but they also want to know about the deficit. Almost every candidate agrees that the budget must be balanced, though people like Erasmus argue that areas like education or seniors’ benefits must be protected. Finding meaningful cuts, in fact, may prove difficult given that the territory is dealing with serious ongoing social problems, many related to high unemployment and alcohol and drug abuse. Taken together with the complex task of dividing the territories and negotiating aboriginal self-government, “those issues are going to make or break consensus government,” says Michael Ballantyne, a long-time Yellowknife North MLA and cabinet minister, who is retiring from politics.

Northerners take pride in their system of nonpartisan politics, and the tenor of debate in their legislature. “It’s very civilized,” says Ballantyne. “People are generally very reasonable, people will listen.” The cabinet, with just eight of 24 seats, must win the support of at least five so-called ordinary MLAs to pass legislation in the house. And so the cabinet must tap what Ballantyne describes as a shifting set of informal alliances— among 14 western and 10 eastern MLAs,

among aboriginal members in the west, among the four MLAs who represent Yellowknife and the 20 who do not. None of those blocs are rigid, and they are often overridden by individual friendships across alliances. ‘The good thing,” says Ballantyne, “is that you can’t just jam stuff through, you really have to build support. The weakness is that it’s sometimes tough to make decisions.” Consensus government may also make it tough to appear decisive. At a recent town hall meeting, Yellowknife South incumbent Tony Whitford felt compelled to defend himself against allegations that he is too nice. “I’m not afraid to speak up forcefully,” insisted Whitford. “However, the northern system is very different from the southern model—it isn’t necessary to shout the loudest.” Some in the audience of about 100 constituents, though, said that they were looking for a candidate who will battle on their behalf—especially at a time when division, government cutbacks and an ongoing policy of decentralization in the west are expected to lead to the loss of government jobs in Yellowknife.

Concern about jobs also has intensified debate around affirmative action. Several Yellowknife candidates are campaigning to end a 1985 policy that, among other things, gives preference to aboriginals in hiring for the territorial government. (Aboriginals currently hold about 35 per cent of those jobs, but make up more than 60 per cent of the N.W.T. population.) Yellowknife South candidate Kirby Marshall said that the situation would be better addressed by providing more education and training programs for aboriginal people. He called the implementation of the current policy “racist,” adding that it was “creating major divisions between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.” Defenders of affirmative action counter that any defects with the program—allegations of unqualified people being hired, for example, or that it has not done enough to boost aboriginal participation—are problems of implementation, not policy. “There are concerns,” conceded Whitford, who supports the current review of the system. “But I’m really sorry to see it’s turned racial. And if we throw the program out completely, we’ll be doing an injustice.” Anxiety about job losses—especially through decentralization—is very real among the 15,000 residents of Yellowknife. But the city, with its office towers, movie theatres and handsome homes is a world apart from many of the small settlements further north. “People go to Yellowknife,” says Sahtu candidate Kakfwi. ‘They see that the roads are paved and the town has two gold mines and there is diamond prospecting to the north. The communities all want a piece of the action.” How all the jobs and the programs and the wealth are divided up, of course—not just between Yellowknife and the communities but between east and west and among the various regions—is the heart of the challenge facing the 24 MLAs who will be elected next week. It may also sorely test the limits of consensus government in Canada’s Far North. □