Bill divides the north
Hay River and Inuvik to be cut in half
NNSL (July 12/99) - The government's proposed electoral boundaries bill is not just dividing the territory's people, it's also dividing its towns.
Bill 15 was sparked by a March 5 Supreme Court ruling and proposes to add five seats to the 14-member legislature -- three to Yellowknife and one each to Hay River and Inuvik.
The issue has pitted Aboriginals against non-Aboriginals and the territory's urban centres against the smaller communities and rural ridings.
While most people appear resigned to the bill going forward and a series of public hearings that ended Wednesday were poorly attended, a number of novel suggestions did result.
MLA Jane Groenewegen attended the hearing in her home riding of Hay River on Tuesday night.
"I've said all along that I'm not pleased about taking another MLA into Hay River," she said, "but we're given no choice."
Groenewegen said dividing the riding is preferable to some of the other proposed solutions -- like not adding MLAs to the assembly, but rather, drastically redrawing the riding boundaries so that, as in one scenario, Hay River's Vale Island and its 500 residents would become part of the Deh Cho.
"There's no way I can support that idea," said Groenewegen. "That would be globbing a significant component of Hay River to a well-established riding...no one from Vale Island could ever get elected."
The proposed Bill 15 splits Hay River along existing enumeration lines and sees approximately 1,500 people in the north riding and 2,000 in the south.
Groenewegen called this "pretty reasonable," but said there's also been talk of having one large riding represented by two MLAs -- an idea that has also been discussed in both Inuvik and Yellowknife.
"Being the incumbent and having served the whole community on both sides of the border, it will be difficult telling people I'm not serving them anymore," she said, adding, "but with two MLAs serving the same riding you might also run into the problem where one of them is industrious and the other not -- and things could get kind of crazy."
Groenewegen said she also understood that if such a system were applied to Hay River, it would also have to work in Inuvik and Yellowknife. But when the idea was raised in the capital, Bill 15 committee chairman Roy Erasmus confirmed he felt seven MLAs serving one riding would be too confusing.
Mayor Jack Rowe confirmed his opposition to adding more MLAs but said it appears the government is determined to go ahead with the bill.
"What they've done is potentially put a wedge between the Aboriginal leadership and public government," he said, "but whatever they're going to do, let's get on with it -- in the final analysis the people of the North will learn to live with whatever is adopted, but the only thing they can't live with is procrastination.
"If the government's made the wrong decision, the people will certainly express their concern at voting time."
Inuvik Mayor George Roach said the town council has discussed the impending division in detail -- and said the idea of just electing the top two candidates to serve the two new ridings was also popular there.
"We understand it's probably not possible," he said, "but that's town council's position and we wrote to Mr. Erasmus about it."
Roach said that, in general, he's of two minds about having two ridings and two MLAs in Inuvik.
"We don't want to divide our community -- it's very friendly and cohesive," he said, "but even though (Inuvik MLA Floyd Roland) Floyd is doing a hell of a job, and Jane (Groenewegen) too, two brains are better than one."
"I'm in favour of two MLAs, we just have to figure out how to do it."
Nihtat Gwich'in Chief James Firth first made it clear that as a member of the Western NWT Aboriginal Summit he opposed the court ruling. But he said that in principle he also backed the idea of two MLAs representing one whole riding, though he questioned whether Inuvik needs more than one MLA at all.
He said it is the geographically larger ridings of Mackenzie Delta or Nunakput that might benefit more from division.
"First, we wrote a letter asking to appeal the court ruling," he said, "and number two, I believe if the government is still thinking of adding seats up here, they should look at more than just population and also think of culture and geography.
"Nunakput is a good example -- because in Yellowknife you can jump in a car and travel to the other ridings, but there you have to get in a sled and travel for 10 days to hit all the communities."
Erasmus and the committee must present their recommendations on Bill 15 in the assembly on July 26.