Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Democracy in the Northwest Territories

For readers in southern Canada they might best recognize the government of the Northwest Territories more as what is seen in their local city or county governments. Nineteen Members of the Legislative Assembly are elected on a non-partisan basis. There are no political parties in the Northwest Territories, which presents its own set of problems. Once elected the MLAs gather and select one among their number to become the Premier and form a government. It is a strange system.

Political representation is a real contentious issue in the Northwest Territories. This conflict is largely a product of the divisions that divide the Territory in most matters. Communities in the Northwest Territories are often divided into three categories: small communities, regional centres, and Yellowknife. Yellowknife is sometimes discussed as a regional centre but the size and scope of it in comparison leaves places like Hay River, Inuvik and Fort Smith well behind.

With a population of nearly 20,000 people Yellowknife consists of approximately half of the Territory, but holds seven of the nineteen seats in the legislature. I read in local media about the plans to address the imbalance. The simple option would be to grant Yellowknife additional seats, like was done across Canada with seat redistribution. Ultimately the MLAs went with a different plan and instead decided to combine the First Nations ridings of Weledeh and Tu Nedhe and give that seat to Yellowknife.

This decision has angered observers. The communities in Weledeh and Tu Nedhe are quite isolated from one another and speak different languages.

In many ways I am a classic liberal democrat. I believe in a rights-based series of laws and protections, individual liberty and freedoms and universal suffrage. Wrapped up in this ideology is one-person-one-vote. But what happens when one-person-one-vote and voter equality erodes the democratic rights of indigenous people to be represented in their own lands?

A newspaper editorial, which I have been unable to track down, referred to the redistribution of seats as “colonialism”. It’s a provocative allegation that has stuck with me since I read it a few weeks ago.

What is fair and what is just? These may have different answers entirely.

It is difficult not to see the racial undercurrents to this issue. Yellowknife is a majority non-Aboriginal city whose greater political representation will come at the expense of Aboriginal people and make representing the views of the smaller communities even more challenging for MLAs. It is hard to imagine that if the trend persists and Yellowknife comes to make up 2/3rds or more that a more explicitly colonial relationship will not take place with a central hub administering a hinterland of Native peoples with their marginal input. In this case I have to consider my liberal democratic impulses and perhaps voter inequality is the better solution.


Patti Chmelyk said...

Steven - isn't that kind of what the BNA did particularly with Ont & Que - giving the French in Que some 'equality'. I agree with you I want fair voter representation, but, in that mix, we MUST also have allowances for fair representation of First Nations groups. And what about later on, as the cultural landscape of Canada changes - what would become of what I call the Second Nations - Acadians, Newfies, Quebequois, and the other early Euro settler families of Canada? Some real food for thought - I so enjoy your writing and questions. Keep it up and enjoy Korea!

SJL said...


Interestingly Canada is not founded on one-person-one-vote. The system is built on all sorts of political compromises between peoples and regions. As for the Second Nations, well some managed to preserve political and cultural independence but some have not. Most are under no threat of disappearing so their protection does not seem necessary to mee.